On March 23, Dutch Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Knopp spoke to Rye High School 10th graders about her five-year ordeal in Nazi concentration camps.
By Sarah Varney
On March 23, Dutch Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Knopp spoke to Rye High School 10th graders about her five-year ordeal in Nazi concentration camps. Knopp spoke last year to students but until 2014, she had not spoken publicly about her experience for 35 years. During that time, she and her husband and three children were living in Rye and her children went through the Rye schools.
The assembly was organized by the Student Council and advisor Judd Rothstein, in collaboration with Jewish Philanthropies of Westchester. “The students marveled at her ability to carry on and the fact that she retained a sense of humor,” said Rothstein.
Knopp was living in Amsterdam, in the same neighborhood as Anne Frank, when World War II began. She described in detail her close-knit family and how her everyday world slipped away gradually as the Nazi’s hold on Europe tightened. The restrictions on Jews began in February of 1941.
First, the Nazis took away personal belongings. Knopp was 8 at the time. “I remember I had to give up my bicycle and the Star of David that I wore around my neck,” she said. Weekly visits to the local pool with her brother and mother ended, as the pool was closed to Jews. Her school refused to expel its Jewish students but she had to use the rear entrance to the building. “Our classes got smaller all the time because people went into hiding or got picked up by the Germans to be sent to the concentration camps. We joked that we changed teachers like sweaters,” she recalled.
By 1942, her own relatives began to disappear. “In September, my Aunt Hattie, Uncle Sol, and my cousins Betty and Mary were thrown into jail,” she said. Her aunt and cousins were murdered a year later in Buchenwald. In January of 1943, Knopp’s parents, her paternal grandmother, her brother, and she were scooped up and sent first to Westerbork, a transit camp located in the northeast of Holland and then moved to Sobibor, a camp in Poland. “I never saw my little Oma, my grandmother, again. I tell my grandchildren the same stories she told me,” said Knopp.
“At Westerbork we lived in unbelievable fear. Every single Monday boxcars not fit for people would roll up and we all knew that to get in meant certain death. In the middle of the night, the SS would come in and read the names of those to be taken. I can still hear the screams and I remember the relief of the people who were not called,” Knopp recounted.
The family was able to arrange release after two weeks, but their return to normalcy was illusory. “I was 11 years old, I had a toothache so I went to the dentist. It turned out that there was no problem, it was just a new molar coming in. He pulled it anyway and then he said ‘You will never be able to come back so I might as well take it out.’ I remember my mother was furious that he had pulled a perfectly healthy tooth.”
In September of 1943, the family was taken back to Westerbork. They then spent a year incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen. On April 23, 1945, the camp was liberated. “There was no celebration, no relief. We were too sick and dispirited to express any feelings,” said Knopp.
Three days after the liberation, her mother died at the age of 36. “I have missed her every day of my life.”
Twenty years ago, Knopp went back to Poland and toured Sobibor. “I will never be able to forget the hunger, the lice, the unbelievable stench, and the piles and piles of bodies. The bodies were just thrown to the side. You never forget the bodies,” she added.
Knopp’s story makes an impression upon students because of her detailed descriptions of what it was like. “She tells such personal stories and she makes it almost ordinary. Every student can imagine their own possessions — their bicycles being taken away and how that would feel. She’s a living witness and they can connect it to the larger history in a personal way,” said Rothstein.
At 18, Knopp visited the United States and met the man she would marry, and with whom she would raise a wonderful family. But she has never forgiven the Germans. “To forgive is to forget,” she says. The main lesson she aims to impart to listeners is the danger of racism of any kind. “Always remember how evil racism is. Guard yourselves. Racism degrades the dignity of all men. Also, never take your freedom for granted.”