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Group portrait of school children in the Westerbork refugee camp.

Photograph | Digitized | Photograph Number: 79058

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    Group portrait of school children in the Westerbork refugee camp.
    Group portrait of school children in the Westerbork refugee camp.

Sonni Birnbaum is standing third from the left and her sister Regina is standing second from the right. Standing on the far right is Hannelore Emmy Eichenwald.


    Group portrait of school children in the Westerbork refugee camp.

    Sonni Birnbaum is standing third from the left and her sister Regina is standing second from the right. Standing on the far right is Hannelore Emmy Eichenwald.
    Westerbork, [Drenthe] The Netherlands
    Photo Credit
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sonni Schey Birnbaum

    Rights & Restrictions

    Photo Source
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
    Provenance: Sonni Schey Birnbaum

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    Sonni Schey and Suzy Leurer are daughters of Yehoshua (Otto) Birnbaum (b. Nov. 5, 1902, Lancut, Poland) and Hennie Weiden Birnbaum (b. June 29, 1905 in Radom, Poland). Yehoshua and Hennie both immigrated as young children to Germany. They married in Cologne on July 14, 1927, later moved to Berlin and had six children: Sonni (b. May 26, 1928, Berlin), Regina (b. September 7, 1930, Berlin), Yaakov (Jacob) (b. December 14, 1931, Berlin), Zvi (b. April. 10, 1935, Berlin), Suzy (b. July 31, 1934, Berlin) and Shmuel (Sampi) (b. December 26, 1938, Zevenaar, Holland). The family was Orthodox. Yehoshua studied to be a teacher in a Jewish seminary and taught elementary school. After his marriage Yehoshua opened a store for electrical supplies which went bankrupt during the depression. Then, after unexpectedly finding a large bill on the street, he opened a kosher grocery story which he operated until 1938.

    During the summer of 1938, the German government rounded up Polish-born Jews, including Yehoshua, and deported them to Zbaszyn, Poland. Hennie, then pregnant with her sixth child did her best to maintain the household, business and their religious lifestyle after her husband's deportation. Nazi members kept returning and ransacking the business, and at one point Hennie responded that they were big heroes to threaten a pregnant woman, and they retreated. Finally she decided to send the children to Holland to live with an aunt who was in dire economic straits herself. The five children traveled alone by train to Nijmegen, Holland. Their uncle was supposed to meet them, but when he failed to show up, the Jewish community looked for others to care for the young children. The Drielsma family agreed to take Suzy and Regina. The girls cried and asked not to become separated from their older sister. The Drieslmas agreed to also care for Sonni, and later Jacob. Zvi lived with another family. The Drielsmas did not keep kosher, and at first the children refused to eat anything until Sonni asked the local Rabbi to instruct the family on what they could or could not eat. The family had no children and the four Birnbaum children remained with them for several weeks until they were transferred to the Kromvliet orphanage with other refugee children.

    Hennie wanted to rejoin her children but could not obtain legal entry into Holland. She boarded a train knowing that she was due to give birth. When the train reached Zevenaar, Holland, she claimed she was in labor and was taken off the train and put into a Catholic hospital. There she was taken under the wing of a young doctor Dr. Van Meeuwen who was the son-in-law of a Dutch minister, Mr. Aalberse. Mr. Aalberse promised to help get Yehoshua out of Poland. He wrote to Hennie saying that her husband could enter Holland if he agreed to go to a refugee center in Westerbork that was just being built to house mainly German refugees who were fleeing to Holland.

    Yehoshua Birnbaum reunited with his wife, and together they went to see their children. Eventually all the family was sent to Westerbork. In the early days of the camp in 1939 the conditions were passable, and the family even conducted Friday night services in their own apartment. Suzy attended kindergarten in Westerbork, and her older siblings went to school. In early 1939 Rabbi Levinson arranged for the family's release with the assistance of the Queen Wilhelminia and brought them to Leeuwaarden. At first, the parents and children were divided among different Christian families. However, Yehoshua felt the children were too young to be on their own, and the Birnbaums moved into an apartment above the synagogue. The Jewish community supplied them with food, Hennie probably also sold some jewelry to be able to feed her children.

    Following the German May 1940 invasion of the Netherlands, the Birnbaums were sent back to Westerbork. In 1942 the Germans converted Westerbork into a transit camp from where they shipped Dutch Jews to extermination camps in Poland. Many of the transports to Westerbork arrived at night. Yehoshua met each train in order to find children who had arrived without parents. He brought them to barrack #35 which became an orphanage which he and Hennie directed. The barrack held four dormitories and a big dining room. The Birnbaums did everything possible to protect the children and keep them from being deported. They even created imaginary baptism certificates, as well as other papers alleging some children were the illegitimate offspring of German soldiers.

    On March 15, 1944 the Birnbaums were sent by train on the second transport to Bergen-Belsen together with about 200 orphans under their care. Soon afterwards, Suzy, Regina and Zvi contracted polio, and Suzy's legs became temporarily paralyzed. Despite the hardships, Yehoshua and Hennie continued to care for the orphans in Bergen-Belsen and maintain Jewish rituals. They even made a Seder in March 1945, and Yaakov and Zvi baked their own matzah. Dozens of abandoned children survived Belsen under the care of the Birnbaums. On April 10, 1945 the Birnbaums were sent on an evacuation train bound for Theresienstadt. Hennie and Sonni contracted typhus on the train and became crazy from the disease. Sonni even tried to jump out of the window, but her mother managed to hold her back. Soviet soldiers liberated the train in Troebitz on April 23, 1945. Once Hennie recovered she began to help the younger children. After arriving in Troebitz, the family lived together with the orphans on a farm. Other Dutch survivors had informed American units about the group, and after twelve weeks, a convoy of American army trucks came to bring them to Leipzig. The family and orphans then boarded a train which was originally outfitted for wounded American soldiers to bring them back to Holland.

    However when they arrived in The Netherlands, The Dutch said they were not wanted and did not know what to do with them as they were not citizens. They first were placed in a school in an old castle in Maastricht together with Dutch traitors. The headmaster at the school learned what happened and decided to help them remain in Holland. Yehoshua knew the secretary of the Queen. He had been in the underground and acted as Yehoshua's liaison with the resistance. He provided Yehoshua with a letter of recommendation attesting to his wartime activities and recommending that they be allowed to remain in Holland. The Birnbaums next were sent to Bergstitheing, a Jewish institution in Holland. There they decided that German refugees cannot look after Dutch children, in spite of the fact that they were orphans. The Birnbaums and the orphans next were sent to cramped quarters in the Hotel Elberfeld in one of the worst parts of Amsterdam. A Jewish man visited and saw their conditions and helped transfer them to a former Jewish old age home, the Joods Invalide. They remained there for seven or eight months and then moved to Bussum. (Suzy and Zvi temporarily were sent to Switzerland a sanitarium in to recuperate from TB.). The Birnbaums continued to care for some 40 orphans. They remained in Bussem from 1946-1950 when they moved to Israel, together with all of the orphans. In total the Birnbaums helped protect some 350 children, the youngest of whom was only a six month old infant.
    Record last modified:
    2020-12-09 00:00:00
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