AMSTERDAM — Dutch pianist Miriam Keesing never expected to research Jewish emigrant children who fled Germany for the Netherlands between 1938 and 1940. It began when she found a photo of a young boy in her family attic while looking for clues about her grandfather, whom she’d never met. Her aunt told her the boy was Uli, a German-Jewish refugee.
Gerhard Ulrich Herzberg – Uli – was just 12 years old when he traveled from Germany to live with Keesing’s grandparents in November 1939. He stayed with them until June 1941. In early 1942, the Keesings left for Cuba, where they stayed until the end of the war.
It is well known that nearly 10,000 children traveled from Nazi-occupied countries to Great Britain as part of the so-called Kindertransport. Less has been documented about the Dutch Kindertransport, which Keesing spent the last seven years investigating. She’s published dossiers on nearly 2,000 refugee children on her recently launched website, Dokin.nl. It is the first comprehensive source of information on these refugee children.
Keesing started her search for Uli by visiting The Hague, where the Dutch national archives and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is headquartered. From those records, she learned that he’d gone to live with another family after he left her grandparents’ – they were not allowed take him with them to Cuba. He was arrested in March 1943, sent to the Sobibor concentration camp and murdered.
It was that tragic discovery that set Keesing on her path. “I started this by accident,” she says. “I just wanted to learn about Uli, and I began learning about other children, and it started getting bigger and bigger, so I made a database.” Seven years later, she has her website, a literary agent in New York, and is considering studying for a doctorate.
She has documented as much as she can on each child, including copies of original paperwork, photos and correspondence from family members. It’s tough work, emotionally. Even those children who survived the war often lost their entire families.
“In the beginning, I used to cry every day. It’s the most depressing thing you can think of,” Keesing says. “But I want people to know that this happened.”
She’s also discovered children who came to Holland and then seemingly disappeared without a trace, such as Artur-Meinhard Natt, who was 15 when he arrived from Berlin in 1938. Keesing searched until she found a newspaper article that revealed that he’d been shot and killed by Germans in 1940 in Arnhem, the Netherlands.
It’s bittersweet, but because of her relentless research, 40 names have been added to the Red Cross’ victims list. “If I were a mother in heaven, and I had a child who died and nobody knew about it, because there was nobody left in the family to look for him, I would want someone to remember him,” she says.
She is also revealing important details about places, such as the historic Burgweeshuis, now the Amsterdam History Museum, which served as an orphanage for Jewish refugee children beginning in March 1939.
“There were 100 children living there for 14 months,” she says. “That is not nothing. And now finally that fact is known.”
The most poignant source for Keesing’s work is firsthand accounts by survivors, whom she has met in the United States and Israel. “I have been amazed by the trust people have in what they share with me,” she says. “They give me old letters and really open up.”
She has, for example, a stack of letters written by Elisabeth Eylenburg from Berlin, who had sent her son, Walter, to live in the Netherlands in 1939. The letters she wrote to the woman who fostered Walter, a Mrs. Wijsenbeek, reveal the anxiety, conflict, gratitude and despair of a mother who has had to send her child away to live with strangers, not knowing if she’d see him again.
According to the Red Cross archives, Walter’s parents were transported to the Terezin ghetto on Aug. 4, 1943, and Walter was sent the next day to be with them at their request, arriving on Sept. 10, 1943. On Oct. 19, 1944, Walter and his parents were sent to Auschwitz and were gassed on arrival.
On the day she launched her site, Keesing received a flood of responses, including a photo of Elisabeth Eylenburg from someone who knew her. “It was the first time I saw a picture of Elisabeth,” Keesing writes on her website, “whose letters I translated and to whom I’ve felt so close.”
In 2011, Keesing had the privilege of meeting Hans, Uli’s brother, who’d gone to America in 1939. She had found his phone number online.
“It was very difficult to make the call,” she says. “He answered the phone and I said, ‘My name is Miriam Keesing,’ and that was as far as I got. He was 89 years old but the Keesing name was enough for him to know who I was.” She later visited Hans at his home in Chicago and was able to read letters Uli had written to him during his stay with her grandparents.
Keesing is inspired by the spirit of many survivors. “What gives me comfort is that 90 percent of these people whom I’ve met and with whom I’ve spoken who lived through this time are nice, very kind, very friendly,” she says. “They have been scarred, but they have no desire for revenge. They are not bitter about the world. I feel blessed to get to know them.”
And Keesing, 47, is finding some peace of her own. As it is for many Europeans of the postwar generation, particularly those with Jewish roots, the Holocaust is a difficult subject for Keesing to confront.
“My research made me go to Germany for the first time,” she says. “I had passed through it, but I never wanted to be there. I would see beautiful villages and landscapes and think, ‘How could it have happened?’” Even the language was distasteful. “I hated learning German,” she says, “but I had to in school. And until three years ago, I refused to write in German. It feels really strange for me still, but I do it. Maybe that’s another step in my personal progress.”
Still, her outlook remains dark. Asked if she feels in the end that there is more good than evil in the world, she’s resolute. “No,” she says. “I’m sorry. I wish. But I’m afraid not.”
For her, the awfulness of what took place is what drives her.
“My motivation is my pain,” she says. “I put it away so far, so deep, and it’s there and it keeps me going and gives me drive. It’s so painful, what happened. I think for the whole of Europe it’s still painful.”
Hamilton is a McClatchy special correspondent.