Researcher Miriam Mijatovich-Keesing:
“Collected many impressive stories”
by Marcel Spijker
The fact that England admitted nearly ten thousand child refugees from Germany is known, but that our country did the same for two thousand young people from our eastern neighbours has never been researched. What was, for example, the role of the Dutch government? And how did the children fare who seeked asylum here? Two questions from a list that Miriam Mijatovich-Keesing is researching since 2008. “The results so far have pleasantly surprised me, but also shocked me.”
We go back to the summer of 1938. The Netherlands closed the border with our eastern neighbours, in response to the many German refugees in the last five years. That enormous influx is caused by the takeover of the Nazis in ‘Die Heimat’. A few months later, however, the borders reopen. It was Kristallnacht on November 9th and 10th that changed the mind of the Dutch population. In that fateful night, Jews throughout Germany were attacked and their property destroyed. Synagogues are burned down and the firemen were prohibited to extinguish the fires.
The Jewish refugee organizations in the Netherlands then fight for refugee children to be admitted. And so it happened. On November 22, 1938, the first children’s transport with 25 children arrives in the Netherlands. Initially, they were placed in homes and eventually placed with foster families. The Government, however, had its demands: the costs were to be for the Jewish community and in addition the children had to travel on to other countries like England and the United States as soon as possible. In total some two thousand children come to our country, of which one quarter had left already, when the Netherlands itself capitulates two years later.
One of those two thousand refugee children stayed with Miriam Mijatovich-Keesing’s grandparents. The boy ‘Uli Herzberg’ did not survive the war, while her grandparents were able to flee to Cuba in 1942. In daily life, the resident of Heemstede is a pianist and music teacher by profession, but two years ago suddenly the researcher in her surfaced. “I know that Uli was killed in the Sobibor extermination camp. I had no idea why my grandparents had not taken him to Cuba. I decided to do a little research, but soon I had more and more questions about the child refugees from Germany and Austria. So I went looking for books about that period”, says Keesing.
Looking for more information she goes to the NIOD (Dutch Institute for War Documentation) after three months. “If you come there it’s just like being in a huge library. I was therefore convinced that much valuable material would be there. But that was a bitter disappointment. “Some memoirs of children and books about the homes are stored at the NIOD. There was nothing about the number of child refugees nor anything about what happened to them and why.
Keesing decides to start her own research. A research that is not sponsored and therefore entirely for her own account. Time-wise and money-wise. She has now worked for two years and hopes to complete the research with a book she is writing, at the end of next year. “A reference book like the one I wanted to read when I was looking for answers to my questions. It would be a shame not to share my findings with the outside world. I have collected many impressive stories that explain quite a lot about that period”, she says.
She begins her research at her own origins. After her grandparents left for Cuba, the German boy was placed with a couple. “I wanted to talk to people who had known the couple,” explains Keesing. “That’s how I ran into someone who asked me if Uli himself didn’t have any family. I knew he had had a brother, but he was born in 1919 and was a lot older. The chance that he had survived the war and would still be alive, I deemed to be very small. Yet that evening I typed his name on the Internet and indeed there suddenly was the number of one Hans R. Herzberg in the United States.”
Nevertheless, Keesing had little hope that this would be Uli’s brother. “First of all it is a very common name and, second, the number might still be in the phone book while he is no longer alive.” One phone call later that feeling has turned one hundred and eighty degrees. It turned out to really be the boy’s brother and Keesing travels to the United States. “A very nice man who was also very happy with two photos of Uli from the legacy of my father. We have regular contact by e-mail and if I have questions I can always go to him. He even invited me to his ninetieth birthday, but I have skipped that. I just hope to go back to America soon to interview former refugee children, and then I will certainly visit Hans. ”
In the research the refugee children logically play the leading role. ‘Nothing is more valuable than the story of the unaccompanied children who have survived war”, stressed Keesing. Visiting the Red Cross, the researcher is pleasantly surprised. She has a list of six hundred children of which she does not know what happened to them. “Actually I went there with a doomsday scenario. I had expected that a large number of the children would have been murdered in the extermination camps. Ultimately, it turned out that “only” a limited number had been killed. Every victim is one too many, of course, but when you consider that these children were aliens in the Netherlands and had nor contacts nor money, it is surprising that there are so many survivors.”
Most former refugee children have now received a letter from Keesing. She writes to all of them personally. “And in most cases the response is very positive. Most people are so nice and open that I’ve built up friendships with them. Meanwhile I have spoken to some one hundred and fifty of them while I did not even expect that so many would still be alive. I try to visit them all, because from real conversations you get the most remarkable stories. The only people who are distrustful, are the child refugees now living in the Netherlands. They are suspicious, perhaps also as a consequence of the war.”
Keesing is less happy with the role the Dutch government played during that period. To date they appear to have played a dubious role in admitting and taking care of German and Austrian refugee children. “Of course they were hospitable and admitted some children and they have done a few things very well, but some facts have nevertheless really shocked me. Being Dutch, I am even slightly embarrassed”, says Keesing.
In the first instance only children who had relatives in the Netherlands were admitted. “These families had to fill in an application which one can find in the archives. The children were allowed to come, but not to live with their own family. They were obliged to go live in a home, so they could be send abroad as soon as possible. And on top of that the family in the Netherlands was asked to pay fifty guilders per child per month, which in those days was an enormous amount.”
A short time later, the Dutch government reconsiders and the children may be placed in foster care. However, when families fill in a foster parent application, the government appears less accommodating. “The final question on the form was whether a relationship existed between child and foster parent,” explains Keesing. “Often it was indeed a relative, who would get a rejection letter back. That really shocked me. For those children the invasion in 1940 was a kind of blessing in disguise. Of course the beginning of the war was a disaster moment, but because of that the audit was suddenly disrupted and the children could still flee to their relatives in the Netherlands.”
Our own region also plays a role in Keesing’s research. In Ruinen, in the Noorderhuis, some one hundred children refugees were staying. “However, I have not really heard many specific stories about this home, but what is interesting is the fact it was probably here were diphtheria broke out. That disease had a major impact on the future of refugee children. Like much in life, fate during the Second World War was based on an arbitrary basis. If the children were found positive, they were put in quarantine and moved. Once cured they were usually placed in other homes and for some children that meant their salvation. Otherwise they would have remained in the same place and they were sent abroad too late, or they had not found a good hiding place.”
Meanwhile, the laptop and external hard drive are full of documents for the research, but the search continues for Keesing. She does not exclude a follow-up study, though she will be relieved when the book is finished late next year. “It takes a lot of free time and money, but research like this is also emotionally hard. Moreover, my daughter currently is playing the violin and I want to assist her in that. Let me just enjoy myself again, although I am glad I got this research started. I have met many interesting people and I certainly have gained a few friends.”
Miriam Mijatovich-Keesing shows one of her many documents
A group photo of the home in Ruinen
Hoogeveense Courant (April 16th, 2010)