by Joanna Malvas (Class of 2022)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
Witnessing the manifestation of the Nazi regime in the Netherlands— from Nuremberg Race Laws to Nazi razzias (raids) – Pieter Kohnstam expressed that he never had the opportunity to dream as a young child. Kohnstam was born in 1936, and by the time he was six years old, his parents were left with few options. Seeing how pervasive and intolerable the Nazi forces had become, a quick meeting was arranged between his parents, maternal grandmother and a doctor in the neighborhood. Having to make a very quick decision with very little time for discussions, the options were minimal. Between tears and emotions knowing that this could easily be the end, Pieter’s Grandmother suggested that if the family didn’t leave she would close the apartment and turn on the gas and blow it up. However, if they left without her, there could be a chance to live. This many years later was the inspiration for the title of Pieter’s book. Initially, this decision spiraled into a 10-month-long flight mostly on foot through The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. The flight finally ended as the Kohnstams settled in Argentina, where Pieter then lived.
In the early days of his childhood on Merwedeplein, Pieter lived two apartments away from the Otto Frank family. The Frank family had a strong connection with the Kohnstams, both being of German Jewish heritage and Pieter’s mother had a very similar nature to that of Anne Frank, as described by Pieter. The Otto Frank family and my parents became really good friends. My mother was a very outgoing, gregarious person and Anne Frank and Pieter’s mother hit it off immediately. She became Pieter’s baby sitter and playmate. Anne was gregarious, outgoing, happy, spirited and doing things that were fun. She was interested in many things like fashion, cosmetics, theater, movies, art and her cat. When Edith, Anne’s mother complained to Pieter’s mother that Anne was leaving papers all around their apartment, Pieter’s mother suggested that she buy Anne a diary for her 13th birthday. And so it was.
According to Hans Kohnstams account in Pieter’s book, “A Chance to Live” (2006), a raid was conducted upon the Merwedeplein neighborhood. As written by Hans, the raid was signaled by blaring sirens and a truck packed with Nazi soldiers. The soldiers stormed into the Kohnstams’ apartment, threatening to shoot if any of them moved. No one was harmed; the Nazi soldiers marked their SS insignia on all of the Kohnstams’ belongings. Pieter’s mother slipped a piece of paper with important addresses of friends into Pieter’s hand. He swallowed the paper. After the raid Pieter worried what would happen to the paper he swallowed. His grandmother told him it would all come out in the end and it did.
However, this is only one of the many raids that Pieter had to live through as a child.
“It was a daily occurrence, almost every hour, every minute, killings took place, the Germans hitting, picking people up and pushing and beating them. Raids were part of it, Pieter said. Many times, they murdered people right there, like they did to our neighbors living in the next apartment. They came in, murdered a family except for one girl who somehow survived.”
Additionally Pieter witnessed how the Nazi enforcers turned the community’s individuals against one another. In one instance, he saw a teenager who was coerced by Nazi enforcers into betraying a group of over 10 seniors standing in front of him. The teenager was forcibly held against a wall as the Nazis demanded for information on whether there were any Jews present or in hiding. In this case, he didn’t say anything and did not betray his neighbors and family. And they shut him up, and took the other 15 people and transported them away.
According to Pieter, even other ethnic groups that had once built solidarity with the German Jews were turning against Jew within the community.
“The Dutch people were generally very friendly and nice people. That stopped. We didn’t know who to trust anymore, and that was another thing. So the enemy was no just the Nazis, it was betraying, the loss of trust and betrayal happening within families, said Pieter.
After the letter for deportation arrived, the Franks decided to go into hiding. The two families exchanged an emotional parting on July 6, 1942. The Franks had invited Pieter’s family to go into hiding with them in the Annex but they knew that keeping an active 6 year old boy quiet wouldn’t work.
After the raids the flight began. Hans would leave ahead of Ruth and Pieter and the family would reconvene at a railroad station in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, Pieter and his parents had to leave Clara, Pieter’s grandmother behind. They had made arrangements with the milkman to pick her up and take her into hiding. As recorded by Hans, Pieter continuously questioned why Clara wasn’t leaving with them and whether they would be able to see her ever again.
The Kohnstams left behind friends and relatives, possessions—everything as well as their dreams and successes. According to Pieter, Hans had become a salesman in his family toy merchandising firm. Early in his life he had been an artist who studied at the Bauhaus.
“My grandfather owned one of the biggest toy merchant companies in Germany, with offices throughout Europe. So my father became a salesman for the company when they went to Amsterdam.
The Kohnstams’ departure was long, costly and treacherous. The Kohnstams were left with little funds, relying on Ruth’s jewelry sewn into her shoulder lapels. They would advance their trek on-foot for the majority of the time. They went weeks without showers or hygienic necessities, disguising themselves as farmers so they would blend in with the local inhabitants and mostly living under the stars.
For over 10 months, the Kohnstams lived in a constant state of fear of getting robbed, betrayed or killed. Fortunately, Pieter’s mother was a polyglot, speaking many languages, hence, she was key to figuring out who to trust and negotiate their flight. At one point crossing a dangerous and difficult border from Perpignan to Barcelona, she was apprehended. Later on, Pieter found out that his mother was working for free France Resistance that countered the Nazi German occupation forces in France after the 1940 military collapse of a Metropolitan France.
We also lost contact with her for quite a few months and eventually because of her knowledge of English, she smuggled herself out of the woman’s camp, which was an internment camp lay away of a local concentration camp.
Once in Spain, after a tortuous difficult and dangerous crossing of the Pyrenees, from Perpignan to Barcelona my father and I found ourselves living in a prearranged inn on one of the main Ramblas.
Pieter’s mother had been detained and imprisoned crossing the border and they were now alone with no communication with Pieter’s mother. Pieter’s father did not speak Spanish and had him in tow. Due to her language skills, Pieter’s mother was able to act as an interpreter and was freed from the camp 3 months later. She met up with the family at the prearranged inn. One morning Pieter and his parents were sitting at a Café. A man, introduced himself and started chatting with them in German. Years later they assumed that his name was fictitious and that he was a secret agent for one of the Jewish organizations working in Spain. After hearing the story of their flight, he became very interested and contacted the Chief of Police of Barcelona. The Chief of Police was moved by the story and immediately called the new Bishop of Barcelona to arrange for a meeting. The reason for this audience was that Argentina required by law original certificates of Baptism. After a long meeting with the Bishop, claiming inspiration from God, the Bishop granted the original certificates of Baptism. The result was that with the help of Pieter’s mother’s uncle in Argentina, they received financial help. They embarked in steerage on a Spanish freighter that took 2 month to sail to Argentina. The sailing was fraught with danger and intelligence and counterintelligence spies from the Axis that were onboard. They finally landed in Buenos Aires in July 1943.