Lessing, Alfred (Fred)
Fred Lessing was born in 1936 in The Hague, the Netherlands, and not too long after that, his family, assimilated Dutch Jews, moved to Delft. His father, Nardus [Natan] Lessing, was a classical musician, played cello and piano, gave lessons, and played “gigs.” Nardus and Engeline Van Leer Lessing, had four boys: Ed [Eliazar]; Jaap [Jacob] who died at eight months of pneumonia; At [Abba, Arthur]; and Fred [Alfred]. She called Ed, At, and Fred her “Golden Boys.”
The Germans invaded Holland in 1940 and gradually deprived Jews of all their rights, making them wear stars with the Dutch word for Jew in fake Hebraic letters [Jood]. In 1942, roundups were beginning in Holland. Nardus’ father lived in Amsterdam and was remarried to a non-Jewish woman and was not subject to deportation by the Germans’ weird logic. He came to Delft and warned the Lessings not to go on any transports or “They will kill you. You will never come back.” That may well have influenced their decision to go into hiding.
On Friday, October 23, 1942, the Lessings were warned that they were on the list to be picked up within the next hour or two. “I was six years old, but I knew that something very, very serious was going on and I don’t know how I knew that, but there was no questioning, there was no crying, there was no whining, there was nothing. It was just instantly plunged into crisis. I could feel it. And my mother put her arms around the two of us and said ‘You are Jewish boys, but if anyone finds out they will kill you; and we are now going to walk out of the house, we’re not going to take anything with us, just put on your jacket, and we’re going to pretend we’re taking a walk.’” And that’s what they did. They each had a backpack with some blankets, some crackers, whatever, for the train trip. Fred wore a little furry grayish jacket with a zipper and a breast pocket that his grandfather who was a tailor must have made and that he’s wearing in every picture throughout the war; and he managed to grab his little bear. “He became extremely important. He ended up becoming the only thing that I owned other than my clothes and my only connection with my family of origin.”
Looking back, “that that was the end of my childhood. From that point on I was a fellow conspirator in this deception, of my hiding, posing as a non-Jewish child.” Most of what happened after that was choreographed and carried out by his mother. “My father looked unfortunately a lot like the German caricatures of the Jews, big nose, so he stayed mostly in hiding; but my mother did all of this, she was amazing. It truly is incredible what she did and how she could do all that. I can’t imagine that she planned very much. She was extremely bright, very intelligent and very willful, very clearheaded, kind of a powerful person, so it’s possible they might have talked about it and they must have decided where they would go if we went into hiding. But very quickly, it became on the spot day-to-day survival.”
That very night they went to the house of a non-Jewish elderly couple; Frits [Fritsje] Nieuwenhuizen played viola in a string quartet with Nardus. “And from there my mother decided that we would have a better chance of surviving if we did not do what the Anne Frank family did–all stay together—so we split up.” Fred reflects on what it meant to make that decision, how difficult this was. “It’s in the context of a country, where people in general, and Jews, especially, are very law-abiding citizens. Jews have lived there integrated into the Dutch community for hundreds and hundreds of years and so to do this meant to break the law in a very serious way because for the Germans, all punishment was death usually or immediate transportation to a concentration camp.”
“So really, there are five different stories, maybe four, my parents managed to stay together in hiding for most of that time.” Ed was 10 years older and ended up working on farms, also pretending to be a non-Jewish kid, out in the open with forged papers and underground connections.
That night, Fred and At traveled with a schoolteacher who rented rooms with their parents, Greet Zeilstra, and she took them by train to the house of her boyfriend Schultz who lived in Utrecht. The next morning, they took them to their grandfather’s house in Amsterdam, where they lived with him and his wife, and their daughter, their father’s half-sister Lia. Their grandfather, and really all the Lessing men, loved going out to the theater, to the park, to the movies or the circus, so that was kind of a fun time. However, during this period, they could hear Jewish families being rounded up at night on the street where they lived, and once German officers came to the house.
In the fall of 1942 or early 1943, Engeline showed up and was furious to find that their grandfather had sewn stars which she had ripped off their clothes back on their clothes and sent them out to play in public with the stars. She took the boys and found other families. “This started what I call her creative lying period. She would pretty much ring doorbells or look at homes where there were some children’s toys outside. She would tell this whole story about we were a displaced family from the southern part of Holland, Zeeland, where the dikes were bombed and the land was flooded, which was true, but we weren’t from there at all. She and her husband were looking for a new place to live and could they maybe look after little Freddie for a little while? I guess a lot of people said no, but some said yes, and I think she must’ve given them money. Somehow I don’t know if she ever told me this, but the basic message I got was, ‘be good, don’t tell anybody anything, don’t trust anybody except people that I tell you you can trust,’ which meant carry on this charade, this role.”
So Fred was placed with these families and would stay there, being very nice, doing whatever this family did. “If they were Protestant, I was Protestant; if they prayed before dinner, I prayed also. I think I contributed to my survival by being able to do that. What amazes me is that I was only six-year-old and I knew all that. I knew everything I needed to know. I knew nothing about history or politics, or where the war was. I knew the Germans were bad and that the English and the Americans and the Russians were good. It was a very black-and-white world, very simple. The Dutch didn’t really exist; the Dutch police often were just as bad as the Germans; they wore black uniforms.”
Fred survived, not just by luck, but also by being streetwise or having emotional IQ, that is, “taking advantage of opportunities. For the most part I did my best being this Christian boy. It’s all kind of automatic; you do this and you don’t really feel anything. I’ve been asked many times, well what does it feel like? I don’t know; I do now know, but at the time I was just doing what I was supposed to do, doing what my mother said to do, and I realized myself that if I became the nicest, sweetest, kindest, most courteous little boy in the whole world, this would help and that’s pretty much what I did.”
Fred does not remember how many homes he was in, at least a half a dozen, and does not remember their names for two reasons. “One is that it was not good to know anything; the less you knew the better, and especially the less you said, words could endanger you, and that was true for kids as well as for adults. The other [reason] is it was totally unimportant. It wasn’t reality and that again was something I knew. I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew very well that the only thing that was really going on was that I would survive one more day and still waiting for my mom.”
The first two syllables of Engeline, spell Engel, which is angel “and she really was that for me. I was at that amazing age.” Fred can remember the two homes where he got very sick. The first was in Amsterdam and he got diphtheria. “All I remember of that is that I was upstairs, not in my usual room, but in a big double bed across from a huge armoire with mirrors, and I woke up feverish and there were all these monsters coming out of the mirror at me. I just screamed and ran downstairs into my mother’s arms. She was there. It was miraculous, and she got a doctor to see me and treat me and I recovered and before too long I was moved to another place. All that mattered was that okay I was still alive and I haven’t been caught yet and now I’m with a new family, and plug in all the same, and my mother would say the same thing, ‘I’ll be back.’ She always said ‘I’ll be back’ and she always came back and that’s what I did for about two years, kind of living this fraudulent life.”
“Just before she left, she said, is there anything that you need or want, and I held up my little bear because, sometime earlier in the war, a dog had bitten his head off and my father put a little round metal disk so his stuffing wouldn’t fall out, but he was headless. So she took my little bear and when I woke up in the morning, when I woke up she was gone. But my bear had a new head on him. And I used to talk with my bear. His head was made from the breast pocket of that little jacket; it doesn’t match the bear color at all, he has a very distinctive quality to him.”
Fred made sure not to get undressed in front of any of these families. Even when they gave him six injections in his buttocks, “I knew how to do that, how to not to expose my penis.” In his last hiding place in a boarding house in Tilburg, a very Catholic area, he caught pneumonia, and again his mother came to see him. “My father told me once that she would wake him in the morning and say ‘I’ve got to go see Freddie.’ And he’d say, ‘no don’t go, it’s too dangerous, you will get caught.’ And she would say ‘I have to see him.’ She would go. She knew right away that I was sick because I wasn’t playing in the street.” She saw right away that Freddie was really sick and went and got a doctor – “a good doctor and I knew what she meant; she didn’t mean medically good, she meant one that would see in examining me that I was Jewish and that he wouldn’t betray me. He did exactly that, diagnosed me, and sent me to the hospital, where I was for six weeks.”
Fred thinks that “I have dealt pretty well with my survivor’s guilt, but there was a time that I felt this was my fault. If I hadn’t been sick, she wouldn’t have had to come see me, she wouldn’t have had to get me in the hospital, and then going back on the train, going back to the station in Tilburg to her own house, she was caught by a Dutch policeman, who happened to be a specialist in forgery, so he saw that her passport was forged.” From that point she traveled the same route as all the Dutch Jews who were caught – from an Amsterdam prison to Westerbork transit camp to Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Sobibor — and then she was sent to Bergen-Belsen. From the moment she was caught, she claimed that she was an American citizen, and she could make this believable because she and Nardus and Ed immigrated to the United States in 1929, which was during the Great Depression, so they didn’t make it and went back to Holland, just in time for the Holocaust. But she spoke English, she knew the name of the street she lived on, she knew the name of the grocery where she shopped, and the number of the bus. She apparently convinced them that she was an American citizen. At Belsen, Himmler had sent an order to accumulate several hundred thousand Jews with foreign passports, for prisoner exchanges. There were only two prisoner exchanges and Engeline was on one of them. When she was liberated, she was sent to an UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration] displaced persons camp in Algiers, North Africa where she rehabilitated from February until Rosh Hashanah when she came home.
Meanwhile, Engeline had managed to bribe a policeman to take a message to Nardus about what had happened. So Lia came to the hospital after Fred was healed and took him into the country to a tiny cottage in Voorthuizen in the province of Gelderland, where he was reunited with his father and two brothers. “That was the first really happy ending for me. I was no longer alone. I was with my family. I had always been hidden with families in the cities and now suddenly in farmland and it was gorgeous and I loved it and I ended up trusting nature much more than people.” This was the cottage that Engeline had rented for two weeks so that all of them could be together when she felt they would be caught sooner or later. She never made it to the cabin, but they did and they didn’t stay just two weeks, they stayed a whole year. The cabin had no electricity, no water, and no bathroom. There was a little outhouse attached to it on the far side.
“There followed a whole year of amazingness. First, it was the ultimate male bonding survival encounter; a father and his three sons who were hunted and had to find food and fuel as the winter came, every day seven days a week and we did, all four of us cooperated. It was amazing, it was a team effort. And it’s also during this time that I developed an enormous respect for my father, who was always made out be a kind of bumbling philosophical artist type and it was really my mother who was down to earth, but he and my oldest brother were both amazing. I guess we all were in this daily battle to survive; mostly food and fuel because it was called the hunger winter of 1944-45. The only people with food were farmers because they make food, so we bartered. My father had learned to do some painting and sometimes he would paint a farmer’s farm; he would trade the painting for food or we stole things. We stole our landlord’s canning jars because the farmers really liked those. So we maintained; I no longer had to maintain this lie all by myself; we all did.”
This year of survival hugely shaped Fred. “I must’ve been right at the age, eight, becoming nine, when I learned how to live. It means that you lived very frugally, you never eat the last cookie or the last piece of bread; you always leave something. You save money. You don’t spend as much as possible. You don’t need very much and you make things out of things that other people are throwing away, and I’m very good at that. There’s something good in it, but there’s also something very sad in it. When I walk down the street and see a little metal washer, I pick it up and add it to my collection. And little pieces of wood, because that’s what we looked for that whole year, pieces of wood to put in our little emergency stove. We didn’t have much to eat. It was such a day in day out thing and the winter got colder and colder and it snowed; it was hard. My brother and I, we weren’t asked to do this, but we invented it ourselves. We went begging. We told ourselves, okay, let’s pretend we’re really hungry and we’re really poor and they’ll give us foods you know; and it became kind of a joke in our little family that if you took little Freddie along, you’ll get more food because he turns blue and would look really pitiful in the cold. It’s not really funny you know, as I think about it now, and once in a while I get back in touch with what that felt like, trudging through the snow and knocking on farmers’ doors. They did give us sandwiches and food and we did survive. That’s of course the important part.”
Fred remembers “chopping wood, trying to keep a little fire going, going out begging, or following the sound of the threshing machines in the fall with a little bag to beg some grain or give them a quarter to hold your bag under the spout of grain and take it home. It was a full-time job surviving. Every day we had to bring six buckets of water from the main house to this little tank that was in our cabin; the outhouse had to be emptied. My oldest brother and father did that. The food was horrendous; we ate frozen potatoes and frozen turnips. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a frozen potato, it tastes really horrible. You know, we ate whatever we could get; occasionally we could get an egg from a farmer.”
The family had a sense of humor that helped them a lot. “So there are a lot of funny stories, but looking back, they’re not as funny as they seemed at the time.”
As the war was coming closer and closer, at first the allies dominated the sky and the nightly bombing of Berlin started. “You could hear and see huge groups of bombers going over every evening and then they’d come back a couple of hours later and they’d sound totally different because they’d dropped all this heavy stuff and they were going the other way. It was just like in the movies, you know, the Battle of Britain, fighter planes shooting at each other, some of them coming down. That whole world of airplanes, we were kids, it was incredibly exciting and very scary, but exciting.”
They built a shelter, partly underground, and were in there about three nights until the Canadian Army freed them. “It was an unbelievable thing to be liberated. It’s another one of those things I don’t know how you describe this. In the village, everybody was dancing; everybody was crying; everybody was hugging everybody. The soldiers were being hugged and loved and kissed and they were very, very nice, especially to us kids. I learned my first English. My father said, just go up to them and say hungry, hungry, cookie, cookie and that’s what we did, my brother and I, and they gave us graham crackers. It was incredibly exciting and it went on for several days. My brother and I just hung out there as much as we could.” A Jewish Canadian soldier heard they were Jewish and brought them all kinds of stuff from the Army supplies.
Very shortly thereafter, a courier went to Germany, and two weeks later came back and found Engeline on the list of survivors. “And my father said ‘where is she’ and he said ‘Algiers, North Africa.’ And my family collects famous sayings and this is one that my father said at that point, he said, ‘no that can’t be right, we don’t know anybody in Africa.’ It was incredible. It was like a miracle.” At about the same time, she found out that they were alive via her connections with her sister in Holyoke. “So as Holocaust stories go, this is a pretty happy story. I guess no Holocaust story is totally happy, but it just seems to me, it seems incredible that it all happened. It’s kind of hard to get back there and say this really happened.”
When they got returned to Delft, right after the war, several hundred British Army soldiers, with magen davids on their shoulders and what is now the Israeli flag on their tank, took over a famous Polytechnic Institute in Delft that the Germans had occupied. “So At and I went up to this guard and we said, in Dutch, ‘we’re Jewish, we’re Jewish boys. We’re Jewish too’ and he remained standing, at British attention, absolutely like at Buckingham Palace, paid absolutely no attention and we said it again and now I think he probably didn’t understand Dutch.” So At and Fred walked up and sang a song that they knew. “And despite the fact that I haven’t had any Jewish background, I knew this song, Maoz Tzur. So we walked back in front of him and we started humming and we didn’t get very far. He just completely lost his composure, put his rifle down, and he swept us up, started babbling, and of course we couldn’t understand him, and he took us inside and found this one soldier whose name was Mahler, who was from Belgium and spoke Flemish and understood Dutch, and he became the translator and we became mascots.” It was like one more incredible thing that befell them and they immediately became Zionists and learned to hora.
Engeline came back just in time for Rosh Hashanah. She had been traveling from Africa for a week with stops in Paris and she bribed truck drivers with cigarettes to drive her to Delft, arriving in front of their house, just as Ed was getting home from a Zionist youth group meeting. ”She rolled down the window of the truck and she asked him, ‘excuse me sir, is this number 32,’ and he recognized her voice and he went crazy. I just only remember my father sitting in a chair and weeping, and saying just let me look at you, just let me look at you. It was the night of never to be relived, unbelievable joy and miraculousness that she came back because, by that time, we knew who in our family hadn’t survived. I was nine years old and my mommy came home and it was incredible, was like miraculous and so so wonderful and my father so happy and the two of them. . . . So an incredibly positive story.”
Nardus and Ed came to the United States in 1947 in order to find a home and set up a job; Engeline, At, and Fred came in 1948. They settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Nardus was a musician, played in the Springfield Symphony, the Hartford Connecticut Symphony, gave lessons, and played for weddings. Engeline worked as an executive secretary; she read a lot and volunteered in nursing homes. They traveled a lot, including back to Holland and to Israel. “I think they enjoyed their life together and they were very proud of their Golden Boys.”
Ed became an instrument maker/industrial designer and worked at General Electric, Sonotone, and other companies. He and his wife, also a Dutch survivor he met in the Zionist youth group in The Hague, went to Israel and lived on a kibbutz for five years, had a daughter there, and then they came back to the States. He’s retired and has children and grandchildren.
Fred and At Fred both went to high school in Springfield, Massachusetts. At went to college in Connecticut; Fred went to Carleton College in Minnesota. They both got PhD’s in philosophy, eventually and became college professors, and had children, both with non-Jewish wives, and then got divorced and married again to Jewish wives and had more children and grandchildren. At just retired from Lake Forest College.
Fred received his PhD from Yale University and in 1962 became a charter faculty member at Michigan State University Oakland, now Oakland University. After about 10 or 11 years, Fred grew more and more dissatisfied with his field, philosophy, and most of academia because “you were always talking, reading, thinking about human experience, reading about it, theorizing about it, but I wanted to be closer to experience itself.” At the same time, his marriage fell apart and his whole life was disrupted.
For Fred, like for many other survivor immigrants, “there was no Holocaust for 40 years. At the end of the Holocaust, if you survived, you got busy putting your life back together or creating a new life. The Holocaust didn’t exist. Of course we didn’t know everything yet, but gradually the facts became known, but it didn’t matter. Nobody talked about it. Nobody even talked about the war very much. For 40 years, survivors did not interview, did not tell their stories, did not join groups, and therefore those 40 years were for me Holocaust-less and that feels very strange now looking back, that I was living a normal American life and the Holocaust was nowhere in sight. But it wasn’t just me, it was like that for everybody.”
Fred began to experience posttraumatic stress disorder. “I became more and more anxious, more and more nervous, and I could look in on myself and see that that was happening. I was crying all the time and I was irritable and I was scared and I had nightmares and it began to interfere with my work. And so I went to see a psychiatrist because I couldn’t figure it out. I thought, well, even if it is me, but it was 40 years ago and there’s no war going on now. It’s 1987, I’m 51 years old. I’m in the middle of a happy adult, American, middle-class life. I love it.” From nowhere, a picture of a class of children, all wearing stars, watching a Punch and Judy show turned up in a book called “The Courage to Care” by Sister Carol Rittner. While living with his grandfather in Amsterdam, Fred apparently had attended a latchkey program put together by some nurses and doctors and some parents for Jewish kids because there was nothing they could do any more.
Fred was led on by this picture to investigate whatever he could learn for the next 20 years. ”As these groups began to form and interviews were beginning, and books were coming out, I began to contact other survivors and I joined a survivors’ group and I asked them all does anybody know anything about this picture?” Finally, at the Holocaust child survivors’ conference in Seattle, Fred went to a workshop and showed his picture; incredibly, sitting next to him in the workshop was Pete Metzelaar, who recognized himself as the boy sitting next to Fred in the picture.
While researching this picture, Fred realized that “they’re all dead, all these classmates, there are about 80 of them in this picture. They were murdered and I’m the only one who survived and furthermore they are only a very small contingent of the 1 1/2 million children like them who were murdered and that’s what I was supposed to have been, I was supposed to be one of them, but I wasn’t, I’m still here, you bastards, and I decided I would become a witness, I would speak for them. And I don’t really know what it means to speak for them, other than to tell the story. So a lot of what I’m about is childhood. They didn’t just murder children. They murdered childhood and childhood is precious.” So Fred carries this picture with him whenever he speaks as a Holocaust educator because, “I want to feel and you need to feel what is this, what are we doing here, why are you here, why am I here.”
When he speaks, Fred also brings a bear with him. “I kept my little bear until I went to college, then my mother kept it on the bookshelf and when I came back from college she gave it back to me. When you talk about the Holocaust, you should have a bear. When I talk about this, it’s so hard because you grow up and you become an adult and you learn so much more and I want my bear with me to remind me that I was just a little kid. This is not a story of a grown-up, and there are parts of that that are very serious to me, what I call the spiritual opposite of the Holocaust, the celebration of children and childhood and birth. My little bear was really the only thing I had. I don’t clearly remember this, but I think now that the only times that I would really get any place near the person who I really was and what was really happening, was at night, up in that little attic room all by myself with my little bear. I would talk to him and I would hold him very close and I would suck my thumb and rub his paw against my nose, it was all shiny after the war, and there isn’t much fuzz left on him, but he stood for my mother, my family, it was very very precious during those years.”
Fred now speaks with a stand-in bear. His real bear has been on “temporary” loan for 15 years at Yad Vashem in an exhibit called “No Child’s Play,” an exhibit of games and toys of Holocaust children. The bear has been visited by millions of students, soldiers, and VIP’s. “So he’s had a life beyond me. He belongs to history, or he belongs to Holocaust education. He’s always felt like a piece of me, like a child that grows up he’s had this whole history already in Israel. In 2007, I went to visit him and had a talk with him. I always refer to him as a person. He’s become a person like dolls sometimes for children become a real person.”
As Fred was discovering who he was, fortunately he met Roz [Dr. Rosalyn Sherman], also a PhD philosopher, and together they got into couples therapy and became marital therapists. “My marriage to Roz sort of coincided with the ending of these forty years. And all around me, hidden children were coming out of the woodwork and everything began to change. She was an amazingly supportive person during this period when I thought I was going crazy and drowning in all this stuff. She seemed to understand what it was like to be me, which was of incalculable help with me getting in touch with my own feelings.”
Fred has become the opposite of an intellectual. “I’ve left that whole world behind and I am a champion of feelings now. I love feelings and I’m never apologetic about them, including my own tears which often come up while I talk.” Thinking back, he tries to explain what he was feeling during the Holocaust, “The first answer is nothing; you don’t feel anything; you cannot feel what is going on because it is too traumatic. If you let yourself feel what is really going on and how dangerous it really is, then you won’t survive, then you’ll just end up a puddle of fear. It’s not something you consciously decide; it’s called fight or flight. Feelings are repressed in order to deal with the situation that exists right here, which is that you were threatened or in our case that you are about to be picked up and shipped off. You don’t go into ‘oh, no is that really happening?’ You don’t do that if you’re going to survive. You do what my mother did; to make decisions about what you’re going to do, what you’re not going to do, and you act on them; and we did that until the end of the war. Then, for 40 years, we didn’t think about it anymore. We were busy living new lives.”
“The other answer is that I was terrorized the whole time. How could I not be? I was six years old. Think of the world I was living in, and what I was part of every day. And what I allowed myself to not feel, to distract myself by being this other kid. It is like being in a play, only it’s real, and I know that I was terrorized and that has a lot of effect on who I became and it’s never completely gone. It shows up in weird ways at weird times.” Fred concludes: “I survived, it doesn’t get any better than that. But there’s more. It isn’t just that I survived. It’s rather, what it means to have survived. When you survive something like this, and it doesn’t have to be a Holocaust, it can be any life-threatening trauma, you never again live a superficial life; your life is about life-and-death, good and bad, and the good part of that is that everything that is good about life seems not just good, but precious, so beautiful. I have a car, a house, a wife, children, and grandchildren; and I have a life and I have Mozart and it goes on and on and on about how special and precious life is. Sometimes it seems as though only children really know that when they’re really very young, and don’t have to grow up so fast. And it’s all so wonderful and so fascinating and that makes life very, very precious.”
Fred has two children, Aaron and Joshua, and six grandchildren from his first marriage; and two children, Benjamin and Shana with Roz.
Date of Interview: February 18, 2013
Length of Interview: 2 hours 42 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran