Jewish children faced the same risks as their parents during the occupation, but you could sometimes survive with a good hiding place and a different name. Joost and Freddie Oppenheim tried just that. Their parents fled Germany in 1933 and went to live in Eindhoven. They remained there until 1942 when there too was a threat of being hunted down. They needed to escape, all of them, but where to? Where could you find safe shelter for everyone?
The father was suffering diabetes and needed to go to a hospital but was terrified of doing so. In the bed next to him was Mr Heuvelmans who was suffering a bone fracture. He had quickly noticed that his fellow patient was a Jew, having seen him praying with his face to the sun. Out of nowhere, the bombs began to fall, landing on the Philips building nearby. The father couldn’t take it any longer. When another landed on the hospital, he turned to Mr Heuvelmans and said, ‘I have found shelter for me and my wife, but my sons who are eight and four, they have nothing.’ Heuvelmans didn’t need long to consider it. ‘My friend, they can come with us to Reusel, to our hotel. But something will need to be done about their names.’ Heuvelmans sought advice at the local monastery and from then on, the boys were known as Jan and Kees Blijdorp, protestant orphans from Rotterdam, without documents.
Staying with the Heuvelmans was a great pleasure. The family had a hotel, a café and a bakery and large numbers of guests came and went, even Germans. The brothers were able to get along with them well and they had memorised their new names. But sometimes things got scary when there was suddenly a German in the room. Things became even scarier when the British began to approach, there were corpses everywhere and shooting in Reusel. The top was even shot off the beautiful church steeple.
The Germans announced that the inhabitants of Reusel had to leave as things had become too dangerous, so everyone fled to Hooge Mierde. The brothers fled too, on foot. As they were walking, they were approached by a large black car. The officer told the two boys to get in and before he knew it, Joost found himself sitting between a German officer and a German soldier. They asked the boys everything. Freddie later confessed that he had almost told their secret to ‘those nice guys’, which doesn’t bear thinking about.
Hooge Mierde was liberated on 2 October 1944. Back in Reusel, the brothers saw the devastation — nothing was still standing. In December, Joost and his brother were able to escape to a Jewish organisation in Eindhoven, where they heard the horrific news that their parents had been arrested a few months previously. Their father had been transported to Auschwitz where he had been killed in September. Their mother had been transported to Theresienstadt but had survived and was on her way!
In November 1946, Joost and his mother and brother emigrated to the United States and joined family in Washington. Freddie took up service in the Air Force, served in Japan and Korea and settled with his family in southern Pennsylvania. Joost went to work at the National Cancer Institute and studied immunobiology in Birmingham, regularly giving lectures in both Madrid and Berlin. He would occasionally visit the Heuvelmans family in Reusel during his travels.
Joost Oppenheim (r.) with his mother and brother Freddie (1945)
(Image: private property of Joost Oppenheim, 1945)