Ich und Du

Here in The Netherlands we have Remembrance Day on May 4th (today) where we remember those killed in war and we celebrate Liberation Day on May 5th, when The Netherlands was liberated from the Nazis in 1945. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and every year these commemorations make me stop and think.

The war in 1940-1945 has shaped my outlook on life even though I was born 25 years after World War II ended. Memories of the war have been recounted to my brothers and sisters and me ever since I can remember. My father didn’t have too many memories of the war to share but my mother’s memories are very vivid and to this day she often tells us all the stories.

My mother was the daughter of a shipowner. Her father owned fishing ships in Scheveningen, the little town at the beach of The Hague that is now a bustling resort. She has a few memories of before the war, like going to Meijendel in the dunes of The Hague and Wassenaar to watch her father ride horses. “When you’re bigger you can learn to ride as well!” he told her, but that never happened. The war came when my mother was 4.5 years old. She was the eldest of 3 children.

Her father, my grandfather, started working for the resistance. He was involved in a plan to evacuate the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to England with one of his ships but ultimately another flight path was chosen for her. My grandfather’s fishing ships were confiscated by the Nazi’s at the beginning of the war, their house near the beach in Scheveningen was declared a war zone and had to be evacuated.

Scheveningen Atlanktikwall 1944My grandmother took my mother and her sister and brother to live in Den Haag, while my grandfather went into hiding because of his activities for the underground. The 17th century bible, a family heirloom (now proudly on display in my parents’ home) was wrapped up and buried in the soil so that it would not be stolen by the Nazis. You can still see the damp in some of the pages.

The war was tough on the population. Food on rations, night time curfews, escaping into shelters during bombings and when you came out seeing dead people who hadn’t made it. There were regular round-ups and the Gestapo (the secret police) regularly came by my grandmother’s house looking for my grandfather. One day they took my grandmother with them for questioning and kept her overnight while the small children remained all alone in the house that night, not knowing whether their mother would return. Once in a while, often after dark, my grandfather would come home for a secret visit and then he would disappear again through the hatch in the floor, to the crawl spaces under the houses. My mother remembers one particular day when their house was searched by the Gestapo: her father had just left after a secret visit and she and her sister Irene were sitting on the rug covering the hatch, playing there and making sure the hatch could not be seen. Discovery of the hatch was to be avoided at all cost; their father must not be found!

And then there were the stories about school. Less and less children came to school, Jewish children went away. There was at least one girl in class who my mother knew was Jewish. Her hair was dyed blonde and she passed through life as a “Christian” girl. One time my mother pointed out to the girl that her hair roots were dark. When the girl came to school again the next day her hair was all blonde again. When my mother told her father about it he got angry with her because with that remark my mother could have endangered that girl’s life. The winter of 1944-1945 was later dubbed “the hunger winter”. Food became very scarce with often only boiled tulip bulbs for a meal. Wood in the tram rails was used for firewood and the toes were cut off the shoes so that they could still be worn by the growing children. It was a very difficult and desperate time.

Finally in May 1945, when my mother was 9, The Netherlands was liberated.Bevrijding-Den-Haag-2 Bevrijding-1945-Den Haag

Dutch collaborators were interred in a camp, ‘kraut girls’ who had dated German soldiers were accused of collaboration and were shaved publicly, their bald heads painted with red dye. My mother, as the eldest, was taken by her father to witness all this. When the German troops marched out of The Hague, my grandfather told my mother to spit on them and she did.

After the war, the family returned to their house in Scheveningen where the rats were crawling everywhere and the floors were covered in human excrement. My grandfather told my mother to do her best at best school but that she was allowed to fail German class. Hate for the Germans ran deep. If a German tourist came to visit Scheveningen and asked directions, my mother was instructed to smile, point towards the North Sea and say sweetly “Immer gerade aus” (“Go straight ahead”). My grandfather’s hate for the Germans later cost him his life. At the end of the 1950’s he went to Germany to receive compensation for his ships that had been confiscated by the Nazi’s. In Germany he got appendicitis but he refused to be treated by German doctors. By the time he returned to The Netherlands it was too late. He died.

At around this time my mother (who had not been raised in any religion) met my father, a young idealistic theologian. My father was very interested in Judaism and the murder of 6 million Jews in the war had deeply affected him. He admired the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who had fled from the Nazis and advocated dialog in his philosophies. This dialog philosophy became the basic principle in my father’s further life. He even got to meet Martin Buber once in person in 1959 and interviewed him! Buber’s “Ich und Du” (“I and You”) dialog philosophy is what guided my father in his work and became a profound influence on my mother as well as they were trying to help build a better world in the aftermath of war.


My parents got married in 1960, the first children were born in The Netherlands, and my father was dispatched to Israel in 1967 by the Dutch Reformed Church; he was to work as an advisor and a bridge builder: help the Christians receive more insight into Judaism and understand that the roots of Christianity lie firmly implanted in Judaism (Jesus himself was a Jew after all!) and show the Jews that not all Christians hate them or want to convert or murder them. Martin Buber’s “Ich und Du” brought to life in my father’s work, a philosophy close to his and my mother’s heart. No more hatred and anti-semitism, what was needed was an understanding of the beliefs of the other, the realization of how much each has in common and the acceptance of people just as they are. My father as well as my mother had learned from the war: racism and oppression should never happen again, every person counts, it doesn’t matter where they are from, what they look like or what they believe. We live in a multicultural world – instead of being divided by difference, how about also realizing how rich this world is in all its variety? This philosophy of life was not just abstract; it became practice in our home. Next to the ‘biological’ children (of whom I was the last to be born, in Jerusalem) my parents adopted 2 Palestinian babies and 2 Ethiopian teenagers: we became multicultural ourselves and turned into a family of different faiths (or no faith) and colors. Added to that, many other children temporarily lived with us, when the need arose, for short term fostering.

When I was 10 years old we moved to Germany. My grandmother in Scheveningen found it difficult to accept that but my parents did not believe in racism and hatred: not all Germans are bad! My father continued his work on an international level, becoming General Secretary of an organization called “The International Council of Christians and Jews”. In a beautiful twist of fate the head office of the ICCJ was located in the former home of Martin Buber, my father’s philosophical hero! He worked in Buber’s House for 17 years.


From my teens to the beginning of my twenties I became obsessed by the Second World War; a logical consequence of my parents’ history and work. I had been surrounded by the subject ever since I could remember, after all. When I was 19 I even went on a “Holocaust” study trip where among other places I visited Auschwitz in Poland. This left a profound impression on me and the values and lessons from history handed down to me by my parents were only strengthened in me through these experiences. To this day I try to live by them – be open to people, never judge a book by its cover, accept the other for who they are, embrace diversity and never ever lose touch with your humanity.

So, why are the 4th / 5th of May important to me? Because every year I am reminded of these lessons. Every year I hear people say in the speeches how we must learn from the lessons of the past and everyone agrees and applauds, while the next moment I see hate and intolerance towards, for instance, Muslims around me here in The Netherlands. Every year I hope that the remembrance of what happened in the war and the celebration of freedom will jerk us into behaving with respect and humanity towards the other, even though opinions and beliefs may differ. Through opening yourself up towards the other and vice versa there is a way. Ich und Du.There is always hope and to make the world better, you really only have to start with yourself.


15 thoughts on “Ich und Du

  1. Thank you for sharing these stories, Esther. Once again impressed with your father. What a very special man he was.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for writing this up. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t hurt to read some of this, but I am glad that your message is so clear – concentrate on what unites us, not what separates us. That is a message worth preaching.
    Btw, I was struck by how similar some of your family’s story is to my own. The story about the hatch in the floorboards is familiar – my grandfather had to escape that way, too. Again, things that unite us…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, I know how painful this history is for Germans also! Likewise, it is also embedded in the Dutch psyche. When I first came to live here in 1986 I fully realized how much the Germans were still not liked by the Dutch. It became especially clear in the German-Netherlands soccer duels and when the Dutch won the European Championships beating Germany in 1988, it was like the Netherlands had been liberated once more. I think the Dutch were almost prouder of beating the Germans than winning the tournament. This self-righteousness, the “we were right and they were wrong” attitude – I hated it. The way Germans were treated here in the late 1980s sickened me. My parents had a car with a German numberplate and I recall one time when we were driving that some youths stood to attention with a Hitler salute while we drove by! Sickening! Luckily attitudes seem to have improved. What I found extremely funny is that all the things I heard Dutch people say about Germans (‘arrogant’, ‘asocial drivers’) is what I heard some German friends say about Dutch people as well. Which goes to show we have so much more in common than each side thinks! 🙂

      Yes, Germany brought forth Hitler but that doesn’t mean that all Germans are ‘guilty’ and it doesn’t mean that all Dutch are ‘innocent’. There are many stories of resistance here that the Dutch proudly speak of but the stories of collaboration or the wrong many other Dutch have done are not heard. And when I look at the self-righteous Dutch today and see how many support the right-wing populist anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders, I know for sure that we have no right to point fingers at others. Yesterday evening in a short speech our Dutch prime minister spoke of not allowing anti-semitism and extremism to happen again. While I wholeheartedly agree, I do wonder: and what about anti-Islamism? (is that even a word? I don’t think there is a real word for that yet but I think there should be).

      So yes, it is hard for Germans to have to deal with such a tough history but Germany today can not be compared to Germany 75 years ago and I hope we all, Germans and non-Germans alike, have learned something from those dark dark pages in history. You can not make right what your forefathers may or may not have done (and I speak of Germans and Dutch alike here) but you can acknowledge the past and try to do better. Yes, I am all about looking at what unites us instead of what divides us and seeing the humanity in the other even if they are different from ourselves.

      Oh, and you have made me curious about your family’s story!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you very much for your reply, Esther!!! I just would like to add that I hope you didn’t feel I wanted you to go back on condemning what was clearly wrong. You wrote about *your* country’s history and past/present attitude, and my reaction was aimed at acknowledging that. I am painfully aware of the “bad rep” Germany has with its Western neighbour. Deservedly, of course. And I am sad to say that what you describe (the horrible Hitler salute for instance) is still happening to Germans today. (My children, although growing up outside of Germany, but attending the German School, more than once have been subjected to nasty “Heil Hitler”s on the football pitch, and are regularly called “little Nazis” by opposing teams… That says more about the opponents than my kids, but well, it shows that history is neither forgotten, nor is it properly understood.)
        As for my family history – I have both sides in my background. My maternal grandfather was half-Jewish and barely survived the war in a labour camp. The hiding under the floorboards story, however, comes from my paternal grandfather who lived in Silesia and hid that way in the latter days of the war when Polish and Russian militia went hunting for German men. I cannot imagine what that sort of fear for your own life, no matter whether you were a resistance fighter or a soldier, did to ordinary people. My (pat.) grandfather wrote down his memoirs for myself and my cousin, and to this day I find it hard to compute the apparent nonchalance he recounts his story with. I suppose they all just went into “ignore” mode, in order to continue living.
        The point of it all is – only if we listen to each others’ stories, can we get the whole picture. And realize that a) we *are* the same, b) certain events in history were wrong, no matter what we say, but c) while not forgetting, we need to move on. So thank you again for your post and your perspective.
        Last word: Your post yesterday reminded me that I always “celebrate” the 8th of May every year. That is the day when Nazi Germany capitulated. I hope that the fact that it is 70 years this year, will bring the date more into public consciousness. It seems to be forgotten, otherwise, and that is bad.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I like that you celebrate the 8th of May, It reminds me of Richard von Weizsäcker’s wonderful speech on May 8th 1985 when he said something similar.

          How interesting your family background – to have two such differing histories! Yes, from our viewpoint it is difficult to understand how people could choose the ‘wrong’ side but I wonder how conscious such a choice was and how much you just moved along with given circumstances…

          I am sorry your children have to deal with those strong anti-German sentiments, I know it is all still there even though I would hope children today would be taught better… These sentiments are still here as well but I do feel a bit of an improvement compared to 20 years ago. I wonder how many generations shall pass before the animosity is gone or if it will ever be gone.

          At the end of his speech 30 (!!) years ago, Von Weizsäcker said this:
          “From our own history we learn what man is capable of. For that reason we must not imagine that we are quite different and have become better. There is no ultimately achievable moral perfection. We have learned as human beings, and as human beings we remain in danger. But we have the strength to overcome such danger again and again. Hitler’s constant approach was to stir up prejudices, enmity and hatred. What is asked of young people today is this: do not let youselves be forced into enmity and hatred of other people, of Russians or Americans, Jews or Turks, of alternatives or conservatives, blacks or whites.Let us honour freedom. Let us work for peace. Let us respect the rule of law. Let us be true to our own conception of justice.” – And I think it is not only a lesson for Germans but for everyone, very definitely including the Dutch!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Armitage Agonistes and commented:
    As it happens, on Sunday I’ll be learning more about the Nazi invasion of The Netherlands at a lecture, containing a first hand account, given by a friend and member of my Synagogue. It’ll be interesting to compare his recollections of life in Rotterdam during that period, with what Esther has written about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the reblog! And I am curious to hear more about that lecture… Rotterdam is not so far from The Hague where my parents lived during the war.


  4. How deep the Dutch memory of WWII is was brought home to me in 1989 when the Wall fell. My international politics professor that semester had been a Resistance participant in Amsterdam during the war and he could not accept the possibility that Germany would be united again. He thought it would be a catastrophic disaster and lead to another world war. And he was a highly educated man who had lived in the US for decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh yes, I remember those sentiments very well after the fall of the wall! Even my parents, who were so open to dialog, were not sure what to think. I remember being in two minds about it myself. although less so than my parents… On the one hand, wonderful to have the two Germanies united and knowing that Germany in 1989 was very different from Germany in 1939. On the other hand the deep-rooted scar that the war had left opening up again and re-awakening all the fears. Now that you mention this, I even remember people saying that it was good Germany was divided, served them right as punishment for WWII! That kind of sentiment I could not agree with and in hindsight that might have been what swayed me to think unification was alright after all.


  5. Thank you for this brief history and remembrance Esther. Also thanks for all the comments, which were also quite enlightening. As someone from the African diaspora mixed with other races, in the Caribbean our history has mostly been about that coming over. When I went to the USA for studies I spent most summers with my aunt in NY who did housekeeping for a Jewish family. They treated her as one of the family and me by extension. Even when she retired and moved to Florida they visited and made sure that she was wanting for nothing. Those actions bred within me a love for Jewish people (after all my Saviour was Jewish) such as I never had before.
    When I came to Canada in 1980 I began to learn the facts of World War II in a more realistic and present way. I met many people who had experienced the war personally and it changed my way of thinking from casual far away observer to being more of a participant.
    I think we all have much to learn about forgiveness and moving on. Nowadays I have to consciously try to separate the peaceful Muslims I know from the militant terrorists that perpetrate their barbaric acts on others.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What an amazing and inspiring family history that you have shared with us! Thank you! It is through “witnesses to history” stories such as this one that our society will learn not to repeat horrors of violence and oppression. And sadly, there is still much work to be done in the world to bring peace, safety, respect, and opportunity to everyone. But stories of resilience and courage, such as in your family, give us hope. Hugs!


  7. […] starts at the end of April with King’s Day, then on May 5th many people have the day off for Liberation Day (celebrating liberation day at the end of WWII), after that a Thursday off for Ascension Day […]


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