Grand Traverse Herald

Traverse City Michigan

10/04/2006GT Herald

By Carol South
Herald contributing writer
Holocaust survivor Frieda Roos-van Hessen shared her harrowing tale of persecution, escape, survival and spiritual triumph with more than 800 people during two public lectures last week.

The Diversity Services Office of Northwestern Michigan College sponsored the 91-year-old’s visit, which drew students and attendees of all ages to the Milliken Auditorium Thursday evening and Friday morning. Greeted with a standing ovation as she entered the stage, the animated Roos-van Hessen captivated listeners with her humility and candor as she relayed her dramatic story.

“Sometimes the most unexpected and important parts of our education come from outside the classroom,” said Lisa Blackford, diversity services coordinator at Northwestern Michigan College, before Friday morning’s talk. “And this morning is one of those events.”

“It’s been an amazing response,” she added.

A noted opera star who sang the part of Snow White in the Dutch version of the Disney movie, Roos-van Hessen was 25 years old when the Germans invaded her country on May 10, 1940. The Dutch forces surrendered five days later. Roos-van Hessen was singing at a concert when German planes bombed the Amsterdam airport.

“Slowly, surely, my concert career came to an end,” said Roos-van Hessen, who was also fluent in French and German, the latter language proved to be a crucial asset later.

The first eight months of occupation were quiet and then laws, curfews and regulations were enacted that impacted the lives of the country’s 140,000 Jews. More than 75 percent of them were killed by the Nazis before the war’s end.

“The theaters were eventually closed because the Jews didn’t need entertainment any more, the few who were left,” she recalled. “The theaters became holding places for people who were going to be put in concentration camps. They’d put 9,000 people in one little theater.”

All Jews had to register, declare their religion and were given a yellow cloth Star of David for their clothes. The star bore the word “Jood” in black letters: Jew in Dutch.

“It had to be sewn on your clothes,” recalled Roos-van Hessen, whose family was not particularly religious although that did not matter to the Nazis. “If they found it was pinned, they would arrest you and of course you would never see the light of day again.”

Unable to obtain ration cards, many Jews went underground although the small, densely-populated country afforded few hiding spots. Roos-van Hessen moved in with a friend to help care for this friend’s two small children, who later went to live with other families. Pursued by an ex-boyfriend who had become a fascist, Roos-van Hessen and her friend soon fled Amsterdam in a dramatic late-night escape. They barely kept one step ahead of the Nazis for the next four years.

“I had eight escapes, one right after another,” she said. “My father and mother were murdered because they did not have enough money to get fingerprints on false ID given to them by the underground.”

The Canadian Army liberated Holland and Roos-van Hessen married one of her liberators. While waiting to join her husband in Canada after the war, she pursued a piece of paper declaring her a Protestant as protection against future persecution as a Jew. She began this process even though she knew next to nothing about either Judaism or Christianity. A pastor required that she study the Bible and truly convert, he would not just give her the document she wanted.

“God really has a sense of humor: I was led to the Lord by a German woman,” said Roos-van Hessen.

After six weeks of arguing with this woman, the pastor assigned Roos-van Hessen one more week of study: Isaiah 53 and the 22nd Psalm. Reading the words: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” she stopped, startled.

“I couldn’t get over it: they stole this from Bach,” she said with a laugh, referring to the famous composer’s religious works. “That really blew my mind and I had to find out what else they stole from Bach.”

“Then I went back to Isaiah 53 and the Lord had taken the blinders from my eyes,” she said.