VENICE – Pieter Kohnstam heard the Gestapo before he saw them.
A motorcycle with a sidecar drove down his street, flanking a truck filled with soldiers carrying machine guns. Their engines roared with life, and their sirens wailed.
Just 6 years old the day Nazi officers showed up in his neighborhood in Amsterdam, he knew whatever family they came to see was in danger.
On an August day in 1942, it was his turn.
Kohnstam’s mother had been about to call Gerda Lester, a fashion salon owner who would later help the Kohnstam family escape to Argentina. When the officers came in, he stood in front of his mother, who slipped a piece of paper into his hand.
It might have contained Lester’s name or her number. Kohnstam never found out. It went from his palm to his mouth.
Kohnstam knew to swallow it without being told. In a time when Jews were killed and beaten in the street, he was conditioned to protect himself and those he loved.
“I didn’t know what was on the paper, but I assumed if my mother put it in my hand, it was better off not seen,” he said.
Kohnstam, now 80, educates others about the Holocaust. He wrote his family’s story in the book “A Chance to Live,” which was published in 2006.
He’s currently in Germany with his family celebrating its translation to German.
“I hope that I will do in my little, tiny, weeny, humble part, something to pay back and to express the importance of what people can do and did to others for no reason than to have a different religion or a different color of the skin or a different belief,” he said at his home in Venice.
A friend in Frank
Despite the tumultuous times in which he grew up, Kohnstam found a friend in Anne Frank.
Frank later became famous for the diary she kept after she and her family went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942 until 1944. After her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, her father Otto led the effort to publish her account as “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
But before the Frank family went into hiding, they lived in an apartment building on Merwedeplein in Amsterdam, two floors above the Kohnstams. Frank found a playmate and little brother figure in Kohnstam.
She was seven years older than him, almost to the day.
Being on the ground floor, Kohnstam’s apartment had a garden that was hidden from the street. He used to go outside, fill up the wash basin and start splashing around in it.
Frank would see this from her apartment and come running downstairs to play.
“She was a very sprightly girl; she was very alive,” Kohnstam said.
As she got older, Frank would help Kohnstam’s grandma watch him while his parents went out. She used to write while sitting with him and tell Kohnstam about what she wrote.
“I used to make comments that would throw a wrench in her stomach,” he said. “It was a big laugh.”
But over the years, as Frank walked Kohnstam home from school, talk about school and friends shifted to the day’s events.
In 1940, beatings in Amsterdam’s streets became increasingly common. Come 1942, when Kohnstam started school, he went with a yellow Star of David sewn to his clothes. During that year, everything changed.
The Franks and the Kohnstams received an order telling them to report to the SS Nazi paramilitary office. After going there, Kohnstam’s parents were told they and the Franks were to report to a secondary railroad station at midnight.
Both families knew showing up likely meant being sent to a concentration camp.
As his family let the wave of shock set over them, that night, Kohnstam sat on the floor while his family had a meeting.
Otto Frank had invited them to go into hiding with his family, but Kohnstam’s grandma told them staying wasn’t an option.
“If you don’t leave, I will close the apartment, turn on the gas and blow it up. But if you do leave, at least you’ll have a chance to live,” Pieter Kohnstam remembers her saying.
Her words would later inspire the title of his book.
On July 6, 1942, Frank said goodbye.
Their apartment was her last stop before going into hiding. With her, she took a red-and-white checkered diary. It was a 13th birthday gift that Kohnstam’s mom had suggested to Frank’s mother, Edith, after she complained of Frank’s papers being all over the apartment.
From his living room, Kohnstam watched her go, his head and nose pressed up against the window pane.
While walking to the annex where she’d spend the next two years, Frank turned her head and waved at least once.
“And that I felt. That affected me. I knew that was serious,” Kohnstam said.
Days after the Franks left for hiding and Nazi officers showed up to claim possession of the Kohnstams’ apartment and their items, the family began their journey leaving the Netherlands.
Gerda Lester helped the Kohnstams escape to Maastricht, a Dutch city near the Belgium border. While on the train there, Kohnstam’s mother posed as a model, his father a fashion designer and Kohnstam as Lester’s son.
After saying goodbye to Lester, they made their way to Argentina via Belgium, Paris and Spain. From Spain, Kohnstam and his family boarded the ship “Cabo De Buena Esperanza” to Buenos Aires in 1943.
Kohnstam went about three years without knowing what happened to his grandma, Clara.
When his family fled in 1942, she stayed in Amsterdam to get affairs in order and keep a sense of normalcy about the apartment. Kohnstam’s mom worked out a deal with the milkman, where he would take her into hiding if she placed a teapot upside-down in the windowsill. During those three years, she was relocated to seven different hiding places.
After meeting a British soldier while playing bridge in 1945, she had him mail a letter to her cousin in London, letting him know she was alive. The cousin wrote to Kohnstam’s stepfather in Buenos Aires relaying the news.
When Clara arrived a few months later, she had nothing but the clothes on her back and a set of Meissen dishes. They had been a wedding gift to Kohnstam’s parents, stored by Lester during the war.
“I remember being at the airport and seeing her come down the plane,” Kohnstam said.
Finding a treasure
When Frank’s diary was found and published, Kohnstam was 11 and living in Argentina.
Someone, possibly Lester, wrote to his grandmother letting her know.
Over the years, Kohnstam has read parts of Frank’s diary. When he tells others of the Holocaust, he often quotes it. He sees Frank’s resilience in the quotes, her optimism that never left. His favorite is from an entry written less than a month before the Frank family was discovered.
“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death,” Frank wrote on July 15, 1944.
“One thing they couldn’t take from us was hope,” Kohnstam said.
But Kohnstam has never read his old friend’s diary cover to cover.
He lived enough of it himself.
Kohnstam never wanted to talk about his experiences.
His family knew about his experiences, his wife Susan said. They tried to get him to write a book and tell others. He refused. He didn’t think it was important to share.
This changed in 1980.
While living in New Jersey, he woke up to find swastikas on his driveway and car. And it wasn’t just his house that was targeted — but the local rabbi’s house, too.
When the community’s rabbi didn’t stand up, Susan and Pieter Kohnstam led the charge. The town came together to condemn the vandalism.
“That got me out of the closet,” Kohnstam said.
While it turned out to be local kids who drew the defamatory symbols, Kohnstam finally wrote the book his family had been begging him to write after moving to Venice in 2003. It was published in 2006.
When teaching others about the Holocaust, where six million Jews and five million non-Jews were killed, survivor stories are the most impactful part of education, said Sandy Mermelstein, the senior educator at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
As the number of survivors starts to dwindle, stories of those who fled the Holocaust but never went to a camp are an essential part of Holocaust education. They humanize the Holocaust, sharing their fear, loss and uncertainty felt, Mermelstein said.
While the concept of 11 million killed is nearly impossible to grasp, survivors and refugees who speak give the students the stories behind the number.
“It wasn’t this giant statistic. It was one, plus one, plus one, plus one,” Mermelstein said.
Erin Blankenship met Kohnstam about 15 years ago at a reception for the first exhibit she set up at the museum.
The exhibit, “Fragments: Portraits of Survivors,” featured 115 photographs of those who survived, along with a brief written statement about their story. Among these was Kohnstam, the curator of exhibitions and collections said.
He wrote about seeing people killed in the street and rounded up, and the fear he felt seeing this as a child.
“I have this with me constantly. It doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t disappear. That’s what I’m living with. That’s what is burned into us,” he wrote on April 29, 2001.
When “A Chance to Live” was published years later, Blankenship went out to lunch with Kohnstam. She said she’s thrilled to see it being translated to German because memoirs teach students about the Holocaust around the world.
“We teach the Holocaust one story at a time, one individual at a time,” Blankenship said.
The book has already been translated into Dutch. For its German translation, the city of Fürth, Germany, invited the Kohnstams to visit July 15 to 27, all expenses paid.
For Kohnstam, this will be his second time in the region of Middle Franconia, where Fürth is. It’s the region where his father moved back to after the war, where he traces his family history generations back.
After the trip, Kohnstam will continue speaking to schools and universities.
“I’m just a little fish in a big pond, but I’m doing something, and I’m a messenger.”
Article source: http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20160724/NEWS/160729808