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Holocaust survivor speaks to students

by Emily Baccam | April 7, 2019 at 4:00 a.m.
The Sentinel-Record/Grace Brown- Louise Lawrence-Israels, a Holocaust survivor, right, fields questions from National Park College Student Athena Rose following a presentation by Lawrence-Israels at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts on Monday, April 1, 2019.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Garland County students learned about the Holocaust firsthand this week from a woman who lived through it, Louise Lawrence-Israels. This is the second installment of a two-part series about her experiences.

Emily Baccam

The Sentinel-Record

During her family's three-year period of hiding from the Nazis in the attic of an Amsterdam row house, Louise Lawrence-Israel's father would periodically slip out at night after curfew to gather food and information from the resistance.

In June 1944, he left and returned with the message of Allied forces landing in Normandy.

To celebrate the news, her father chose a special day to celebrate, settling on her second birthday.

As Lawrence-Israels detailed, throwing a birthday party at that time was no small feat. Nevertheless, her family made it happen.

"My mom cut up her favorite blouse and made a beautiful dress by hand for me. I didn't see it. I had no idea what she was doing until she put it on me on my birthday. Salma made a rag doll out of old pieces of fabric. And my brother, who had been allowed to take in one toy, he had been 3 years old when we went into hiding, and he took his favorite toy, what was a little wooden pull horse. And he was going to give that to me on my birthday," she said.

This was her favorite gift of all.

A resistance member gifted her a wooden wicker chair for her doll, as well as socks and shoes that were too small. The chair now sits in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"We were happy, my brother and I. My parents had actually succeeded in what they wanted. They wanted to save their children and they wanted to keep their children happy," Lawrence-Israels said.

In September 1944, southern Holland was liberated. The northern portion, which includes Amsterdam, was not. This was due to the difficulty of crossing the Rhine, Meuse, and IJssel rivers during an early onset of winter.

Lawrence-Israels referred to the record-breaking cold winter of 1944 as "The Hunger Winter."

Nazis had previously cut supply lines, resulting in little food and no electricity for many Dutch during this time.

"My brother and I cried because our hands and feet were so cold that they hurt," she said.

The pain was caused by chilblains; patches of discolored, swollen itchy skin caused by a combination of cold weather and poor circulation, to which the extremities are particularly susceptible.

The family had no access to medicines, so they resorted to a home remedy: soaking their hands and feet in their own urine to ease the pain.

Once the winter ended, Amsterdam was liberated by Canadian troops.

Upon discovering this, the family ate what little emergency food that remained in celebration: a single tin of cookies.

"So my brother said, 'It's really fun being free. Free means eating cookies.' We just had no concept," she said.

Several days later, her parents decided it was time for their children to leave the attic for the first time in three years.

"My worst memory that is still vividly there is the day we that we had to go outside for the first time. You have to picture this. My father is walking down four flights of stairs. My brother and I, holding on for dear life, are following him. We get to downstairs and my father opens the front door. It's a sunny, beautiful, spring day. All that light is blinding us, and we didn't like it. But worse, there are no more walls. It's unending. And we were not used to that. So since I mimicked everything my brother did, he started crying and I started crying. And he actually said that if this is what it is like to be free, that he didn't want to be free. My parents were pretty heartbroken."

Lawrence-Israels' parents then took their children upstairs and told them their actual, Jewish names and explained how their lives would change from that point on.

Though the children were still wary of the outside world, they were made more at ease when a Canadian soldier gave them a Hershey's chocolate bar.

"The first time we had chocolate, it was the best thing that could ever happen to you. I mean, chocolate is magic."

Shortly after, the family moved to the countryside for the wide open spaces and enrolled Lawrence-Israels and her brother in school. Though her reading abilities were advanced for her age, she was lacking in social skills due to her confinement in the attic. But by sixth grade, she said "everyone was on the same page."

Following liberation, her parents largely avoided speaking about the war, occupation, or the Holocaust. German slurs were commonplace, and no German-made goods were allowed in the house. Her family also stopped observing Jewish religious practices.

"They thought religion was dangerous," she said.

At age 15, Lawrence-Israels approached a rabbi about her personal faith. At 16, she came forward to her parents saying she wanted to practice the Jewish faith.

Since her parents largely avoided speaking about the Holocaust, Lawrence-Israels had to seek information from other sources.

During her time as a physical therapist in Amsterdam, she treated many Jewish concentration camp survivors. Through hearing their stories, she expanded her understanding of just what exactly had happened during the Holocaust to her people.

She was also able to ask her mother's friend Salma questions that her mother would not answer.

Near the end of her father's life, he opened up and shared more about that time with his daughter, and encouraged her to keep speaking out about the horrors of the Holocaust.

"He said, 'If I don't, there comes a time when people are going to say it never happened. So I have to speak now, and you keep on speaking.'"

Lawrence-Israels came to the U.S. in 1967 with her husband, Sidney Lawrence, a Jewish-American medical student who had been studying in Amsterdam, just five weeks after the birth of their first daughter.

She eventually stopped using German slurs, and began raising her own practicing Jewish children without the hatred for Germans she had felt since she was a child.

Lawrence-Israels did not become a citizen until after her father's death 20 years ago out of respect.

"I had a hard time giving up my citizenship because it was so hard to keep it. And out of respect for my father, I didn't," she said.

She now holds dual citizenship in Holland and the U.S. and has been volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for 25 years, which works to spread the anti-genocide slogan of "Never again."

"How did the Holocaust start? It started with that little four letter word: hate. We should be respecting each other and not be indoctrinated by hatred," she said.

"After something so horrendous as the Holocaust, you would think the world would learn a lesson. They would stop. But the world didn't. That's the most painful thing," she said in reference to genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and other places.

Lawrence Israels encouraged students to educate themselves on genocide, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, take action, and to vote regardless of political affiliations to ensure genocide happens "Never again."

"That's a hollow phrase unless we do something about it," she said.

Local on 04/07/2019

Print Headline: Holocaust survivor speaks to students

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