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The ‘Diary’ of Flory Van Beek: A Holocaust Survivor’s Tale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly 60 years, Flory Van Beek has carried with her a glass shard that once pierced her neck.

The remnant of a shattered porthole on the Dutch ship SS Simon Bolivar is about a quarter-inch thick, 2 inches long and three-fourths of an inch wide. When the Bolivar hit a German mine and exploded in November 1939, it became the first neutral ship sunk in the North Sea during World War II with 16-year-old Flory and her 26-year-old future husband, Felix, aboard.

Because of the advancing German army, the couple was among numerous Jews fleeing the Netherlands aboard the South America-bound ship. Both were severely injured in the explosion, but they were among the lucky 274 of the ship’s 400 passengers and crew who were pulled from icy waters by British sailors after a second explosion sank the ship.

It was only after doctors in England removed the shard of glass from the back of Van Beek’s neck that she learned how fortunate she had been: The glass had lodged a millimeter from her carotid artery. Ever since, she has kept the near-lethal piece of glass close.

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“I can’t explain why, but I want it with me somehow,” said Van Beek, who today lives in Newport Beach. “Sometimes I look at it, and I think it was a miracle that I survived. The doctors couldn’t believe it themselves.”

It wouldn’t be the last miracle, either, she said.

Van Beek chronicles her good fortunes in “Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death” (Seven Locks Press, $22.95), the story of how she and Felix survived the Holocaust, thanks to three families of Dutch Christians who hid the couple in their homes for three years.

“They were very courageous, risking their own lives and that of their children,” Flory Van Beek recalled. “They were real patriots, but they didn’t consider themselves heroes, really. They thought it was the human thing to do.”

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Hank Hornsveld, 77, one of the two sons of the second family that took in the Van Beeks after a late-night visit by the Gestapo forced the couple to flee their first hiding place, explained it this way: “We’re in the world to help each other. People in need need help, and that’s the way it was. We don’t worry about what nationality or what religion they are.”

Hornsveld, a retired Costa Mesa electrical contractor who came to the United States in 1957, said Van Beek has done a “fantastic job” telling her story.

The book paints a vivid portrait of life for the Jews in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. As a German nationalist, Felix could not remain in England after they recovered. And after their ordeal at sea, Flory Van Beek said, “I wanted to go back to Holland.”

The German army attacked the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, eight days after she and Felix returned to Rotterdam.

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“We were in the middle of the bombardment,” she recalled. “That was another miracle--that we survived that--because [1,000 people died], and all of Rotterdam was flattened.”

Once the Germans occupied the Netherlands, she said, every Jew was required to report to a local district government building to sign papers revealing whether they were Jewish, half Jewish or one-quarter Jewish. They even had to indicate how far back their ancestry could be traced. They were photographed, and their new ID cards were stamped “J” for Jew.

Failure to comply with this “summons” meant being sent to the concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria.

That was the first in a long series of ordinances directed at the Jews. Parks, theaters, hotels, restaurants, libraries, museums and other public areas became off-limits. Jews had to turn in their radios and bicycles, and they weren’t allowed to have telephones.. They were forbidden to enter the homes of non-Jewish people.

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In June 1942, she received summons to report for work in Germany. She became nearly hysterical, she said, envisioning it as a trip to her death.

That afternoon, she went to the grocery store--"against my mother’s wishes, but we needed something to eat.” Her mother’s fears were well-founded. By then, Jews were being picked up on the street, tortured and shot at.

Wearing her yellow cloth Star of David, as all Jews were required to, Flory stood next to a canal contemplating suicide. Then what she calls another “miracle” occurred: A Dutch man on a bicycle approached her and asked, “What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse? Take that damned thing off and follow me.”

Flory said she had never seen the tall, blunt-spoken man before. For some reason, she felt she was in good hands, so she did as he said and followed him home. The man was Piet Brandsen, a contractor who was the leader of the area’s resistance movement.

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He and his wife, Dina--the parents of four young daughters--offered to take in Flory and Felix, saying it was their duty to help their fellow countrymen. But as devout Catholics who felt it was sinful to have an unmarried couple living in one room, the Brandsens required them to be married first.

Instead of the attic room the Van Beeks thought they would be hiding in, the newlyweds were shocked when the Brandsens gave up their bedroom for them. There they lived for the next 18 months.

During the day, Flory would mend the Brandsen girls’ clothes and help them study; Felix shined the family’s shoes. They did anything to fight boredom and to repay the family.

They also began working for the resistance: Flory typed for the underground newspaper and for a counterfeit food coupon distribution program that Felix administered. At night, they would go downstairs and listen to the BBC on a forbidden radio.

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To help ensure the Van Beeks’ safety, Piet Brandsen made a hiding place off their bedroom, a small area about 3 1/2 feet square with double doors. He also rigged a red light with a button downstairs that could be pushed to warn the Van Beeks of danger.

The couple used the hiding place only once, on Jan. 21, 1944, when the Gestapo came to the front door. Normally, they would have been downstairs, but they happened to be upstairs when the red light came on. Another miracle, Flory said.

The couple spent two hours in the cramped hiding place. At one point, they heard footsteps coming up the stairs. But at the last moment, they heard a German voice yell: “What are you doing there? There is nothing upstairs.”

Although the Van Beeks were undiscovered, Piet Brandsen was arrested that night and spent eight months in a concentration camp.

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Not wanting to put the family in continued danger, the Van Beeks sneaked out, heading for the Van den Hoevens family, which was hiding Felix’s relatives on the same street. Trouble is, they didn’t know which house.

“We really did say a prayer, and we rang the next house. It happened to be Mr. Van den Hoevens,” Flory Van Beek recalled. Yet another miracle.

The Van den Hoevens already had five people in hiding, so the couple were taken to the home of another sympathetic family, the Hornsvelds, which meant a harrowing 50-minute walk on icy streets through sleet and wind.

By war’s end, the Van Beeks had spent three years in hiding. Of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews before the war, only 5,200 survived.

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Flory Van Beek’s mother was picked up on a street by the Nazis in 1942; she died at age 59 in a German concentration camp in Poland. All her relatives on Van Beek’s father’s side also perished.

But her sister, who was hidden in a barn by farmers in a nearby village, survived. So did her eldest brother, who was hidden in an attic in Amersfoort. Another brother escaped the Netherlands on his bicycle when the Germans marched in--"and this was also a miracle"--he made it through Belgium, France and over the Pyrenees mountains bordering Spain, where he told the Dutch Embassy he wanted to fight with the Allies. As a member of the British army’s Princess Irene Brigade, he was one of the Netherlands’ liberators.

Fearing the Cold War with the Soviet Union would turn hot, the Van Beeks immigrated to the United States in 1948.

After living for 14 years in Los Angeles, where Felix worked for a furniture company, the couple moved to Newport Beach in 1962. Felix ran a furniture and household appliance business in Santa Ana before retiring two decades ago. Ralph, their only child, died of brain cancer in 1970 at age 16.

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Several times during the years, Flory Van Beek tried to write a book about her experiences. Each time, emotion overwhelmed her. By 1997, she felt she owed it to her family to put the tale on paper.

"[The Holocaust] is history, and it should never ever happen again,” she said. “War, I don’t know. But persecutions? . . . If you die for your country, it is one thing. But to be persecuted because you have a certain religion is unbelievable.

“What the Germans did, it can never be made good--ever, ever, ever, no matter what they say.”


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