Students and community members alike had a once in a lifetime opportunity last Wednesday, Feb. 26 when they heard the story of Holocaust survivor Louis Landau.
Landau’s story was told by his widow Ellie of Shullsburg to the crowd of over 150 attendees at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College.
SWTC President Jason Wood welcomed the group to the college and shared his personal feelings on the importance of stories like Landau’s. Wood noted over the course of his career he had the opportunity to meet another Holocaust survivor as well as a Japanese-American who was forced to live in an internment camp, and the impact these stories have had on him.
“What a rare treat this is,” Wood said in a calm voice. “I think its important to hear these stories and how they serve as an example of the importance of acts of kindness. And that choosing other actions can lead to catastrophic results.”
Ellie took the podium and wasted no time emphasizing a very important message herself.
“I continue to share my husband’s story because everyone needs to know and remember that this (the Holocaust) really happened.” Ellie said with looking straight at the crowd. “Never let anyone tell you any different. It really happened.”
The narrative Ellie read was one her husband wrote following his retirement as a large animal veterinarian. Ellie noted that despite it being difficult to bring up these old memories, he too felt it was important that experiences like his never be forgotten. Ellie emphasized that although Louis has now passed on, it will be her work and eventually her children’s and grandchildren’s work to continue telling his story.
Only a child
Louie was just six years old when he was forced to leave his comfortable life in Holland.
“The German war machine had over ran Holland in just a few days,” Louis recalled. “It was a time of terror for Jews in Holland as the borders became compromised and the Nazis took over. I remember a troop carrier coming down my grandparents street arresting all of the Jewish men. We ran and hid, but there seemed to be no where to turn and no where to hide.”
Fortunately, Louis’ father was a U.S. citizen. Before Louis was born, his grandfather stayed 10 years in America to earn his citizenship. When he passed away, his citizenship was passed onto Louis’ father, Ernst, just before Germany declared war on Holland in 1942. At this time American citizens were urged to leave Europe for their own safety. “My father didn’t want to leave my mother and me, but my mom talked him into leaving.” Louis recalled in a 2011 story by Dena Harris for the Tri-County Press, “We stayed with my grandparents. My mother planned to go to America once we received our papers. Until then we were trapped in Holland.”
Father leaves for America
“After my dad left, Mom would not leave my grandparents (her parents). My grandpa was arrested but later released. It was very difficult for us to go through that,” Louis recalled in his narrative. “One day my mother was said to report to the police department to be deported. My mom went in there and demanded to bring me with. The Dutch police officer was a friend and knew her and promised he would pull whatever strings he could to keep us together. And that was when my mother and I proceeded into our journey into Hell.”
Louis and his mother Paulina were loaded onto a crowded cattle train car and sent to Westerbork concentration camp in the northeastern Netherlands (Holland).
Westerbork was a transit camp, utilized as a staging ground for the deportation of Jews to the Nazi extermination camps, like Auschwitz. Anne Frank was also imprisoned at Westerbork for a short period of time before her deportation to be executed at Auschwitz, just months after Louis and his mother departed.
“We had a tearful good bye at the train station,” Louis recalled. “We did not know that we would never get to see them (Louis’ grandparents) again.”
Louis recalled in his narrative that the train car was very crowded and very scary. Some on the same train as he was were separated off to go directly to the gas chambers at other camps and some were shot on the spot.
“I was clutching to my mom, daring not to let go,” Louis wrote.
On the train
The six-year-old boy riding the train saw things with different eyes than his mother. Recalling the yellow Stars of David all of the other Jews had sewn to their clothing and the large aggressive Nazi SS soldiers everywhere.
“I was fascinated with the brutality of the SS soldiers,” Louis recalled. “I had never seen anything so horrible. My mother did not have the same reaction. Her eyes were filled with tears of terror and she continued in a loud whisper to try to pull me away. ‘Come Louie! Come!’ She repeated.”
Ellie read Louis’ description of their arrival to the camp. The young boy recalled the deep heavy mud and dampness that seemed to be permeating every inch of his body and the building and the heavy weight it put on the morale of all the prisoners.
Louis and his mother rapidly understood that there was a distinct pecking order in the concentration camp. “We quickly learned it was the meanest, toughest prisoners that were in charge,” Louis recalled.
They were however lucky enough to find friends in another mother and young boy, Lasa and Malte.
“With togetherness and cunning our little group was surviving, barely,” Louis wrote.
Within a short period of time, the mother and son were on the list to go to Auschwitz to be executed. They were called down to the train station to stand in line to load onto another cattle car to the infamous death camp.
However, by the time they were up in line the cars were at max capacity and they were sent back to Westerbork. “This drama replayed seven different times,” Louis recalled in his narrative shared by his wife.
A member of the audience who was a friend of Louis noted in the question and answer portion of the event that Louis had shared with him that Paulina was a diabetic. Due to this and the lack of proper nutrition she was very slow and lethargic and always at the back of the line. Louis indicated to his friend at times that he thought this may have played a role in saving their lives.
On the seventh and final time they were called up for the train to Auschwitz, Paulina was able to produce a paper revealing that Louis’ father was an American citizen, which in turn made Louis an American citizen. Paulina received this paper from her husband Ernst, through the Red Cross packages that delivered food and supplies to the concentration camp.
Transitional camps like Westerbork had privileges like this that were unlike the extermination camps. These privileges were designed by Nazi SS soldiers to give the inmates a false sense for hope and survival to aid in avoiding problems during transportation to the death camps.
Once the SS soldiers found out that Louis and Paulina were American citizens the orders to get them out of Westerbork began to climb the ranks. Finally, the Landaus, along with Malte and his mother were reclassified as Prisoners of War and sent to the Liebenau internment camp near the Switzerland border in Germany.
On the way to Liebenau the train stopped in a German city. Citizens there treated the POWs aboard harshly, yelling profanities and spitting at them.
“We spent the night in the local jail for our own safety,” Louis wrote.
At Liebenau, only women and children POWs were held.
During their time here Paulina became very ill. Her blood pressure was unable to be regulated even with the help of Swiss doctors.
“The Swiss doctors did many experiments on my mother,” Louis recalled. “They even performed blood letting. At one point, Mom was so weak she could no longer walk.”
Also during this time Louis experienced many traumatic air raid bombing events. These bombings would continue to haunt Louis his entire life. Ellie noted that on one of their very first dates he had to walk out of the movie theater after being triggered by a war scene. And that the televised bombings from Operation Desert Storm triggered flash backs for him.
“During a particularly intense bombing, the night looked like day,” Louis recalled. “The constant barrage of carnage overwhelmed me. Nothing mattered anymore. I didn’t care about anything anymore. The intentional target became my childhood.”
Time at Liebenau
Through the Red Cross Louis’ father was able to send letters and supplies to his mother at Liebenau and Louis was also taught English by some of the nuns who remained.
When it was time to depart Liebenau Louis and his mother bid farewell to Malte and his mother who departed for England.
They headed out on a Red Cross train through haunting cities of rubble and destruction.
The Nazis had set up a prisoner exchange with America for Germans in Iowa, which allowed Louis and his mother their freedom.
“The Nazis probably figured the sick woman wouldn’t live much longer and they wanted the German prisoners released to help fight the war,” Louis noted in the 2011 story. “Little did they know that my mother was determined to fight the illness and lived to be 81 years old.”
After a 10 day voyage on the ship, The Gripsholm, Louis and his mother arrived in America on June 6, 1944.
“After two years of hell, I found a mother who knew how to smile,” Louis recalled in his writing.
Although the trauma had forced Louis to grow up quickly, some moments served as a reminder that he was still able to indulge in pleasures himself once free.
“When I got to America I had my first taste of white bread,” Louis recalled. “I could not remember anything that tasted so good and I ate it until I was stuffed.” Ellie added that it took a very, very long time until Louis was willing to eat any other kind of bread than plain, fluffy white bread.
Louis recalled seeing his mother run across the platform upon their arrival into his father’s arms. However, despite her clear affection for the man before him, the two long, intense years caused Louis to forget the image of his father and initially, as Ellie shared, he recalled being frightened by and cold to his father. She went on to note that he eventually warmed up very much to his father and they were very close his entire life.
Upon leaving New York City, the family relocated to northern Illinois and unfortunately lost contact with Malte and his mother who returned to their native England.
During his time growing up, Louis and his mother did not speak of their experience at Westerbork or living under Nazi power. Ellie shared that she had met Louis in college, and that families in the community knew that he and his mother were survivors.
Ellie and Louis eventually wed, and relocated to Shullsburg, where Louis had a large animal veterinary practice. The couple also went on to have four children together. Being a father seemed as though it was almost therapeutic for Louis, who Ellie shared, “He felt he had gotten his childhood back with our four children.”
In his retirement, Louis decided to finally recount his story of his experience during World War II. Ellie noted at times, this was very traumatic for Louis, but he knew the importance of sharing his story.
One of the most wonderful silver linings that came from Louis deciding to do this came after a daughter of a family friend interviewed him about his experience.
In 2008, Amy Zembroski was a student at UW-Whitewater and interviewed Louis as well as took photos of some of his postcards and a photo of his friend Malte and their mothers at Westerbork. This project was published online in 2010, and thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web, Malte, now Mike, stumbled upon it while researching concentration camps. He uncovered Louis’ story and saw the photo of his mother and him and reached out to Zembroski to attempt to reconnect with Louis.
Once in a lifetime
After 67 years apart, the two men caught up via e-mail and Skype until in 2011 Mike and his wife Ora made the international trek from Israel to Shullsburg to spend time with Louis and Ellie.
“It was a once in a life time experience I didn’t expect to happen,” Louis said in the 2011 interview. “It has been so exciting, a thrill. Knowing that he survived is one of the big things. So many lost their lives in these places. We were four Holocaust survivors and we knew each other.”
Through Zembroski’s work, Louis was also able to make a connection about a childhood playmate from Holland. In 2009 Louis received a e-mail from a woman saying her grandmother played with Louis as a kid before the war and that she was a neighbor to his grandparents. Louis learned that his grandparents were sent to a concentration camp and executed in 1943. When they left for the camp, they tossed a post card out of the window of their train car addressed to their neighbors across the street. They wrote that they were going to meet their daughter and grandson at the camp. Through this connection, Louis was able to get a photo of that post card to add to a collection of items his father had buried and later went back to recover in Holland.
Ellie noted that Louis stayed very close to and was very protective of his mother until her death, their bond undoubtedly shaped by the horrific events they endured together.
Louis passed away at the age of 79, in 2016.
Ellie left the audience seated in the Lenz Conference center at SWTC much in the same way she greeted them.
“We have to let people know this happened and it’s real. We must never forget. I will pass this story to my kids and grandkids to keep telling it. We cannot let this history slip through the cracks. We must continue to remember.”
Editor’s Note: Parts of this story were from a 2011 story titled “Web site reunites childhood friends from Holocaust” written by Dena Harris for the Tri-County Press and used to provide clarity and more information to enrich the story Ellie provided during the event at SWTC. The story is available in full on the web at www.swnews4u.com