On International Holocaust Memorial day, January 27, Dutch news media reported the death at age 96 of Dutch TV playwright and journalist, Eli Asser. Asser was a household name growing up in The Netherlands in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of some of Dutch TV’s biggest comedies that everyone talked about. Although I may have been too young to get all the jokes, the shows, the songs and its writer with the big moustache are etched in my mind. Yet behind the happy image of all the comedies, there was an incredibly dark history.
As Jews, both Asser’s parents and siblings were deported and murdered and Eli himself barely escaped the same fate. He wisely decamped from Amsterdam – which was the center for deportations of Dutch Jews – to the ‘Apeldoornsche Bosch’ (translated as the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’), which was a Jewish psychiatric hospital with an attached children’s center in the Dutch countryside, far away from the escalating impact of the Nazi occupation. For a number of Jews the logic was that if one could get to work there, one would be relatively safe from the onslaught of the deportations and murder, which by 1942 were in full swing. So Asser and his future wife, Eva Croiset, moved to the facility where the twentyish Eli landed a job as a nurse in training. Unbeknownst to them, the clinic’s staff and all the other residents, the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ however had been shortlisted for evacuation, with all staff and patients slated for deportation and death. The German occupier had picked January 21, 1943 as the date for this and made the tactical mistake of sending an advance team to the facility a day before, to plan for the operation. Upon their departure it left most of the staff in the position to evaluate what would happen the next day, and more importantly the opportunity to make a run for it while they still could. This however posed a deep moral conundrum, which was this: do we escape and save ourselves from a certain death or, do we stick with the patients who need us now more than ever? Eli and Eva were torn but in the end rolled the dice and escaped that night, literally ran across the lands surrounding the facility and took cover for the rest of the war with farmers in the (then) remote province of Friesland. They survived the war.
The liquidation of the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ has gone down as one of the most cruel and violent chapters of Dutch war history. The Nazi’s low view of mentally retarded people, in this case all of them Jewish, was on full display as patients were dragged from their beds in the cold January night, often naked and disoriented. Together with staff they were kicked and beaten into awaiting trucks that took them to the Apeldoorn train station and put on a train that went straight to Auschwitz. The staff had made an incredible effort to prepare for the trip, with packed luggage, pre-packed food and meals, prescriptions and all medical supplies carefully organized, nothing of which the patients and staff were allowed to take on their ill-fated journey. Upon their departure the SS went in and destroyed everything they could see to pieces in a long orgy of hate and mindless destruction. Denying extremely vulnerable patients these very last dignities on the road to their deaths stands as a lasting testimony to the moral wasteland that Nazi ideology unleashed on Europe.
The 1200 patients and 50 staff arrived in Auschwitz and the patients were all killed upon arrival, none of the staff survived. There is very little historical evidence to be found on the latter part of this story, however there are a few accounts that described the unloading of the cattle trains with disoriented patients and their caregivers, some of whom were shot on the spot as they lacked the ability to comply with any of the instructions they were given. Those that were not shot were gassed. The one person to have witnessed this arrival was Rudolf Vrba, the well-known Auschwitz survivor who ended up living in Vancouver where he died in 2006.
Eli Asser’s daughter, Hella de Jonge, made a phenomenal documentary on her family’s wartime story and her parents daring escape from the Apeldoorn Forest, called ‘Don’t Lose Courage’ and it is in Dutch and available on YouTube here. What Hella captured was Asser’s dark side and the guilt he had carried with him for some seven decades for having survived something that none of his family members and people in his care at Apeldoorn Forest were able to.
Eli passed away in the very week that marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the gruesome evacuation of the Apeldoorn Forest and was announced by his daughter during a speech this Sunday, Holocaust Memorial Day. In a tweet to commemorate this day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed the six million victims by telling them that we “will never let you down”. It was a statement with a deep impact as it looked back and forward at the same time. Eli Asser did indeed believe that he had let some of them down and it tormented him for more than seventy years. May he rest in peace and may we never forget and never let down the patients and staff of the Apeldoorn Forest.