The Road to Liberation

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Thirteen months on the run from the Nazis.

 

A. Avraham Perlmutter | It was a cold, dark night in October 1943 when I, a 16-year-old Jewish teenager, arrived at the Venlo railroad station in the Netherlands’ Limburg province. Holding a valise containing all my possessions, I anxiously surveyed the nearly empty station platform for the person I’d been told would take me to my next hiding place. After several minutes a tall man dressed in priest vestments walked up, asked my name, and requested that I follow him. This was my first view of a brave and righteous man named Pastor Henricus Vullinghs.

He asked me to sit on the back of his bicycle and quickly pedaled to Grubbenvorst, a small village about three miles from the German border. He stopped at the house of Peter (Pap) and Gertrude (Mom) Beijers, and asked if they would provide a hiding place for me. Although Pap had never met a Jew before, he consented, and Vullinghs left. One cannot give enough praise to that angel of a pastor, who, as I found out afterward, was instrumental in saving the lives of many people sought by the Nazis—Jewish and Gentile alike—yet tragically lost his life in Bergen-Belsen.

Sitting around the table in their small, dimly lit dining room, the Beijers and their grown children, Wilhelmina, Sraar, and Harri, observed me curiously as I shyly but hungrily ate sandwich after sandwich of delicious dark rye bread covered with applestroop (apple marmalade). At that time, my weight of around 105 pounds bore witness to the fact that this was my first good meal in a long time.

The Beijers’ home was a two-story brick house. Inside was a large room used as a butcher shop by Sjeng, another son. On the second floor there was a large bedroom with three beds—one each for Sraar, Harri, and me.

Since there was no running water, we washed ourselves using a water-filled bowl, and there was one waterless toilet outside. Many times I convinced one of the sons to push and pull the handle of the outside water pump as I stood, half-naked, washing underneath the rushing water during cold winter days. They joked that I was a crazy Jew because I was not afraid of the cold water.

The Beijers were a religious Catholic family. They prayed before each meal. Pap Beijers told me that since we all believed in the same God, I should pray in my own Jewish way.

Most inhabitants of Grubbenvorst were anti-Nazi and I learned years later that 42 of the 240 families of the village were hiding Jews. The mayor, however, was a Nazi sympathizer appointed by the Germans. Whenever he suspected or heard that a Jew was hiding in the village, he would notify the soldiers to come and perform a search. As a result, I initially stayed mainly in my bedroom.

 

Months passed and the Beijers and I came to know each other well . What a wonderful family they were. We came to appreciate each other as human beings, even though initially it came as a surprise to Pap Beijers that I wanted to work with him in the fields—he erroneously believed that Jews did not engage in physical labor. Yet later, Pap instructed me in the art of planting and harvesting asparagus, and of plowing with his pony. During these months, my experiences taught me more about humanity than all my subsequent university training, and showed me the goodness and strong belief in God the Beijers and other Grubbenvorsters possessed. I observed the love they demonstrated for each other, and the unbelievable bravery they displayed during times of extreme danger.

A number of weeks after my arrival in Grubbenvorst, Frans Gerritsen, an expert in preparing false papers and building hiding places, came to the Beijers’ house. He cut an opening in the wooden floor under Pap and Mom’s bed and dug a hole underneath. He arranged it so the entrance could be locked from inside.

One day in May 1944 Germans pulled up to the Beijers’ house, after having apparently been tipped off that a Jew was hiding there. I jumped into the hiding place under the bed just before they entered. The Germans lined up the entire family and threatened to deport them if they did not reveal the location of any hidden Jews.

The Beijers denied knowledge of any “Jude” in their house or elsewhere. Realizing they would not get any information from the family, the Germans left.

After this episode, Pap asked me if I would have done the same for him if the circumstances were reversed. All I could say was I hoped I would have shown equal courage and human decency.

In the fall of 1944, as the frontline of the Allied forces steadily moved closer to Grubbenvorst, a German Army unit arrived in the village, and several soldiers were quartered in almost every house. Initially, I hid in a small area in the attic, but once the German soldiers moved into the house, I needed a hiding place outside. Pap stacked straw bundles ceiling-high in part of the stable, leaving a small place behind them for me. In addition, at my suggestion, he made a small opening in the back to provide an escape route.

I immediately moved into my new hiding place, but one evening a German soldier encountered me at the pump, and though I managed to pose as one of the Beijers children, his suspicions forced me to move again. Pap built a more secure hiding place for me in the hill behind the barn. He dug a coffin-like hole about six feet long, three feet wide and two feet high. The hole was closed by a wooden cover that included a two-by-two-foot opening. He also put a grass covering over the wood, and left two small openings for air.

While in this hiding place, I had to lie on my back the whole time, since the hole was not high enough for me to sit up. My only companions were red ants and occasionally a snail or a mouse. It was absolute torture lying there in the dark hour after hour. To keep my sanity, I silently calculated the increasing value of 2 to the power of x, i.e., 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, etc. Ultimately I managed to arrive at numbers containing more than 15 digits. Again, Pap or Wilhelmina brought me food and water every night when nobody was looking. I dared to leave the hole only after nightfall and could not relieve myself until then.

In mid-November 1944, as I returned to my hiding place, I heard the voices of several Germans. I turned and ran into the fields, remaining there overnight. When Pap found me the next morning, he told me the Germans had found my hiding place and searched it. He said it would be best for me to stay in a small hut in his field until he could come up with another plan.

On November 22, 1944, the southern Allied forces liberated Sevenum, a village about five miles west of Grubbenvorst. Then, in heavy rain, Allied forces advanced east from Sevenum to Blerick, a village several miles south of Grubbenvorst. Blerick was strategically important because it contained a bridge across the Maas River to Venlo.

The Allies had tried to destroy this bridge 13 times in order to cut the German supply lines and block a German retreat across the river. Ironically, the German troops eventually blew up the bridge as they retreated, in an attempt to stop the advancing Allied Forces.

As the weather improved, the Allies increased their attack, putting pressure on the Germans to retreat. Late one evening, several German soldiers ordered everybody out of the town. The soldiers intended to bring its inhabitants across the Maas to Germany. Although we were concerned the Germans might want to use the villagers as hostages, everyone except for me decided to leave and follow their directions.

I decided my best chance of survival would be to stay hidden in the village and hope for liberation by the British Army. I told Pap Beijers of my decision and he and the others left. Amid the continuing noise of artillery-shell explosions, I returned to the stable and again hid behind the straw bundles.

After some time, the British artillery bombardment seemed to be moving closer to Grubbenvorst. Deciding to leave the stable and head toward the British line, I strode to the street in front of the house. I had advanced about twenty yards when I heard a thunderous explosion behind me. I looked back and saw flames shooting up from the stable. The shell that hit it certainly would have killed me if I had not abandoned it moments earlier.

I proceeded carefully by crawling on my hands and knees and feeling for land mines. Thunderous artillery explosions continuously illuminated the night sky as I inched past the local monastery on the road to Sevenum. Suddenly, I heard shouts of “Halt” as several Nazi soldiers launched toward me from the side of the road. As I stood up, one of them grabbed my arm and demanded in German that I tell him who I was and where I was going.

A horrible thought flashed through my mind: After years of dangerous escapes, so close to liberation, would this be my end?

As I pointed to a random house in front of me, machine gun fire erupted in our direction. The British, who must have been close enough to hear the Germans, were firing at us. The German soldiers pulled me with them as they quickly retreated, but I managed to free myself and began running full speed back toward the monastery. As I ran, I heard the whistling of bullets flying around me, possibly shot by both the British and the Germans, and I completely ignored any thoughts about mines on the road.

I ran to the nearby farmhouse of Pierre Beijers, another of Pap’s sons. When I arrived, I was relieved to find the entire Beijers family.

Early the next morning, we saw an armored vehicle moving in our direction. We suspected it was German, and all the men immediately hid in an underground cattle latrine. The vehicle arrived at the building, and I heard somebody asking one of the Beijers women a question in English. I jumped out of the latrine and was thrilled to see two British soldiers. I asked them if Grubbenvorst was already cleared of Germans and they responded that there still were many German snipers in the village. They had barely answered my question when shots rang out in our direction. The British turned their vehicle around and moved in the direction of the shots. We ran back into the house.

About an hour later, Harri Beijers and I carefully proceeded toward the monastery. There we met another British armored vehicle. I asked the British soldiers if I could join them in their fight against the Germans. They smiled and said this was not possible. I then asked them whether it was safe to go to Sevenum and they told me that there still might be German snipers in the area. Nonetheless, Harri and I continued toward the village. On the way we hit the ground a number of times when we heard gunshots, but after a terrifying trip of about two hours, we arrived safely in Sevenum. We went to the house of the mayor, who was a friend of the Beijers. He and his wife were happy to see us, ushered us into their home, and provided us with food and shelter.

It was November 26, 1944, and I finally was liberated.

A. Avraham Perlmutter Gr’60 is the author of Determined: The Story of Holocaust Survivor Avraham Permutter (Mascherato, 2014), from which this essay is adapted.
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