A Child of the Holocaust
“My story begins with Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when my father was arrested, his store taken over by the Nazis, and he literally disappeared from our lives,” recalls Henry Blumenstein, today a resident of Ring House. What his mother Else later found out was that he had been placed on a truck and shipped to Dachau, then a newly-constructed concentration camp. There, he was a slave laborer.
In 1938, Henry was a happy three-year-old living in Vienna, where his father Franz owned a soap and perfume store. It took Henry's mother Else three months to locate her husband at Dachau and then secure his release with heavy bribes and the proviso that he leave the country at once. Franz Blumenstein traveled on the SS Konigstein, which first landed him in Caracas, Venezuela. From there he traveled to Cuba where his sister Fini and her family had settled. It was also a destination where Franz believed Else, her mother and a young Henry would, if successful, soon join him in safety.
On May 13, 1939, Henry, gripping the hands of his mother and grandmother, boarded the S.S. St. Louis, a German luxury liner departing Hamburg for Havana, Cuba, where the family was to be reunited. The ship carried 924 passengers, mostly Jews escaping Hitler's threats to murder them all. On May 27 the ship reached the Havana harbor, only to be forbidden , with the exception of a small group of passengers, to land and discharge everyone. The ship sat in the Cuban harbor for a week in blazing heat while efforts were made to negotiate permission for its passengers to disembark as tourists or seekers of political asylum. Meanwhile, relatives, including Henry's father, hired small boats to approach the ship and shout their encouragement.
Ultimately entry into Cuba was denied, so the ship’s captain, Gustav Schroder, shifted course and headed for Florida with hopes that the United States would receive the refugees and grant them asylum. Tragically, notes Henry today, owing to "the anti-Semitism of some of President Roosevelt's representatives and his personal indifference," the ship was forced to turn away and, with little recourse, return to Germany.
While en route, four countries liberalized their immigration laws to allow small groups of St. Louis passengers to cross into their borders. These countries were England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands; they were the only countries sufficiently sympathetic to the plight of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe to be willing to accept refugees. Henry, his mother and grandmother were assigned to live in the Netherlands.
Shortly after their arrival in Holland, Henry, his mother and grandmother wound up in Amsterdam's Jewish ghetto, where they remained from 1939 to 1943. They lived in almost constant fear of being "rounded up," since the Nazis were frequently invading Jewish homes, arresting the families, and transporting them to various concentration camps. Henry's grandmother was ultimately arrested and taken to Camp Westerborg, but before she opened the door to the Nazis she hid Henry in a kitchen closet. He was not found. In reaction to his incident, Henry's mother decided that remaining where they were living was too dangerous and so they began to spend time doing what Henry calls "running." Through the help of fellow citizens, they were able to find lodging in different homes for brief periods of time.
Desperate to save Henry, Else concluded that she must separate herself from her son. They had never traveled apart, but she felt that it would add safety to their vulnerability of being captured. She therefore arranged for her and her son to hide in separate places with the help of the Dutch underground. "You're not coming with me," said told her son, a most shocking statement to a seven-year-old boy who had alsways relied on his mother for protection.
Henry went into hiding with a Dutch farm couple, Johannes and Sjoukje Dykstra, a very poor family with eight of their own children, who possessed just six cows, a horse and wagon. The couple also hid another Jewish boy, Fritz. Ultimately, Henry's mother and grandmother were deported to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt respectively, where both were murdered in gas chambers. Further, Henry's other grandmother was also captured and sent to Belzec, where she too was killed in the gas chamber. The loss of "three of the most important women in my life," says Henry, continues to fill him with pain.
Over a three-year period, Henry was warmly integrated into the large Dykstra family. When he was sent to a local school, the school principal expressed fear that his physical features, despite his hair having been dyed red and his name changed to Hans Bakker, would flag his Jewish identity. Thus, the Dykstras withdrew Henry from the school. Another disguise that allowed Henry to get away from the farm and into the small community was to make him an altar boy. While he was on the farm, he was engaged him in daily farm tasks that contributed to its operation. In late 1945, Henry's father, at that point living in New York City having emigrated from the Dominican Republic , learned of his son's survival and brought him to America.
In 1978, Henry, now a adult, returned to Holland, the Friesland region to be precise, where he had lived with the Dijkstra family. It was an exceptionally meaningful trip as he revisited old haunts and met up with old friends. "In many ways we were strangers to one another," says Henry, "yet the strengths of old ties were still there."
In 2001 Henry again returned to Holland, this time to attend the funeral of his favorite foster brother, Siebren. Also, he revisited the farm, although it was no longer owned by the Dijkastras. From that point on, Henry has returned twice a year, staying for visits that last for several months. Then, and now, he resides with Sjoukje Dijkstra, one of Siebren’s children. They have formed a close, loving relationship. Sjoukje also visits Henry in the U.S., usually annually, and when she does they act as a team that presents Holocaust history and personal experiences before school classes.
An Emmy Award-winning documentary was made of Henry’s past during the Holocaust, entitled, “Finding Family.” Henry is presently at work on writing a memoir about his past, specifically focused on events that have occurred since 1938. Much attention in writing this book is being given to letters that his mother wrote to his father over the years between Franz's expulsion from Austria and Else's capture and murder in 1943. Henry remains profoundly saddened by the events of his past, particularly the insurmountable obstacles that made it impossible for him ever to be reunited with his entire family.