LAUGHING LIKE MADMEN IN THE MURDER COMPOUND
Stationsweg 5, Geertruidenberg
The Jewish community in Geertruidenberg was small, its few members met every week on the Sabbath in the synagogue that stood in the shadow of the majestic Geertruidskerk church. This was not far from the Koestraat, where Bethrina Kooperberg grew up with her sisters and brother. Records in Geertruidenberg show that the last major celebration in the synagogue was Jaap (Jacob) Kooperberg’s Bar Mitzvah. By the time the Second World War broke out the sisters Netty, Betsy and Trijntje were already engaged or married, and no longer lived in Geertruidenberg. The oldest daughter Bethrina was still single and lived with her ageing uncle Salomon and her aunts Rika and Sofia (Fie) Kalker in the Stationsweg in Geertruidenberg . She could often be found at the Van Beek family where she looked after the young children Jet and Jan.
After the German invasion it seemed that life would go on as normal, but the first measures against the Jewish community were gradually being taken. The fourteen Jewish residents of Geertruidenberg were forced to register in February 1941. Uncle Salomon Kalker handed in his radio at the town hall on 26 April 1941. Was there any contact among all the family members in these first years? Would Bethrina ever see her sisters again? Sister Trijntje was arrested during a raid in Amsterdam and gassed in Auschwitz on 24 June 1942. Did her parents know of her cruel fate? Not long after this her brother Jaap and her parents, Mozes and Magdalena Kooperberg, went into hiding. They were removed from the municipal register in Geertruidenberg on 18 November 1942. Sisters Netty and Betsy also managed to find a hiding place. Bethrina’s blonde hair did not immediately give her away as being a Jewish woman, so did she hope to get away with it? Did she want to go into hiding or did she not want to abandon her old uncle and aunts? Older residents of Geertruidenberg knew that Bethrina suffered from epilepsy and that this could prove dangerous when in hiding. Or did the ever-optimistic Bethrina hope for a happy ending?
On 9 April they left Geertruidenberg for Camp Vught with nine other Jewish residents. They took the train voluntarily to ‘s-Hertogenbosch. The mayor made a vain attempt to allow the three oldest
Jews to remain in Geertruidenberg. Bethrina was still optimistic as she boarded the train, and called to bystanders ‘I’m sick and I’ll be coming back’. Once in Camp Vught she sent a letter and a postcard to the Van Beek family, dated 24 April 1943.
The first night we were here Aunt Fie and I laughed like madmen, despite everything. As it happened, nobody could sleep, cry or scream. Anyway, it was just horrible but it’s getting easier to sleep now, and now when the bell rings I don’t want to get up.
Last week the men could not come on the Sunday as all the women were naked in the barracks, as we had to be deloused. In the end it didn’t happen until 9 o’clock on the Monday evening so we had been naked that whole day, too.
Oh, if you could see us through the keyhole, you know that I was always optimistic and sometimes I still am but there are days when I think the whole camp is going crazy with the treatment. It’s worse than I could ever have imagined and they treat us worse than animals.
They call this place the murder compound and if you knew what it’s like here, the gates would be stormed, but we still are still in good spirits, as if that’s possible.
Not long after this last sign of life, Bethrina Kooperberg was taken to Camp Westerbork on 9 May 1943. Two days later her train left for Sobibor and on 14 May 1943 the gas taps were turned on for Bethrina Kooperberg. But she was never forgotten in Geertruidenberg, her name lives on after 75 years in a brass plate next to the door of her last house on Stationsweg 5.