As a child Pieter Kohnstam of Venice, Fla. grew up in Amsterdam, Netherlands during the late 1930s and early ‘40s. His family lived in an apartment house at 17 Merweideplein St. in a lovely section of the city’s south side.
Above them, in the complex, lived Otto Frank and his family. The Franks had two daughters. Anne was the youngest of the girls. A few years later she would write what would become The Diary of Anne Frank.
“I was born in Amsterdam in 1936. In those days people there had a happy life,” Kohnstam said. “In front of our apartment house was a little park. There were lots of children in the neighborhood who played there.
“Anne would take me to the park after school. She was 10 or 11 and I was four or five,” he said.
Although Anne was not yet a teenager she was a mature for her age. She was responsible.
“One day I had my scooter in the park. I fell in the dirt chin-first and split my chin open,” he recalled. “I was bleeding. Anne got all excited. She took me to my mother. My mother was pretty cool. She brought me to the hospital and they sewed me up.”
Kohnstam stuck his chin in the air. Underneath was a thin white scar two or so inches long.
“This is my Anne Frank souvenir,” he proudly added.
Steve Goldman, director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., said, “We believe his story to be true.”
The Franks and the Kohnstams were German Jews. The Franks were from Frankfurt and the Kohnstams from Fürth, near Nuremberg.
Nuremberg is a 1,000-year-old medieval city in Bavaria. about 100 miles northwest of Munich. The old walled section of the city looks like something from a German fairy tale. Noted for toy making and ginger cookies, it also has a more sinister past.
Beginning in1933, Nuremberg became the site where the Nazis held their annual convention. Captured on film by German propagandists were goose-stepping Nazi soldiers with fiery torches marching at night in the mammoth Nuremberg Coliseum.
It’s also remembered as the city where the Third Reich passed the Nuremberg Race Laws. They took away the Jews’, and later other minorities’ civil rights. The victorious Allied powers held the Nuremberg Trials there after the war to punish Nazis for their “crimes against humanity.”
Both families left Germany for Amsterdam to escape Nazi persecution. In those days, Amsterdam was an open city. The Netherlands was a neutral country with a small army. It was trying not to be drawn into the coming European war.
“My father was an artist. My grandfather owned a very successful toy manufacturing and merchandising company, M. Kohnstam & Sons. It was headquartered in Nuremberg with offices in Dresden, Amsterdam and London,” Kohnstam said.
“Already, 1n 1933, the National Socialist Party (Nazis) was on the rise in Germany. One day my father received a letter saying he had been accused of being a spy. He immediately sent my mother to Amsterdam, because the Netherlands was neutral and the family had a business office there,” Kohnstam said.
For the first few years the family enjoyed an idyllic life in Amsterdam. Then Hitler’s armies became restless. In 1936, the soldiers of the Third Reich marched into the Rhineland, in violation of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I.
Two years later, Germany annexed the Sudetenland. The next year, on Sept. 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Hitler’s Reich, starting World War II.
By mid-May 1940 Rotterdam was bombed by the Germans. A short time later, the Dutch Army surrendered to the Nazi hordes. The Germans had already invaded Denmark and Norway and were on the verge of taking on the French.
“When the Germans marched into Amsterdam, it wasn’t long until things became more and more difficult for the Jews and other people who were minorities,” Kohnstam remembered. “We had to wear a yellow Star of David on our clothes. We could only go out to the store and the bank once a week, on the Sabbath, Friday. There were no more schools and no more going to the park.
The Nazis started rounding people up on the streets and taking them off to concentration camps. I remember seeing flat-bed truck hauling naked women and children on a cold, rainy day in the winter.
“German soldiers broke down our neighbor’s door where eight older people lived with a few children. The only thing the soldiers left was one bed. They returned several days later and killed everybody right there in the house.
“A doctor in our neighborhood committed suicide. Lots of people were killing themselves,” he said.
Because neither the Frank family nor the Kohnstam family could go out much due to the curfew, they became avid bridge players. Almost every evening one family would come to the other’s apartment to play cards.
“We’d also listen to the BBC’s broadcast on the radio,” he said. “I still recall all Allied broadcasts began by playing the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“There was a constant fear among the Jews of Amsterdam and other residents. You didn’t know when the Nazis would come to your house and drag you out. Whenever there was one of those incidents you would pray it wouldn’t be you. When it wasn’t, you were happy. At the same time, you were saddened it was someone else,” he said.
“It’s hard to describe this constant apprehension to someone who wasn’t there,” Kohnstam said. “The Germans not only tried to terrorize people they tried to strip them of their dignity.
“Any day on the streets of Amsterdam, there was blood, rape and murder. It required a lot of courage to be a Jew and survive against this.
“The only thing the Nazis left a Jew was hope and faith. These were about the only things they couldn’t take away,” he said.
Conditions in Amsterdam had become almost intolerable for Jews since the Germans arrived in the city two years earlier. By 1942 both the Frank and Kohnstam families were trying to figure a way to escape. The Franks decided to go into hiding in Amsterdam, but the Kohnstams still didn’t have a definite plan.
“One Friday my parents received a letter from the Nazis that told them the family had to report to an Amsterdam train station. We were about to be transported to Terezienstadt, a slave labor camp in Czechoslovakia.
“My family had a meeting with my grandmother about the crisis,” he said. “She put it very succinctly: ‘If you leave there’s a chance you may survive. If you don’t, there’s no chance of surviving.’”
How were they to get out of Amsterdam? How were they to get out of the Netherlands before the Germans took them into custody?
“My mother was much involved in fashion design. She had this good Christian friend, Gerda Leske, who owned a dress shop where my mother worked for pocket money. She told her friend about our deportation troubles. Her friend had an idea.
“They planned to put on a mock fashion show in Maastricht, located along the German-Belgium border. My mother would be the fashion designer for the show and my father the dress designer. I would become Gerda’s child, during our escape.
So off we went to the railroad station, all of us pretending to be someone we weren’t. We were all traveling in the same railroad car, but not sitting together, except for me and Gerda. I was not supposed to make eye contact with my mother. I remember I did. My mother looked aside, as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me,’” Kohnstam recalled.
With luck, the family made it across the border into Belgium.
“We had no money, no official documents and only the clothes on our backs as we started to walk south toward Spain 150 miles away,” he said.
Their escape took them from Amsterdam to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, Verviers and Antwerp in Belgium; Paris, Lille, Arras, Blois, Chateauroux, Valencais, Gurs and Perpignan in France; Figueres, Spain and finally to Barcelona where they hoped to board a ship for Argentina.
“It was a walk through hell. The Gestapo was sent to find us and others who escaped the Czechoslovakian slave labor camp. A man wearing a black hat and a black coat was standing beside my father in a packed subway car in Paris. My father knew he was Gestapo.
“This man had been an acquaintance of his back in Amsterdam. He was the one sent to capture father. He looked at him a moment, but never took him in,” Kohnstam said.
It was a strange time to be a Jew.
“Despite the harshness of their nine-month flight across Europe in search of freedom, there were some bright spots.
“A few people along the way helped us out. Most of them were Christians who gave us food, shelter and a little money. A French woman let us stay in her barn for a while.
“Argentina had never been on the map for us, but it was almost impossible for a Jew to enter the United States in those days without money or connections,” he said. “American was an isolationist country back then.
“My mother had a cousin who lived in Argentina. That was our connection there.”
They were able to board a ship for Latin America in early 1943. It was July before it docked in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When they arrived the family was still wearing the clothes they had escaped in nine months earlier.
Kohnstam was 7 by then. He would be 27 before he left Argentina for the U.S. He went to work for a chemical company, a firm he stayed with for 28 years. He retired several years ago and came to Cape Haze, Fla., and more recently moved to Venice, Fla.
“It was a miracle,” the family escaped from the Germans, Fred Haberman, Kohnstam’s uncle said.
The uncle was born and raised in Nuremberg, and now lives in Walnut Grove, Calif. His family left Germany and came to the U.S. in 1935.
“When your classmates wouldn’t talk to you any more, you knew it was time to leave,” Haberman recalled. “In Nuremberg, before we left, the Nazis were marching, beating drums and demonstrating.”
After coming to America, he became a member of the U.S. 13th Regiment of the 8th Infantry Division during World War II. His job was to interrogate recently captured German soldiers.
After the war, Haberman and his wife sponsored his nephew, Pieter’s immigration into the U.S.
Anne Frank and most of her family didn’t survive the war. She died at 15 from typhus in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in northwestern Germany in March 1945, eight weeks before war’s end in Europe. Only Otto, her father, would escape death at the hands of the Nazis. He returned to Amsterdam where a friend gave him Anne’s diary.
In 1947 it became a best selling book. Later her diary was the basis for several movies, a play and a television show. Today The Diary of Anne Frank has been published in 67 languages. It is one of the most popular books ever written.
“It’s amazing that Germans who were seemingly intelligent and cultured, could burn synagogues and books. They could ostracize and kill professors, musicians, writers and artists. They could destroy everything that was culturally beneficial,” Kohnstam said.
Despite the popularity of Anne Frank’s book, he hasn’t looked at it.
“I’m sure it’s a very well written book, but I decided not to read it,” the 66-year-old Holocaust survivor said. “The book was a big emotional thing for me.”
“There were six million Jewish people massacred during World War II for no other reason than their religion. The total number of people killed goes way beyond that. It’s something like 20 to 25 million, depending on whose figures you use,” he explained.
“Who were these other 15 to 20 million people? Who cries for them?”
Pieter Kohnstam’s verification confirmed
Pieter Kohnstam received a letter in early 2003 from the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, Netherlands confirming his connection to Anne prior to World War II.
A historian working for the foundation discovered a letter mailed to Otto Frank, Anne’s father, dated: New York, June 18, 1970 that mentions Kohnstam and his grandmother. The letter was written by Betty Lenz, an acquaintance of Anne’s father.
She writes: “It was much more than a happy surprise when we received the beautiful book, “Weeklank,” a few days ago. I cannot describe how much it fascinated me. How many memories this book has awakened.
‘”I had to think when I saw Anne the first time and how. She stood out and attracted my attention. I think I have told you once, Mrs. Haberman, the grandmother of … little Pieter Kohnstam, was watching some children playing on the protected Merweideplein St. Her own Pieter and Anne were among them.
“Anne was somehow looking after these children. It was 1937. Anne was, therefore, 8-years-old and older, therefore, than the other playing children. She was showing them games and I noticed her.
“At my question to Mrs. Haberman, ‘Who is this lovely girl?
“She said, ‘Of course it’s Anne Frank.’
Kohnstam said recently, Lenz recalled seeing Anne and him playing in the Amsterdam Street the first time on June 18, 1937, his first birthday.
Pieter Kohnstam’s book
Pieter Kohnstam wrote a book, A Chance to Live. It’s about his family’s flight from Nazi occupied Europe to Argentina in World War II.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, May 6, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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