Our quest begins with Isaäc and Helena Cartoef, who lived at the far end of the Lekstraat,where the tramway splits into a steel delta, leading into the depot where the trams are parked at night. Not the quietest part of the street, but local residents have front-row seats for the rumbling display of industry before dawn and after midnight.
Helena had been married before and may already have been pregnant when she wed her first husband, Heijman Stodel, in 1904. Their only son, Joseph, was born in June of that year. The marriage lasted ten years, ending in 1914, when the First World War broke out.
The uncertain times may have prompted Helena to focus on her son’s well-being, until he was ready to leave home. Joseph was nearly 18 when Helena married travelling salesman Isaäc Cartoef in May 1922. Their marriage may have raised some eyebrows at the time, as Helena was six years older than Isaäc.
Joseph was evidently a lot more cautious than his mother, waiting until he was 34 before marrying 29-year-old Margaretha Schelvis in January 1939. In view of their ages and the Second World War, the families will have been doubly delighted with the birth of Hanna in 1941, marking the arrival of new generation.
Tragically, Hanna did not live to see her first birthday, as the family were systematically torn apart by Nazi directives. Joseph Stodel was probably first robbed of his job and then forced to work at one of the labour camps that mushroomed all over the Netherlands.
While Joseph was away, his wife Margaretha and little Hanna were arrested and taken to Westerbork. By then, deportation trains to Auschwitz were departing from this transit camp like clockwork on Mondays and Fridays. Records indicate that the 1100-kilometre journey east was usually completed in three days.
Margaretha and Hanna were among the 1007 people who boarded the deportation train on Friday 31 July 1942. They arrived in Auschwitz a couple of days later and were sent directly to the gas chambers. Camp records show that they were both murdered on 2 August 1942.
It is likely that Isaäc Cartoef spent some time working in a labour camp before being sent to Westerbork, hoping that he might be reunited with his family. Isaäc was one of 988 people deported from the transit camp on Friday 23 October 1942. He was murdered three days later in Auschwitz.
Was Helena Cartoef-van Stratum aware of the fate of her loved ones? Perhaps she hoped to be reunited with them in Westerbork, but she spent less than a week in the camp, before she was deported on 10 March 1943 to a new camp on Poland’s eastern border called Sobibór.
Intended solely for extermination, Camp Sobibór was located almost exactly on the T-junction of the borders between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. Only 13 of the 1105 deportees aboard Helena’s train survived the war. This was the last time a passenger train was used for the 1300-kilometre journey from Westerbork.
“We had enough food for the trip. There was even some left on arrival. We were allowed to keep it all and were even given some more,” recounted Cato Polak, a 22-year-old nurse from The Hague, who was one of a dozen young women ordered back onto the train and taken to Lublin.
Based on their accounts, Helena Cartoef-van Stratum was probably among the passengers who were marched into the camp. Those who couldn’t walk were pushed in on handcarts. At the age of 60, Helena may have been among the elderly and infirm who were taken directly to an open pit and killed with machine guns.
Joseph Stodel will not have received word of his mother’s death on 13 March 1943, but will have been well aware of the atrocities taking place. Records indicate that he managed to evade capture until 1944, when he was arrested in the Hague, arriving in Westerbork on 4 May 1944.
Joseph was briefly held in Penal Barrack No. 67, where Anne Frank and her family also spent their final days in the Netherlands, along with resistance fighters and other Jews who had been captured in hiding. Joseph Stodel was deported from Westerbork on 19 May 1944.
This deportation was one of the few captured on film and famously shows Settela Steinbach peering out of the train. She was one of 245 Roma people deported to Auschwitz on the same train as Joseph Stodel, who may have managed to survive until January 1945.
Joseph Stodel’s registration card from the Jewish Council includes a brief statement in green ink from someone called M. de Vries of Insulindeweg 28-1, Amsterdam, reporting that Joseph had died of exhaustion in Jan. ’45, while being transported from one camp to another.