The Three Surviving Widows, one of whom survived Mengele's experiments | Lekstraat 4 – 1st floor

Oddly perhaps, this story begins with a brief clarification of Dutch surnames, names and nicknames. When Elkan Snijders passed away in 1934, his widow Rachel May kept her married name, Snijders-May, while here three children – Joseph, Izak and Judith – all kept their father’s sur­name: Snijders.

Izak chose to go by the name Wim, perhaps because it was less obviously Jewish than his given name. Similarly, Joseph and Judith may have used less biblical names such as Joost and Judy or Dita, which would have offered them some shelter against prevailing antisemitism.

When their father died, Joseph and Wim were both in the mid-20s and took it upon themselves to look after their mother and sister, who was then only 12. Being the eldest, Joseph completed school and attended a MULO college that prepared working-class students for jobs in administration and sales.

Joseph studied accounting, stenogra­phy, English, French and German, all of which were listed on his registration card for the Jewish Council, where he was chief accountant at the Welfare Depart­ment for Non-Dutch Jews. The council itself was established by order of the Nazis in 1941, but the Jewish community in the Nether­lands had long funded and run their own schools, hospitals and other institu­tions.

The infamous Westerbork transit camp, for example, was built in the 1930s to accommodate Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. The Dutch government provided a loan and location, but ultimately the Jewish commu­ni­ty funded construction and day-to-day opera­ting costs. Westerbork remained under control of the Jewish Council, even when it gained its more sinister role as ante­cham­ber to the Nazi concentration camps,

Izak (Wim) Snijders married Hendrika (Henny) van Gelder in 1938, but didn’t move far from home, finding an apartment nearby in Vecht­straat. Wim worked as a sales rep for a whole­saling company, while Henny was a stenographer at the headquar­ters of the Jewish Council, whose administrative burden grew rapidly as the Nazis tight­en­ed their stranglehold on the Jewish community.

Having first been robbed of their regular jobs, Jews were only permitted to work for Jewish businesses and institutions. To do so, however, they had to register with the Jewish Council, making their addresses easily accessible to the Nazis, whose aim was to gain full administrative insight for the purposes of deportation and ultimately extermination.

The Snijders family may have known of these sinister intentions, thanks to their close ties with the Jewish Council. The family’s abrupt marri­ages and changes of address reflect their attempts to evade the ever-ch­anging Nazi directives, one of which was issued in March 1942, instructing unmarried Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 40 to prepare for labour camps. This prompted a shower of wed­dings in the Jewish commu­nity.

“In the second week of March 1942, there were 74 Jewish weddings in Amsterdam, 11 of which were mixed. The following week there were no fewer than 283 Jewish weddings, 22 of which were mixed,” writes Janneke Jorna of the Dutch War Records Network. “Mixed” in this context implies that one of the partners was non-Jewish, briefly exempting the couple from deportation. This loophole and others were soon closed by the Nazis, but Jewish people contin­ued to seek refuge in marriage, if only to ensure that they would be allowed to face the horror of deportation together.

Both Joseph Snijders and his younger sister Judith were among the many newly-weds. Joseph married in May 1942, moving in with his wife Jacoba (Coby) Huijbers, who had her own apartment on Pretoriusstraat. Coby was a teacher at the Jewish Voca­tional College, which was part of a Zionist network pre­paring young Jewish pioneers for emigration to Palestine.

Judith Snijders (21) married Salomon Voet (22) in July 1942, but the Nazis caught up with them before they could make a home of their own. Tragically, the young couple’s desire to stay together may have sealed their fate, as it would have been easier to hide alone. Records show that Judith and Salomon arrived in Wester­bork not long after their marriage and were soon deported to Auschwitz, where they were both murdered on 30 September 1942.

Their fate will have been a heavy blow to the family, but also seems to have honed their evasion skills. Evidently, Joseph Snijders exploited his influence with the Jewish Council to steer his wife and mother towards the lesser evil of Theresi­en­­­stadt. This “model camp” in the Czech fortress town of Terezín consisted partly of a ghetto reserved for Jews with special privileges, supporting Nazi propa­ganda intended to convince Jewish communities, Red Cross delegations and others that Jews were being properly treated.

Needless to say, the reality was far more grim. Of the 139,667 Jews deported to Theresienstadt, 33,818 died at the camp due to hardship, disease, torture or exe­cu­tion, while more than 88,000 were deported to their death in Auschwitz, Treblinka and other camps. When Terezín was liberated in early May 1945, only 19,000 prisoners were still alive. Among them were Rachel Snijders-May and her daughter-in-law Coby Snijders-Huijbers.

Joseph arrived in Theresienstadt together with his mother Rachel and wife Coby in early Sep­tem­ber 1944, but was depor­ted to Auschwitz before the month was out, He perished at the camp in February 1945, unaware that he had engi­neered the survival of this wife and mother, who returned to Amsterdam, where they were reunited with Henny Snijders-van Gelder, who documented her experiences in a book published 75 years after the war.

In her book, Henny describes how she was reunited with her husband Wim in Wes­ter­bork, where his administrative job gave him some influence. The couple managed to prolong their stay at the transit camp for several months, but were eventually deported to Auschwitz together.

“We left for Poland on Tuesday, 14 September 1943. It took three day to get there. Three terrible days with forty people and all their baggage in one wagon. There was no ventilation, no water and a single barrel as a toilet. It was absolute torture. You could hardly sit or lie down or even stand, without having to fight for space,” as Henny recounts in her book. She was separated from Wim almost immediately on arrival at the camp.

“We were told to leave our baggage. They said it would be delivered to us later! Anyone who tried to take anything was kicked or whipped. Elderly people and mothers with children were loaded onto wagons and taken off. Where to? No one knew, but we had our suspicions. Wim and I said our goodbyes as best we could – a kiss, a firm handshake: ‘Be strong! You know what we agreed. We have to survive this, whatever it takes.’ After that, I was alone among hundreds of women. A German officer (Mengele) walked between the ranks asking: ‘Frau oder Fraulein?’ When I replied ‘Frau’ I was pushed into another queue. Where were we going? Would we be taken to a camp for married people? Would I be reunited with Wim?”

Wim Snijders eventually ended up in the Auschwitz sub-camp Monowitz, where he survived the harsh labour regime for six months. Details of his death are unknown, but he perished at the camp in March 1944. Miraculously, his wife Henny survived Joseph Mengele’s gruesome experiments and the atrocities of camp life, as well as a death march westward in mid-winter, away from the Rus­sian liberating forces sweeping into Poland. The survivors eventually ended up in Camp Ravensbrück, north of Berlin, having completed a 650-kilometre journey on foot and in open trains, often in sub-zero temperatures.

On returning to Amsterdam, Henny was reunited with her mother-in-law Rachel Snijders-May, moving in with her in June 1946, probably because there was a serious housing shortage in Amsterdam after the war. On 17 May 1949, Henny married Erich Striem, a Jewish refugee who had fled from Berlin to the Netherlands in 1938. Records show that Striem spent time at five different refugee camps in the Nether­lands before he too was deported to Theresienstadt in 1944.

Having lost her husband before the war and her three children during the war, Rachel Snijders-May lived on the Stadionkade in Amsterdam until her death in December 1959 at the age of 75. According to her obituary, she was laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery in Muider­berg, just east of Amsterdam, mourned by her sister, nieces and daughters-in-law.

Joseph’s widow, Coby, reclaimed her apart­ment on Preto­rius­straat in November 1945. She later settled in Amstelveen, where she passed away in 1990 at the age of 76. Her obituary opened with a light-hearted poem by Dutch entertainer Toon Hermans and read: “We are grateful that she was spared further suffering, but deeply saddened by the passing of our dear Auntie Co, our beloved friend and sister Coby Snijders-Huijbers.”

Henny founded a business together with Erich Striem, but he continued to struggle with the heavy burden of the war, eventually taking his own life in 1969. Having recovered from this blow, Henny met Ies Roeper, with whom she travelled the world, deve­­loping a strong bond with his children and grandchildren, who helped her publish the book about her wartime experiences.

Her lust for life is perfectly captured in a passage about her work with the Herb-Picking Commando in Auschwitz. “It was great being away from the bar­racks. You felt alive out there and our SS guard let us be, as long as our baskets were full. We picked whatever we could find; bramble leaves one day, elderflower the next, then dandelions. I kept hoping I would be permanently assigned to the commando and eventually approached the female doctor, who was taking my blood on a daily basis. She felt it would be good for me to spend time outdoors every day. I got my perma­nent assignment two weeks later and every day, come rain or shine, we went out picking.”

Henny Striem-van Gelder eventually passed away at the age of 91 in 2005, outliving no fewer than four partners with whom she had seen the world and celebrated life even in its darkest days.