Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

My Uncle Leo, Aunty Zus and The Holocaust

Uncle Leo and Aunty Zus

My father was born in 1925 and will turn 91 next week.  He did not feel well enough to be with us tonight but helped me prepare this speech with my cousin Theo who is the son of Leo and Zus.

My father had 6 brothers and a sister and lived with his family for about 4 and a half years during the German occupation of the Netherlands.

In May 1940 my father was 15 years old when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands when it was a neutral country.

Tonight I will tell part of the story of my Dutch family during the war.

Whilst the Holocaust was the embodiment of evil, there were many who reflected the opposite quality.  Their moral courage and humanity assisted Jews and others - sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully.

Their conduct is even more exceptional because those who assisted Jews and their families were no longer relatively safe from the Germans. 

A neighbour of my father’s family was a policeman who was found by the Nazis to be part of a group secretly transporting Jews away from the clutches of the Germans. When he was arrested, he, his wife and their children were interned, never to be heard of again. 

My family had members who were victims of the Nazis and it also had family members who opposed them. 

My uncle Theo, a merchant mariner, was on a ship carrying munitions in September 1939 which was torpedoed. All the survivors were machine gunned by a German U boat to hide this hostile act which took place months prior to the invasion of the Netherlands by the Germans.

Another of my uncles, Gerard, an engineer with the Dutch electrical firm Philips, was interned after being convicted of the crime of insulting the so called Fuhrer by comparing Hitler to a weed during a conversation on a train. 

He died towards the end of the war in April 1945 just after the Russians liberated him at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where he was held as a political prisoner.

But between those two tragic family events, assistance was given by my family to those who would be oppressed by the Nazis.

My father joined the Dutch resistance at the age of 17 and continued in that organization until the liberation of his city two years later in October 1944. This is my father with my grandmother after the Allied liberation.  He was about to enlist in the Royal Dutch Marines to fight the Japanese who held another of my father’s brothers, my uncle Jacques, who was a prisoner of war on the infamous Burma Railway.

But it is my father’s brother, my uncle Leo and his wife, Dirkie, who was affectionately known as Zus, whom I am here to remember tonight.

They were a courageous couple because they were able to save Mrs Gottleib and her two teenage children called Annie and Nicko from transportation and extermination by the Germans.

My uncle Leo died months before my first trip to the Netherlands, so I never met him.  But I have met Zus and her children, my cousins. 

Uncle Leo was a civil engineer.  He grew up in Den Bosch but by the time of the war lived in a rural area east of Eindhoven called Waalre with my aunty Zus.  By 1942 he had saved enough money to return to full time study.  He was studying medicine at university. 

The Gottleib family lived in the city of Den Bosch where my father and grandparents lived. 

Zus at one time worked for the Gottleib family in Den Bosch. 

In the early 1940’s, Mr Gottleib agreed to go to what was called a German work camp to protect his wife and two children from also going there.

But by 1942 the Germans started arresting all Jewish families to take them to concentration camps.  The Gestapo came to take Mrs Gottleib and her two teenage children.  Their neighbour was a Jewish doctor who had been awarded the Iron Cross for saving Germans during World War One and was untouched by the Germans for the whole of the Second World War.  He told the Gestapo that the family was too ill to travel and that they should come back the next day.

After the Gestapo left, the Gottleib’s took the Star of David off their clothes, caught a train from Den Bosch to Eindhoven and went to my uncle and aunt’s home in Waalre.  They stayed with Leo and Zus for more than two years.  The only other person who knew of their existence at that house was Zus’ mother.

The Gottleib’s lived mainly upstairs in Leo and Zus’s home but went into a loft in the ceiling when other people visited.

The Gottlieb’s had some money which was used by Leo and Zus to buy food on the black market for them. This was a time of rationing and scarcity. 

Each Friday my father bought 6 loafs of rye bread.  Each Saturday Leo would visit my grandparent’s house in Den Bosch and collect 4 of the loaves of bread. 

My uncle Gerard once asked.  “What are you doing with all of the bread?”

“I use it for the chickens” Uncle Leo responded.  Gerard was incredulous.  “How can you feed good bread to chickens” Gerard asked.  He thought Leo was a bit mad.

My teenage father regularly visited Leo and Zus on his holidays and on one occasion stayed in their home for two weeks while the Gottleib family was hiding there.  He had no idea that they were in the house.

If this sounds incredible, my father was in the Dutch Resistance for years without any of his family knowing, even though he had two German rifles hidden under a floorboard in his bedroom.  At this time your secrets were truly a matter of life and death and even those close to you could not be trusted to be discrete.

My cousin Ine, the daughter of my uncle Piet, visited Uncle Leo’s house as a child.  She was told there were monsters at the top of the stairs and that if she went to the first floor of the house she would be eaten by them. She was too scared to ever go up the stairs.

The Gottleib rescue was not easy.  Leo and Zus had their first child Peter on 6 June 1943 after the time when the Gottleibs were first with them. 

Uncle Leo told my father that early on, the teenager Nicko Gottleib was found outside the house when Leo came home one day. Leo became so angry that he gave the boy a hiding.  He said if it happened again he would throw the family out as he could not have both his family and theirs put at risk. It didn’t happen again.

It could not have been easy for the two teenagers and their mother to be effectively locked inside a house for years with limited food and things to do.

Over time Leo became nervous. When he left for work, he did not know what might happen to his family if the Gottleib’s were discovered.  He never knew if a knock on the door would see his wife, child, extended family and himself taken away with the Gottleib’s.

Leo’s fear of being discovered caused him to start associating with Dutch Nazis as a way of deflecting attention away from the fact that he had a Jewish family living in his attic. 

After the Gottleib’s money ran out, Leo and Zus continued to hide the family and used their own money to support them. That forced Leo to cease his medical studies after two years and return to full time work as an engineer. He never returned to those studies and never became a doctor. Leo and Zus had 3 more children after the war and Leo could not financially return to his studies.   

After the Allies liberated Den Bosch, my father was sent to Uncle Leo’s house to make sure that he and Zus were all right. When my father arrived there, the Gottleib family was sitting around the kitchen table.  Leo proceeded to tell my father how they had stayed for the last 2 years in the house. 

After liberation, the Gottleibs returned to Den Bosch but Mr Gottleib was never seen again.  My father and grandmother visited the Gottleib’s prior to Christmas in 1944, but they lost contact with them and my father then immigrated to Australia in 1951.

Annie Gottleib married the owner of a music store in Den Bosch and she and her mother stayed in the Netherlands.  Nicko Gottleib went to Israel. My father and Leo’s son both have a memory of being told that the seeds of a tree was planted in Israel for Leo and Zus but they cannot remember by whom.

The story of Leo and Zus reminds us how fortunate we are to enjoy the freedoms we have today in Australia.  But we must always remember that our freedoms are inherently fragile. 

The motivations of Leo and Zus are now lost in time.  We can only speculate as to why they gave up and risked so much to save a family that they were not particularly close to.  Zus was a Protestant and Leo a Catholic and their marriage had caused Christian sectarian unease in their own families.  Perhaps they were motivated by a simple belief that it was very wrong for the Gottleibs to be persecuted for their religious faith and for being Jewish.

Or were they just motivated by their inherent humanity?

Whatever was their motivation, it is impossible not to admire Leo, Zus and the Gottleib family for their strength, courage and bravery. 

I light this candle in honour of all the Righteous Among the Nations.