“When the war ended we all said, ‘This can never happen again.’ But now polls show that 22 percent of the U.S. population does not believe there was a Holocaust. The story has to be retold so that history does not repeat itself.”1—Diet Eman
Diet Eman, a Christian resistance worker in Holland during WWII, has passed away this week (September 3rd) at the age of 99. Lighthouse Trails was privileged in 2008 to publish a special edition of her book Things We Couldn’t Say, which chronicles the years she bravely fought to save the lives of Jewish people who were being persecuted by Adolph Hitler. Diet received the Righteous Among the Nations medal in 1998 in recognition of her aid to the Jewish people during the war. While we are comforted to know that Diet is now with the Lord, we are saddened that another witness to the atrocities against the Jewish people is gone. Below is one of the chapters from her book.
“Darkness at Vught Concentration Camp”
By Diet Eman
At Vught Camp our barrack was the only one that specifically held female prisoners who hadn’t had their hearings. Sporadically, one by one, we were called out to face our interrogators. We were always nervous and scared.
Three months passed, and through all that time God gave me the opportunity to go over my story—over and over—to learn it perfectly. From the night in Scheveningen when I’d talked to Trix about what I should say, and all through my months at Vught Camp, I worked very hard to restrain my thoughts from remembering the people I loved. Instead, I worked at creating a whole new life, a new identity for myself as this woman named Willie Laarman, a maid born in Paramaribo whose parents were now both dead.
It was very tempting to reminisce about those I loved because that was what my mind wanted to do—to relive the good times. It would have been so great to be able to think about Hein. But I wouldn’t allow myself that pleasure because I still had to face my hearing armed to the teeth with a plausible story so deeply set in my brain that I wouldn’t flinch for a moment when telling it. Maybe it was partially because of the rigid self-discipline I made myself live with.
When I went to my bed after a long day in camp, it would be so tempting to start thinking of Hein and my parents, my brothers and sister. I prayed for them every night, of course. I knew Hein was in the prison at Amersfoort, and Amersfoort had a horrible reputation. But other than praying, I would not allow myself even a thought of the people I loved and missed so dearly for at least the last hour or so that I stayed awake.
“You are Willie Laarman. You were born in Paramaribo. You are an orphan. Your parents have died.” That’s what I told myself, over and over again. I wanted no ballast when the time came for me to have my hearing; I wanted to have the whole story of my false life down to the last detail. If I were to tell my interrogators that my parents were dead, I knew I would have to explain their deaths, give dates, and be able to remember perfectly what I’d said if asked to repeat the facts again. I spent hours at night going over the whole story, trying to keep it as bare bones as I could: just me and my parents, and they were dead, and I didn’t have much to say at all about life in general.
I made sure those were my last thoughts before I slept. I did not want to be caught off guard if they called me at two or three in the dark of night—which they regularly did. If they were to wake me from a deep sleep and start bombarding me with questions, I wanted to have Willie on my mind, not Hein. So I tried to put him out of my head completely, as completely as I could. I knew our whole operation was at stake.
Today, sometimes, I think that perhaps what I did to brainwash myself during those years was too much, I don’t know if it was wise, but it was safest. Our minds are strange things.
During that time, I always tried to keep my eye on the others, in silence, of course. I observed how one woman especially, a woman named Hanny, who was not very pretty—had horrible teeth and especially greasy hair—was called up for hearings two or three times a week. I wondered what she had done that they were calling her out so often.
You learn things when you watch as closely as I did. Most women would be shattered when they returned from their hearings; but Hanny did not come back broken like so many of them. Also, unlike many of us, who were called at any hour of the day or night—often in the middle of the night—she was called out quite often at 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon. And she was never nervous or scared. When she returned, she looked almost tanned, as if she’d been in the sun; and often she was even talkative, as if she’d had a beer or two.
I began to believe that she was being used to spy on us. That had to explain why she wasn’t scared, even though the guards came for her so often. But she wasn’t smart either. If they had been using me, I would have at least acted nervous about what had happened at my hearing. And it was stupid of the Germans to take her out and let her sit in the sunshine somewhere.
I trusted Mrs. Folmer, and I trusted a wonderful Catholic girl named Freddy, but very few others. And I asked those I trusted if they’d noticed how Hanny was never nervous when she was called out, and how she was always talkative when she returned. I told them that we should watch out for her.
One day, close to when it would be my turn to be Stube älteste, the one to get all the women lined up for roll call in the morning, one of my friends came up to me.
“Guess what?” she said. “Every night Hanny Janssen climbs out of that little window in the guards’ room, and she disappears with one of the guards at the four corners. They go out into the woods. And the other three guards watch the corners. Then just before daylight, she comes back.”
So I concocted a plan with Freddy. I told her my plan, and she said she would help. The morning I had to do roll call, we got up at five—forty-five minutes early—and checked all the windows in the whole building, then locked them all. At about twenty after five, when it began to get light, Hanny wanted to climb back in. And when she couldn’t, she became desperate. She was supposedly a normal prisoner, after all, and here she was sneaking out at night.
There we all stood that morning. The keys clanked in the barracks door, it opened, and the female guards marched in. That morning I had to stand on the line, count prisoners, and report. There were always seven or eight prisoners sick, and that number varied, but the total had to be right. I told the guards that I’d counted and counted and that there should be 167, but one was missing. “I can only count 166 . . . but maybe I made a mistake,” I said, “I know there are eight in bed, but it doesn’t come out right.”
They thought that this mistake was simply attributable to stupid Willie: she can’t count, after all. But for security’s sake, they started counting themselves, and what they found was that one was missing, just as I had said.
Then they got nervous. All the names were called out, and we had to say “Yeah,” “yeah,” “here,” “here.” It turned out that Hanny Janssen was missing. She was their spy, but we weren’t supposed to know that. We were very curious to see what would happen.
There was one part of the prison at Vught that everybody was afraid of. I never found out what really happened there, but if you had done something very bad, it was said that you were sent to the “bunker.” We often heard terrible screams coming from there, but we didn’t know for sure whether prisoners were tortured there or what. People who had walked by and knew where the bunker was said that they had seen hands sticking out of the window or bars. It must have been a terrible place.
Once our guards discovered who was missing that morning, we got a notice that, as an example of Hanny Janssen’s “trying to escape,” she was now in the bunker. She would have to stay there for at least a month, they said. So for that month we lived without our spy, thank goodness. But when she came back a month later, Hanny didn’t even complain. I think she was probably being entertained; she probably had a good time somewhere other than the bunker, I never knew for sure what other spies might have been among the women in Barracks No. 4, but I was sure about Hanny.
One night, suddenly, one of the girls started screaming with pain. She was absolutely hysterical. What could we do? The female guards had left for the night, so we went to the window and called to the outside guards: “We don’t know what to do with this woman. She’s in terrible pain!”
The male guards said they would get a doctor, which pleasantly surprised us since we hadn’t known that there even was a doctor. When the outside guards came back with a stretcher, they had to call the female guards because it was a very strict order that men were not allowed alone in the women’s barracks. Eventually the woman in pain was carried off on the stretcher to the hospital. We hadn’t known that there was a hospital either! It turned out that she had a ruptured appendix, and she was operated on right then and there.
We found out that the hospital we hadn’t known about was very well supplied and was staffed almost entirely by Dutch surgeons, doctors, and nurses who were also prisoners. In addition, we learned, the food was good in the hospital, which was getting extra supplies from the Red Cross. And there was a dentist, also a fellow prisoner, who worked on teeth in the hospital.
Once we found out that there was a hospital, many of us wanted to go. One day in June, I suddenly had a tooth filling fall out—a large one, large enough for me to be constantly sticking my tongue in it. It didn’t hurt that much, but I didn’t want to be bothered by it all the time. When I heard that there was a dentist in that hospital, I thought, Well, why not try it. After all, prison life can get very boring. One will do anything to make something different happen.
I told the guards that I’d lost a very big filling, and they said it was okay for me to go to the dentist. I accompanied a group of eight or ten from another barracks who were also going to the dentist. We had to march through the prison camp alongside a big soldier who was yelling, “March, march, march,” toward the hospital—a hospital that I’d never known existed. Finally we came to one end of the hospital, where there was a small extension building, and that was the dentist’s office.
The dentist stood there in that little room with its small window and dentist’s chair; the waiting room was a tight corridor just outside, where there was a bench and a door. All the prisoners in the camp had triangles on the sleeves of their prison uniform. If you were a political prisoner, you got a red triangle; if you were a murderer or some other kind of criminal, you got a green triangle. I did not have a triangle yet; none of us in Barracks No. 4 had received identification because none of us had had a hearing.
I will never forget that dentist, because when I looked at him for the first time, I saw a green triangle on his sleeve. He was a murderer. Maybe he murdered a German, I thought, which would make him a murderer in their eyes but not in mine. There we sat on that waiting-room bench, nine of us in a row, with the guard watching us. He would walk past with his rifle, stand a moment, then step into the dentist’s office, and walk by again. He had to stand guard there until each of us had had a turn. Sometimes he stayed in the dentist’s office a long time, watching whoever was in the chair. The dentist kept asking, “Does this hurt?” And we would say, “Ah-hah.”
I was sitting right next to the door that went back into what we assumed was the hospital. At one point, that door opened, just beyond the latch, so that it made a sound with the wind—click, click, click—an irritating noise like a dripping faucet, I pulled it shut to stop the bothersome noise; but a moment later it was open again, and it started into the same little clicking. I thought I had shut it, and this time I started thinking that the noise was not just irritating—it was strange. At that moment the guard walked into the dentist’s room, and suddenly a hand came out of that door loaded with slices of bread and margarine!
I grabbed them right away because I was sitting next to the door; but there were so many that I quickly spread them around to the others waiting on that bench. The moment I saw the guard again, I stuck the bread inside my dress. And as soon as he went back in with the dentist, the hand came out of the door again with more bread. We couldn’t really eat with the guard walking by so often; so we put the bread inside the front of our dresses and took it back and shared it with the sick people in the barracks. Every time the guard would leave the corridor, another piece of bread would appear, and we’d stow it away in our dresses. It was wonderful to get all that extra food—not only the bread, but cheese, ham, and margarine with it! We all ate very well that day.
Finally it was my turn to go into the dentist’s room.
“Where does it hurt?” he asked. He was a Greek who spoke rather broken English, and just a few Dutch words.
“Well, I lost my filling,” I said.
“We’ll have to do some drilling and put a temporary one in,” he said. So he started drilling, and the moment he did, he said, “Have you heard the latest news?”
Now at that time every business in occupied Europe was short of manpower. Jewish people were not allowed to work, of course, and many natives of occupied countries had been sent to work in Germany. In addition, many men were in hiding. Philips, the large electronics manufacturing plant in Eindhoven, which was very close to Vught, had been taken over by the Germans because it was a war industry. But Philips was always short of laborers, and the Germans were constantly rounding up people to work there.
So the Germans had allowed Philips to set up a plant inside the camp at Vught. The prisoners who got to work in the Philips plant were the lucky ones. They got extra food and were treated well by the Philips employees brought in to run the plant. We could not listen to the BBC, of course, but the prisoners in the Philips plant were able to do so indirectly. The Dutch Philips employees would surreptitiously tell the prisoners what was going on at that point in the war.
“It’s good news,” they would whisper. “The Allies have taken this city or that town, and they’re marching up in Italy, and Patton’s in Belgium—there’s lots of good news.”
In the evening all the Philips plant prisoners would be back in the camp, and they would spread the news they had heard. Sometimes those prisoners would get sick or have a toothache, and they would spread the news to people in that hospital. Philips became a major source of information for everyone at Vught, and it was wonderful to have.
As soon as that dentist asked me what I had heard, the German guard came back, and the dentist started again: “Where does it hurt? Right here, you say?”
We played that game again for a while, but as soon as the German would walk back out, the dentist would start telling me all about the progress of the war. He gave me all the latest news from Philips that day. Finally my tooth was filled, so I had to leave. But he told me that the filling was only temporary and that I’d have to come back. I said that would be fine.
So a few days later, we did the whole thing again, and I heard the latest news once more. I also wore my gabardine raincoat that time, so that I could open the pockets and let the bread fall in between the lining. That way I could bring much more back to the barracks along with all the news from the Philips plant. I don’t know how many times I have blessed that handful of bread and cheese and meat sticking out from behind that door, and given thanks to whoever was there. And I never even saw who the person was. There may have been someone in our group who was aware that this would happen; but when it started, I was the one sitting by the door, and I had no idea. To me it was a complete surprise.
Finally the Greek dentist said to me, “It’s now all repaired, and I’ll have to let you go.” I was so sad. And when he saw that, he said, “On the other hand, if you want to keep coming, I’ll have to drill holes in some of your perfectly good teeth.”
“Yes, please!” I said immediately.
And he drilled several after that. During the rest of my stay in that prison, I was in his office many times. It seemed like I always needed something done. I don’t know how many holes he drilled, or how often I went, but he filled them up with some strange wartime compound. He must have done a good job, though, because those fillings lasted many years.
Years later, a dentist asked me about the strange fillings in my teeth: “I don’t know what this stuff is—it’s really odd.”
“Oh, those are my prison fillings,” I said.
I still have some of them in my mouth, I think.
In the summer of 1944, General Patton’s army was making excellent progress against the Germans in Belgium, and soon enough we began to hear heavy artillery coming closer and closer, thumping in the distance. The Germans were beginning to get scared. Vught is in southern Holland, and since the country is very small, the distance between Vught and Belgium isn’t great. We could hear Patton’s artillery coming.
The guard assigned to supervise the laundry became so terribly bored after a while with watching us—sometimes I had a helper or two—that finally she just locked us up in the wash-room and left us alone. She’d go and get a cup of coffee or have a beer or something, which we would smell on her later, and she’d stay away for a long time.
The moment she’d leave, we’d have a breath of freedom. You must understand how much we hated the Germans, and here in the laundry room our job was to wash out their underwear. We had to wring out all their rotten underwear with our bare hands, making sure that stuff was perfectly clean. We hated the SS worse than any of the other Germans, and there was the SS insignia, embroidered on every undershirt.
Except for one or two of them, the camp and prison guards all belonged to the SS; and in the extermination camps they were always SS. The Gestapo’s job was to investigate and interrogate, and they were smart; but the SS were not necessarily wily or cunning—they were simply brutal. From what I’ve seen in the camps, I think that the SS were specifically trained for the work they did in camp; they were trained to torture and kill. And they seemed to do it with joy. They were the worst of the Germans, and we hated them. Here I was—my fiancé somewhere a world away in some other camp, maybe alive, maybe not—and I was washing the underwear of the worst of the worst.
Once the guard would leave, my helpers and I would take those SS shirts and hold them up. Then we would gather up a nice big glob of saliva and spit right on the SS insignia. We became very good at it, really accurate. We had to do laundry every day because there were so many guards in that camp, and by the end I was really a sharpshooter. Every day my helpers and I would spit on their underwear.
It’s absolutely crazy to think, now, that spitting on somebody’s underwear could be that enjoyable. But we were never really sure at what moment we would be facing death at the hands of these very people. It felt wonderful to spit on that hated SS insignia that way. After the war, a psychiatrist friend of Corrie ten Boom wanted to talk with me and Ansje, a young friend of mine who lost her husband. Corrie said he was very interested in what we had gone through. I told him that maybe what we did in that laundry room was silly, especially when our lives were at stake. But he told us it was wise to do something like that. He said that the Germans tried hard to break our spirits, and things like spitting on underwear and other seemingly foolish things helped us to know that we hadn’t let them succeed.
We would do laundry the whole day—underwear and shirts. We would soak all our own clothing in the same gutters that we used to wash our faces in the morning. But for the guards’ laundry we had a tub. Those clothes had to be white and clean: that meant chlorine bleach and lots of scrubbing with our hands and our knuckles—the kind of scrubbing I had learned from Alie on the farm. For the SS underwear, of course, we also got soap. After a while our fingers became calloused with all that scrubbing and rinsing.
About the time we began to hear Patton’s heavy artillery, one day I found my hands coming away bloody from the clothes we were washing. One shirt, light blue, was very bloody. We had to wash the bloody things in a separate trough and soak them in cold water to let all the blood run out. There was a lot of blood, and I had no idea what had happened.
One of the women guards, Frau Schenck, appeared to have some human qualities. She had been on duty one day when I had been thinking some good thoughts and simply started singing a hymn. This was, I’m sure, quite unusual; those guards never heard any singing. I had been alone in the laundry that day, and Frau Schenck had been away from my side for a little while, so I was singing in full voice when she returned. Most guards would have snapped at me—”Keep your trap shut”—something like that. But I can still hear her say, Du singst wie eine Heide Lerche, “You sing like a heather lark.”
Frau Schenck was on duty the day those bloody shirts came through the laundry, so I dared to speak to her.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, “two guys on a motorbike had a terrible accident, and we have them in our hospital. We want this stuff clean when they come out.”
So I washed it, and it was taken away. But the next day there were many more—maybe eleven or twelve pieces of underwear and shirts—everything, including socks and even suits, covered with blood. This was no motorbike accident. I became very nervous because I had no idea what was going on. A few days later, when Frau Schenck was there, I spoke to her again. I asked her again about the bloody clothes.
She could have said that it was none of my business, but she didn’t.
“Yeah, those are traitors, and they had to be punished,” she said. In her eyes, of course, anyone who opposed the Germans was a traitor.
“But why do we have to wash their clothes then?” I asked.
“Because we have to send the clothes back to the family,” she said, “and it would be very hard for the family to see those clothes filled with blood.”
That was exactly what she said: this halfway decent guard with her halfway decent lie. And that’s what I believed at first; that belief enabled me to continue with this hideous task. I believed Frau Schenck, who wasn’t as bad as the guards we hated. And I thought maybe she was correct—that it would be better for the families not to have to see those clothes all full of blood.
I went on washing, looking for identifying labels in that clothing; and many of the shirts and jackets had Dutch names. I wanted to know more. One night I tried to introduce that mystery into a conversation we were having. I told everyone that I was wondering what had happened. I told them how the first time the bloody shirts came in, the guard had told me it was from a motorcycle accident, but how those bloody clothes had just kept on coming.
“One day,” I said, “there were thirty-six shirts, and it was just terrible. I mean, it was a river of blood in that laundry room. My nerves were so wired I couldn’t sleep that night.”
And then Hanny, the woman we knew was a spy, said, “Oh, those shirts come from men who are being executed.”
My mouth went dry. “But why do we have to wash their clothing?” I asked.
“Germany has no clothing whatsoever,” she said, “so it has to be washed and sent to Germany.”
I was horrified. I was just horribly shocked. I had washed those bloody clothes myself, with my own hands, the clothes of men they had killed—our guys! And now those clothes were being shipped back to Germany to be worn by our enemies! I can’t describe the horror I felt. All I can say is that the feeling I had that day of my hands in our own guys’ blood remains one of the most horrible of my life.
Hanny probably shouldn’t have told us that either, but she was stupid. Sometimes the Germans picked the stupidest informers. She seemed proud of the fact that she knew something about what was happening on the outside, something none of the rest of us did. She said that those clothes went from our barracks to another barracks, where a whole crew had to mend the bullet holes.
I still continued to do the wash for one or two more days because I wanted to see if I could pick up any names on those clothes. Those days I spent in the laundry after I knew what was going on with all those bloody clothes were the most horrible days of my life. I started to look very closely at where the bullet holes were in those shirts, and what I found was even more horrible. Sometimes the bullet holes were not at the heart level, as ordered by the Geneva Convention, but at the stomach level, which meant that the men who died in those shirts probably suffered for hours before finally succumbing. There are no words to describe such blackness.
I examined those shirts very closely to see whether I could find names. These were Resistance people who were being executed, and I knew that I had to report the gunshots to the stomach to the Red Cross; so I wanted badly to find names, any names at all, maybe written in or sewn into the clothing. Whenever I found one, I tried to commit it to memory. These were not military uniforms but suits, some woolen suits, full of holes.
What was happening became clear to me. The men who had been executed—usually every night at sunset, we could hear the machine guns—would be lying somewhere for hours before they died. I was absolutely heartbroken. And I was heartbroken for another reason: I suspected that any one of those men being taken out and shot in the stomach and left to die could be my Hein. He could easily have been transferred from the camp at Amersfoort to the one here at Vught; I would never have seen him, even though we might have been so close to each other—in the same camp.
Hein’s clothes might be among all these bloody ones, as well as Ab’s clothes, Adriaan’s clothes, Jantje’s clothes, Aalt’s clothes. The tension mounted, day by day, as I went to the laundry. I’d say to myself, “Whose clothes will I find today among the bloody ones? Will I see the clothes of the man I love today, the man I would have married?”
It was terrible. At that moment I began to be filled with hatred, absolutely filled with it. And then I lost something: I simply could not ask the Lord to help me to love my enemies anymore. I was praying, instead, for God’s damnation on the Nazis, for his curse on them. I couldn’t face the evil anymore; I had no strength to go on. I couldn’t brace my mind anymore, couldn’t hold it up with any strength, because I had none. After all those years in Underground work, and then the entire year they were constantly searching for me, terrifying my parents; after Hein’s arrest, and then mine; and then waiting forever for a hearing that never came. Then the bloody clothes of men I might have known and loved—at that moment life was unbearable. The relentless fear and tension and anxiety overcame whatever meager power I could muster when I found my hands red with blood.
This was July 1944, and it started with two bloody shirts. I found out that when we heard the heavy artillery in the distance, the Germans had begun to get nervous: they wanted to empty the camp because they didn’t want any prisoners to fall into the hands of Patton and be free. Hanny told me that they were executing people at sunset every day. So we listened, and we heard machine guns. I found out later that they simply picked a certain number of prisoners at random every day and sentenced them to death. No trial, no nothing—just bang, bang, bang. To have to go through that, to hear those shots and to imagine what we did, to think that every day some of our boys, possibly our loved ones, were being murdered out there, so close to us, and yet to know we were powerless—that was unbearable. At that point, I couldn’t go on.
I said to God, “How can You let all of this horror go on? How can You stand all this evil? This is Your world—how can You stand it?” And I said it angrily. After all, we had done all of this work, involved ourselves for several years, suffered so much sleeplessness, so much worry, so much tension, and risked so much danger. And now, when I held those clothes in my hands, it seemed as though the death of those men was the only verifiable answer to all of my praying—all of our praying together and everything we’d ever done.
I’m not sure what happened in me, but some impulse to continue was switched off as abruptly as if a power source had suddenly disappeared. One morning I woke up and absolutely could not move. I was lying on my side, totally paralyzed: I couldn’t turn over, and I couldn’t stand, not even for roll call. When it sounded that morning, I said to the others, “I can’t work. I can’t even move.”
They turned me over, but I couldn’t go to the bathroom or anything. It seemed to me that I had lost complete control of my whole body. They reported that to the guards, and the guards came in.
“You have to get up,” they yelled. “You have to do the laundry! Get out of that bed!”
But I honestly could not move. I was not faking anything; I was completely paralyzed. They sent for the camp doctor—a Dutch prisoner and a very good doctor, I discovered later. He came to my bunk. I’m sure it was probably the most difficult role he had to play: to pretend to be very tough on prisoners such as I, prisoners who absolutely couldn’t go on. If he didn’t appear to be tough, he would risk being removed from his job and replaced by someone much worse.
“Now get up,” he screamed, and he kicked the bed. But he didn’t kick me, and it didn’t hurt anything. “Stop this right now.” He went into a tirade, but I couldn’t move. I literally could not move.
“But I can’t get up,” I said.
Then I heard him say something to the Germans, something about “this lousy woman,” and that day they allowed me to stay in bed. In fact, I lay there for three whole days, totally paralyzed. My friends helped me to the bathroom and anywhere else I needed to move; but I have very vague impressions of those days because it was a time of complete darkness for me. Somebody told me later that what I had was a form of hysteria: my body and my mind fled into paralysis. There was nothing wrong with me organically, but somewhere inside I suffered a complete breakdown.
At some point in everyone’s life, I believe, there comes a time when one feels perfectly alone, when one hits the bottom. It might be long-term illness, it might be divorce, it might be a job loss. But most often in such situations one is surrounded by friends or family, people who can help, support, and encourage. But at that moment in the camp at Vught I had nobody. I had friends, and there were some women I talked to; but all the time, even with them, I was trying to be someone I was not. I had no real communication with anyone at that time, so I was totally dependent on God. And He never failed me.
Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice. He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me. (Psalm 55:17-18)