Berechem (Belgium), Amsterdam, Transvaalplein
Maurice Monas was born in 1923 in Berechem, Belgium. He and his younger brother grew up outside of Amsterdam, across from a farm, a number of soccer fields, and a cobblestone road leading into the city. Their entire family was involved in the diamond-cutting industry, and led a comfortable life until the Depression struck. After finishing public school, it was expected that Monas would go into the diamond industry, which he did – for a short period before the war, in fact, he worked alongside his future wife. During the interview, photographs were shown of his immediate and extended family, and also of his future wife.
He does not recall any discrimination against Jews before 1940. “Nobody cared one way or another,” he says, about the fact that his family was Jewish. 1940, however, witnessed the German invasion of Holland, of which Monas has vivid memories. Because he lived on a main road, he saw soldiers enter the city. Holland surrendered within days. The invasion, Monas says, marked the beginning of unequivocal anti-Semitism. In stages, Jewish citizens were required to turn in their bicycles and radios, wear the Star of David, and carry papers with them (they faced the chance of being stopped on the street and asked for them at any time).
His family was forced to move out of their own home when the authorities granted a Nazi family permission to move into their house. Their new neighborhood was a concentration of Jewish people involved in the diamond-cutting industry. The neighborhood, Transvaalplein, reflected a German intent to use diamonds as legal tender, their currency having been reduced to nothing after the first World War and the Great Depression. Eventually, Monas says, the plan caved in, and even those living in Transvaalplein were relocated to concentration camps – a fate that his family would have suffered, too, if the soldiers who came for them hadn’t gone to their old address first. As soon as their former neighbors learned about the event, they sought out the family and told them.
Monas’ uncle, aunt, and cousin were already hidden, and told his family that if they needed to go into hiding, too, they should call a certain contact – an unknown gentile living in Holland. They did so, but until the contact could organize different people outside of Amsterdam to take them in, Monas’ family split up (his parents stayed together) and hid with various family friends.
After several days, his parents were taken out of the city, and eventually he and his brother followed suit. They would spend the next two years in hiding in Zeist. At first, the family taking him in didn’t know that he was Jewish, thinking only that he had participated in activities against the Germans for which he had to go into hiding. Finding out the truth, however, didn’t change their resolve to hide his family in the slightest. For as long as their money lasted, Monas’ parents were willing to pay for their own food, but the family – by no means wealthy – refused even a dime. They were highly religious (Dutch Reformed), and their minister occasionally visited Monas, he says, to keep his spirits up and to tell him stories, though never to convert him.
From 1943 to May of 1945, the most they could do was stay indoors and invent what hobbies they could. At night, they could risk going outside and getting a few minutes of fresh air, but their typical day, Monas says, consisted of staying in bed for as long as their muscles could stand it. The experience was understandably stifling for the young man. When he returned home after the war, though, and learned what had happened to many other people, he and his family realized that their situation had paled in comparison.
After the war, Monas continued living in Amsterdam and working with his future wife, whom he married in 1946. Eventually, both of them decided that Amsterdam held too many painful memories for them. His wife had lost her entire family to the Holocaust, with the exception of her aunt, with whom she lived after the war. In 1954, with the aid of a Jewish organization in Paris, they immigrated to the United States. In Michigan, finding few outlets for his background in the diamond industry, Mr. Monas eventually came to work at General Motors. He has successful children and grandchildren.
This is the first time that he has formally told his story. His wife recently received a letter from someone who shared her last name, was also from Amsterdam, and wanted to know whether they were related. By telephone, the two realized that their fathers were brothers. Her cousin inquired after information about the rest of her family, but the only papers that she had, dating back to 1966, were in German. It occurred to Monas and his wife to go to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to have them translated, and, when it was discovered that their stories had gone undocumented, an interview was arranged from there.
Of the family that took him in during the war, he says, the mother and father have since passed away, but he is still in contact with the children of the family, who, as he recalls, never resented having to share their house with strangers for two years.
Date: January 16, 1996
Length: 31 minutes
Interviewer: Dorothy Medalie
Synopsis: Rachel Resin
Format: Video Recording