Beyond the Barbed Wire
Paul Prinsen of Phoenix holds up a foot-long piece of barbed wire and says, "This is the wire that held in my aunts, Titia and Dora, at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany, where they finally were shot, just weeks before the Allied liberation."
It's a chilling moment. He cut the wire himself this summer, he says, on a pilgrimage with his daughter to the women's death camp, finding his aunts' names in the Book of the Dead — a visit that put in place the final pieces of a lifelong family mystery.
When Prinsen, an engineer and stockbroker, was growing up in Holland, there was a suitcase full of things related to his two great-aunts, Titia and Dora Forter, who worked in the Dutch resistance and died for it.
"Opposed the Germans, sent to the camps, died — that's all we knew. It was way too painful for my mother to talk about," said Prinsen, who came to America for his master's degree in 1975 and married his wife, Charlotte, now director of the Eagle Point library.
When his mother went to a retirement home last year, the mysterious suitcase was sent to Prinsen. In it, he found five never-before-published diaries kept by Titia Gorter, detailing her activities in the Dutch resistance, including holding meetings of top-level political figures in their home and secretly housing, at great risk, German Jews and British intelligence radio operators.
After nearly two years in the resistance, they were arrested and sent to Schveringingen prison in Amsterdam, then the notorious Ravensbruck women's concentration camp in Germany, where 90,000 — including the Gorter sisters — perished.
Prinsen displays a binder of letters from the sisters at Ravensbruck, some sent through official mail and containing innocuous greetings — and many others with more important information, written on toilet paper and smuggled to Holland. The envelopes bear stamps of Adolph Hitler's image.
From the suitcase came the sisters' embroidery at Ravensbruck — one, a joke, showing mocha being served through prison bars, another, labeled "hallucinations," shows tasty dishes, a castle and leisurely sailing. Yet another shows women with fleas, lice and handcuff rashes.
A pencil drawing of the elderly sisters in the camp, wearing uniforms with their prison numbers, 16616 and 16617, show their lined faces and look of resignation — and the stability and determination for which they would be remembered in several postwar books on the Holocaust.
"If you were extra bad, like them, you were treated to nacht und nebel, which means 'night and fog' — taken away, never to be seen again," says Prinsen, noting that his aunts had no illusions when they helped start the resistance. "They saw themselves as soldiers, expendable. Being killed would be part of war. They didn't see that as the worst thing. Not to resist was the worst thing. If they knew their fate, they would still do it all over again."
For Prinsen, poring over and translating the diaries and letters (on the very desk, now in his home, on which the diaries were written) has been "a shock, it emotionally affected me greatly to read how these women were treated in the camp, their heroism and ultimate demise. I had no knowledge of it and had no idea how deep they were into the resistance."
Perhaps the most heroic act of all was keeping the diary — "insanely dangerous and naive," says Prinsen, noting its discovery in the raid would have been "disastrous" to the Dutch resistance. But it survived at a summer cottage.
Saying they are vital historical documents and "a story that needs to be told," Prinsen plans to write a book integrating material from the letters and diaries.
He is making copies of the diaries, letters and war memorabilia and planning to distribute them to his three children and, in Holland, his brother and his two children, then donate the unique journals to the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam.
One Jew hidden in the Gorter home was Konrad Merz, known as Kurt Lehmann, who survived. In an article after the war, Leh-mann wrote that Titia took sleeping pills and found immense courage to overcome her fear.
During the Nazi raid on her home, Lehmann wrote, "They all stood facing the wall, hands raised as a preview of their coming fate. None dared move or utter a word. Next to Titia stood the (German) deserter, certain to be shot at once. Then a miracle of selfless love occurred. Titia moved to her right — a gunstock was shoved in her back, but she did not care — she took the head of the young man, who had death written all over him, in her hands, and did the impossible: she kissed the forehead of the condemned man."
In the book, "Women's Camp Ravensbruck," survivor Anne Berendsen wrote, "Fortunately we have Titia and Dora, with whom you can always converse on any subject. They are silently and unintentionally the center of our colony. Both managed to maintain a degree of normalcy about them, powerfully so. It is in their presence you feel as if in an oasis and are able to come to yourself again." The sisters kept alive by providing knitting and joining harder work projects to prove their strength, but in February 1945, with the Russian army drawing near, the Nazis rounded up the weakest, including the sisters, for execution.
"Tonight we go to heaven," they are quoted by Berendsen, who added, "They must have had their gaze on the promised land, for which they paid with their lives in order to return our lives to us through the liberation." The journey through his ancestors' nightmare has been grueling but Prinsen says he bears no grudge against Germans.
"It was a system that got way out of hand and it could happen in any country. It could happen here, frankly. I see the signs," he says. "That's why it's so important to know your history — and I say that as a Republican and former naval officer (in Holland). I don't trust any government, thank you very much."
The Nazis' "engine of their evil" was the concentration camp system, which everyone in Germany heard about and feared, if they didn't go along with the Nazi program.
"It was where they built their web of evil and everyone cooperated. They didn't want to but they had no choice. It was a total terror system."
Prinsen says he's of the generation after the generation that "didn't want to touch it," whether German or Dutch, but now sees himself as part of the movement "digging into it." He said, "We need to know as much as possible how things are manipulated. It was crude then. It's more sophisticated now. If someone's rights are trampled, we should all speak up."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.