"The dark cloud envelopes us again" – excerpts from the wartime diary of Max Hes

In the summer of 1942, a Jewish haberdasher from the Dutch town of Zwolle sought refuge in the Trophy Room of Zwaluwenburg Manor, which was then a psychiatric institution for women and girls. Michel Leo (Max) Hes meticulously recorded the mounting tension in his journal.


Things culminated on 20 November 1942, when several girls ran off into the woods during an evening walk, ending up at the German army camp, where they not only told an officer they were being abused, but also that there were Jewish people hiding at the institution. That same night, Zwaluwenburg Manor was raided by the local constabulary, acting on the orders of the Wehrmacht. Fortunately, one of the constables asked his wife to cycle to Zwaluwenburg and warn the staff, allowing fifteen Jewish refugees to seek shelter elsewhere.

It has been 80 years since Max Hes recorded these events in his journal. We join him on Sunday, 1 November 1942, which was his 111th day in hiding at Zwaluwenburg Manor.

Griet and Eggie Bremer arrive by bicycle. They bring letters and gifts. Abel is getting fat and he is sweet and healthy. The old folks are doing well. The letters we gave to Rev. Slot haven't arrived. | In the evening, Sister Bertha brings a letter with news of further deportations from Zwolle. There's an update  about the Oranje Nassaulaan and various things Harry needs. | When we call Rev. Slot, he tells us the letters are still there and will be sent express tomorrow. He has no further news on alternative shelter. Running a fever again. Took aspirin and went to bed.

[Griet en Eggie Bremer — non-Jewish friends;
Abel — (then 5) Max's younger son;
Rev. Slot —  founder of the institution;
Sister Bertha — head sister Bertha Boerema
Harry — (then 7) Max's elder son.]

2 November 1942 | 112th day | Little Johnny <Heijmans> is brought home in the afternoon. Loukie <Israëls>, our neighbours’ youngest son, arrives. Stayed in bed with a sore throat until 3:30 pm. In the evening, we receive express mail from Lipmann Rosenthal, the Jewish Council and Hendrik Donders, all demanding replies. Took aspirin and went back to bed again.


[Lipmann Rosenthal - former Dutch-Jewish bank seized by German occupying forces;
Jewish Council - an administrative agency imposed by the Nazis to supervise Jewish affairs and implement Nazi decrees;
Hendrik Donders - employee who assisted Max Hes and his family.]

Tuesday, 3 November 1942 | 113th day | Throat still sore. In bed until noon. Gave Sister Hoek the letters for Lipmann Rosenthal and the Jewish Council. I’ll answer the rest this afternoon. Rev. Slot will be here tomorrow. Before then he’ll make a final attempt to get permission to stay here. The Zandhove option is definitely off the table. He’s also looking into an estate near Laren in Gelderland. I’m dreading the hullabaloo of moving and all the associated risks.

[Zandhove Manor (below) in Zwolle was considered as alternative accommodation for the institution, because the Germans wanted to commandeer Zwaluwenburg as their regional headquarters and to house their officers, because it was sheltered by woods and strategically located.]


Wednesday, 4 November 1942 | 114th day | Rev. Slot won’t be coming because of train delays. Talks about alternative accommodation have also been postponed. The tension remains.

115th day | Terribly sore throat all night. I stay in bed and ask to see the doctor. He prescribes more bed rest and covers. | Radio reports of a major retreat of the German and Italian armies in Egypt. The British launched an offensive there on October 23. British propaganda seems overenthusiastic (like last year) about this operation. There's already talk of a second front, which may come our way via Italy and France. | Sister Bertha left for Zwolle early to see Rev. Slot. He has set his sights on new accommodation.

116th day | Sister Mien travels to Sneek with gifts for Harry, as well as a letter and verbal instructions to appeal against religious pressure. | Rev. Slot has options for new accommodation at Zandhove and another place.

117th day | My throat is so much better that I spend the evening in the heated Parlour. Reports on Egypt are very optimistic, trumpeting a great defeat for Germany and Italy. I’ll only be optimistic when they’re out of Africa.

118th day | Sister Bertha brings great news of Americans landing in Algiers. They clearly intend to attack from two sides. Global public opinion compels Hitler to make a speech. Another painful day because of my throat and because it is Harry's birthday.”

[Here's a link to more about Operation Torch, the combined allied invasion of North Africa. The photo below shows U.S. infantrymen advancing through the streets of Algiers. Their attempt to capture the port intact failed.]


Monday, 9 November 1942 | 119th day | Long letter from the old folks, who are afraid they’ll be deported. Sister Mien returns from Sneek with good news about Harry, who is being passed off as a distant cousin. He is playing his role to perfection, learning hard and treating the other children kindly. He has earned the sympathy of his foster parents and also made a good impression on Sister Mien. They really made an effort for his birthday. | Visited by several ladies. The radio reports are favourable. Our mood has improved. Hitler delivers a speech marking Hero Memorial Day, spitting his bile with bold overconfidence to conceal his impotence.

121st day | Listened to the radio all day. We are witnessing crucial events. Unoccupied France has been occupied. Germans and Italians are gathering in Mediterranean ports. The Germans land in Tunis, Italians in Corsica. Resistance in Morocco and the Alps has been given up. The chase is still on in Libya. Americans and British advance on Tunis. | Sister Bertha returns from Ermelo late and tells of Jews being arrested. All this makes us anxious and nervous. Still no word from Rev. Slot.

[In one of her stories, my mother (see photo) claims she could quite easily identify the Jewish people hiding at the Zwaluwenburg, when she started working there as a trainee nurse in August 1942. Based on her descriptions, I managed to trace all twelve of these unnamed people:


My mother compiled the list below when she was in her 80's.

- The gentlemen in the Trophy Room and his wife;
- Six children convalescing;
- Two elderly patients with special privileges;
- A new girl in the ward for private patients;
- A young gardener we didn’t need.]

12 November 1942 | 122nd day | News from Africa still favourable. Rev. Slot arrives around midday | I listen to the radio at Van ʼt Hul’s place and later in the library with the ladies and girls, gathered around the fireplace. Strange being the only man among all these girls and women, who have grown accustomed to my presence and even seem to find it charming. Spent the evening with the sisters and Rev. Slot, discussing the news and the chances, as well as the risks of our being discovered here.

Friday, 13 November 1942 | 123rd day | The radio has our full attention. The sisters share our obsession and allow me spend all day listening in the parlour. Tobruk and Bardia have fallen. Things are going very well indeed. | Gathering in the library to get food stamps.

124th day | Further victories still inconclusive. This is likely to take at least another two to three weeks, as I write to the old folks back home. Radio reports full of familiar names from previous battles. | A large heater is installed in the Trophy Room.

[The Trophy Room (with shutters) is at the end of this curved wall, which mirrors a passageway connecting the main house with the kitchen wing, where my mother mostly worked. The Trophy Room had doors to the forecourt and garden. The lighter, lower extension was added recently.]


Sunday, 15 November 1942 | 125th day | Events in Africa developing favourably. This is the focal point of the war, but it is just a prelude. Only when Germany and Italy are defeated in Africa will the great struggle for Europe's liberation begin. | Two nurses attend to the children.

17 November 1942 | 127th day | We’ve had some lovely weather. The kind of bright days that are so rare in November. And the news also brings light to the darkness of our predicament. We’ve spent the last few evenings in the library, with a cosy little group.


18 November 1942 | 128th day | We receive letters from Sneek and the old folks, who express concern about events to come. The news from Amsterdam confirms these are not idle rumours. Sister van der Horst returns from Zwolle with alarming news. All the Jews in Kampen have been arrested and they’ve started deporting elderly people from Zwolle. I cannot rest until I’ve phoned. Grandpa Alex has taken refuge with Herbert and Hilde. The old folks are still there, but deeply concerned. Apparently, Uncle Jacob died on Tuesday and has already been buried. The dark cloud envelopes us again. No wonder. The situation in Africa is still tense and a decisive victory may take several more weeks.

19 November 1942 | 129th day | We remain obsessed by the news, which is still favourable. The house is hive of activity for the party tomorrow evening. It’s Sister Mien's birthday. Sister Bertha is still ill. I’ve sent a letter to Zwolle.

Friday, 20 November 1942 | 130th day | Rev. Slot arrives early. He expresses great sympathy for our plight. At our previous meeting, he’d noticed that I was looking the worse for wear, which is why he wanted to see me. | We listened to the radio together three times. The children recited a poem for Sister Mien's birthday. Everyone is in a festive mood for tonight’s party. | The treacherous Rie P. and Doortje T. ran off during a walk this evening. There is great consternation. The party has been cancelled. All police posts have been warned. Darkness has fallen. Our worst suspicions have been confirmed. The house will probably be raided around 7pm. We head to the Trophy Room to fetch our overnight bags. | After wandering around in the dark for two hours, we arrive at Van den Pol in Elburg, who sends us through to Van de Weerd in Doornspijk, where we spend the night. We plan to be at Nunspeet Station early tomorrow morning. Managed to contact the Zwaluwenburg at 10.15, but things are truly terrible there. We spent an awful night worrying about what is to come. This gross betrayal brings agonising uncertainty about our own fate and that of our loved ones.