Hitler's regime and the atrocities in the concentration camps started long before I was born. A darling little one with curly, blond hair and blue eyes, who never got to feel the arms of her Papa around her, who couldn't ride on his knee and who never received a goodnight kiss from him or heard the words: 'I love you, sweetheart.' Even though we never met, Papa was always the most powerful force in my life. I have Papa's personality, and apparently did from the day I was born. Happy, curious, imaginative, stubborn, independent. Sometimes I wondered why Mama would give me such a curious look. As I learned more and more about Papa, I understood the bittersweet emotion behind those glances.
I have Papa's eyes. The clearest, brightest blue eyes you can find. Like the ocean that was Papa's love. Searching blue eyes that were constantly looking for my Papa. But Papa was not there. I have Papa's name. Hermanus became Herma, Jozeph became Jozé and a hyphen did the trick. A long and difficult name for a little girl! 'If I ever get married, Mama, it will be to someone with a short name,' I would say in protest. (And, by the way, I carried out my childhood threat.) Only a child would complain like that, not understanding the responsibility and the love that came with this heritage.
People in Lichtenvoorde, the small town where we lived, always recognized the name. After all, my Papa was a hero, killed for the freedom of the nation. They would look at me with a mixture of admiration and sadness. Admiration for the man whose namesake I was, sadness for the little girl who would never know her Papa. Some would tell me stories about my famous father; others would just shake their head and move on. I never knew how to deal with these reactions, so I developed the habit of listening politely, acknowledging their comments and moving on with my life. There was nothing else to do. As I moved through childhood, the word 'hero' popped up again and again. My Daddy was a 'hero,' he died 'a hero.' In my child's mind, that simply meant I didn't have a father. I supposed that heroes were all dead. I just didn't understand a thing about it. The world was strange and I didn't really have any role models, so I developed my own priorities. Discovering the world, examining its limits and fighting with my big brother! The world was big, so I became the center of my own universe, as nothing else seemed to fit.
And I constantly continued my search for Papa. Would he be kind, would he love me, play with me, laugh with me? Could he tell great bedtime stories? Mama didn't talk much about him. Her beautiful handsome love, the man with the big heart, he wasn't here anymore. And looking at the two little ones who were left behind--especially with me being so much like him--filled her heart with pain. A heavy and burning pain. A pain, which she tried to lock up far away. She didn't want to talk about Papa. She didn't want to tell us stories about his life, his work, his death. As a little girl, I felt a pain equal to my mom's, yet the two of us could never talk about it.