POLITICS

The 'Anne Frank who lived' recalls hiding during Second World War in Netherlands

11/06/2014 04:12 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Betty Laron will never forget her father's words the day he told her their family would have to go into hiding to escape the Nazis.

"My father said, 'If we have to hang, then it will be on the last gallows,'" she recalls.

Laron was on the cusp of her 13th birthday in Zevenaar, the Netherlands, in early 1943. Across the country in Amsterdam, another girl of the same age, Anne Frank, was already hiding in her Secret Annex.

Their lives would follow similar paths up until a point — while Frank was discovered in 1944 and later died of typhus in Germany's Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Laron and her family would escape detection and survive.

The 85-year-old, who now lives in Burlington, Ont., shares her memories in an episode of History's "War Story" airing Remembrance Day. Six episodes of the acclaimed documentary series will be broadcast from Friday to Tuesday, all focusing on the battles in Europe in 1944.

"I compare myself often to Anne Frank," said Laron, speaking by phone. "She liked writing and she would have been a better writer than I am... She landed in almost the same circumstances with her family. Only there was one bad thing. She was discovered and she did not survive and I did."

Laron said that by late 1942, her family had heard that the camps to which Jewish people were being sent were not work camps, but "destruction camps." Her father Josef was determined not to wait until the Germans came to their door, and began to search for a place for them to hide.

In early 1943, the day came that she and her parents had to leave their home in Zevenaar for good. All three were crying.

"My father locked the door and we didn't know if we ever would come back. That was an awful feeling," she said. "We had to leave behind everything."

They moved into the small upstairs floor of the home of a poor family named the Heisters. Her father paid them a small fee and helped with Mr. (Franz) Heister's carpentry business by working — in secret — in the wood shop on the second level of the house. Laron would also help by drawing animals on wooden toys that Mr. Heister sold, she said.

Mr. Heister believed it was his duty to save a Jewish family, Laron said, and faced grave danger in order to hide them.

"There was one day that we heard banging on doors. There were big trucks, German trucks. And the Germans always screamed. They could not talk normally. They always screamed. Their boots were (made of) iron. You heard them walking," she said.

German soldiers were knocking on all the doors in the neighbourhood, looking for places to sleep for the night, she said. Mr. Heister promised the family he would tell the soldiers they could not go upstairs because his daughters were sleeping there.

"My father said, 'What if they have weapons and they threaten you?'" recalled Laron.

Mr. Heister was undeterred. Soon Laron and her parents — with nowhere to flee — heard the soldiers banging on the front door and screaming.

"Our hearts stopped," she said. "Then a motorbike came into the street with (an) officer and he said, 'We have to go home. We have to go home.' They all went back into the trucks and they drove off. So that was a very close call."

It wasn't the only tense situation Laron and her parents encountered while hiding in the home. They learned to whisper and to tread softly, and to make do with rotten potatoes since all the food had been stolen by the Germans.

The family never expected the war to drag on as long as it did.

"My father put a little line on the wallpaper the first evening and he said if there are 100 lines we will be free again. But it took 786 days before we were free. Two years and two months," she said.

Laron says the lack of quality food contributed to her tuberculosis, which she caught in the winter of 1944 and which persisted after the war. She says the days often felt very long, and her father, a social man who was well-liked in the community, couldn't bear being isolated.

Finally, in the spring of 1945, they began to follow the Allied soldiers' progress across Europe. The Netherlands was liberated largely by the First Canadian Army, and Laron recalls feeling that they were moving extremely slowly.

But at last, at 6 a.m. on April 3, 1945, she recalls seeing the first Canadian soldiers marching around the corner of their street.

"I will never forget that image. They came walking, they had daffodils on their helmets that they'd gotten from the Dutch people, and they handed out cigarettes and they handed out chocolate," she said.

Her family stayed inside until 2 p.m. because they feared German soldiers or Dutch Nazis were still in the city. When they finally felt safe to leave the house, Laron recalls a crush of people celebrating in the streets.

"Those are simple words: to step out of the house and go onto the street. But for us, it was a whole new adventure. The houses seemed so big," she said. "Because we knew so many people, we had a whole bunch of people around us who kissed us and who cried.

"And then I had that feeling. They didn't get us. They tried, they wanted to get us, but they didn't... We won, from the Germans, because we survived, and that was a good feeling."

While walking they saw the ruins of their old house — it had been bombed and burned to the ground. But on that day, they didn't care, Laron said.

"We didn't care. We walked in the sun. The weather was beautiful and we felt the sun on our faces again. And everywhere there were flags and happy people," she said. "The non-Jewish people had suffered also. Everything was stolen from them. The young men had to go and work in Germany."

After the war, her family slowly repaired their lives. Her father opened a general store and by 1951 they had rebuilt their home. Laron immigrated to Canada in 1983 with her husband, who has now passed away.

All of the Heisters are now deceased, but Laron says she still thinks of them often. She also thinks of Anne Frank and the millions of others who died in concentration camps during the Second World War.

"I always say... We had a lot of fear and we lost our freedom. We lost everything we had, but still it was heaven compared to the people in the concentration camps."

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.