Survivor STORY

Jaap Groen was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1925 to Abraham and Lena Rootveld Groen. His parents, who were Dutch Jews, decided to return to Amsterdam, where his father worked in the diamond industry, when Jaap was three-and-a-half years old. The Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, and in 1941, Jaap, age 16, and his parents were arrested and imprisoned in a theater in Amsterdam that had been converted into a makeshift prison. The family managed to escape with the assistance of the Dutch Resistance, who hid his parents in Amsterdam and Jaap in a small village.

Jaap, afraid that he would be caught, moved to Utrecht, where he worked as a member of the Underground making counterfeit identification cards. The Gestapo was informed of the group’s activities, and they were arrested and imprisoned. Jaap had made a new identity card under the non-Jewish name of Cor Rosenbrandt, but one of the young Nazi guards had been a schoolmate, and turned Jaap in to his superiors. Jaap was deported to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz, on a trip that took five days in a packed freight car with no food, water or seats and an oil drum for a toilet.

In September 1944, Jaap was selected, along with 27 other men, to be a guinea pig in “medical experiments” conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” of Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele and his assistant, Dr. Heinz Kashub, gave injections in the arms or legs of the prisoners. Four weeks later, Kashub returned to remove (without anesthesia) cancerous tumors that had developed at the site of the injections. Fifteen men died from this procedure. The remaining 13 men, including Jaap, were force-fed bread that had been soaked in sulfuric acid, which killed another ten men. Only three men survived: Simon Jacobs and Jaap, both from Amsterdam, and Thomas Bardi from Budapest, all of whom were isolated. Jaap, fearing that all they would all be shot as the Soviets advanced, chose to go on a “Death March” to Mauthausen – the wrong decision, as it turned out.

At Mauthausen, Jaap was forced to work at the stone quarries, where those prisoners who were too weak were routinely shoved off the edge to their deaths hundreds of feet down. Before the Americans liberated Mauthausen in May 1945, Jaap had already been sent on to perhaps the most diabolic camp of all, Ebensee, under the sadistic SS Sturmfuhrer Anton Ganz. In Ebensee, slave labor was used to construct tunnels inside a mountain which would provide protection for an armament factory intended to produce V-2 missiles.

Jaap was set to work blasting holes for dynamite with a pneumatic drill that weighed considerably more than he did in his state of starvation and exhaustion. They worked with water up to their knees with guards playing shooting games using their immersed feet as targets. When he could no longer work, he was sent to the A-socialen Block to wait for death. The U.S. Army liberated Ebensee on May 6, 1945.

Jaap was taken to a US Army hospital at the Linz airport. Although required to stay and recuperate, Jaap, still in his pajamas, snuck onto a plane going to Paris, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and flown back to Holland. Back in Amsterdam, he found out that his parents had survived the war, hidden by a fearless woman who helped many Jewish families, Ree van Voorthuyzen, whom Jaap later married. It took 18 months for Jaap to recover from TB, after which he started on a path to a long career in advertizing. Jaap and his family immigrated to the United States in 1957 and made Atlanta their home. Jaap and his wife, Patricia, retired to the north Georgia mountains, where they are both very involved in the arts community.


But Ebensee was a diabolic camp. That camp commandant was a sadist. You cannot even imagine it, just horrible. Shot at random people. Was standing on a balcony, bink bink bink bink. Very easily. And then we worked underground. You know, we went from all the way up, I was demoted from on top of the quarry to inside a mountain, where we built factories to build the V-2, where they bombed. That was the material they used toward bombing London. Because later after the war we found out that [sounds like] Pennemunden was bombed by the English, so they could not make it that any more. So they decided to build a factory that never produced anything because the war was over by that time. It was underground. I don’t know what my weight was, but I don’t think I was a hundred pounds. And my drill, my pneumatic drill, was about a hundred and twenty-five, hundred and thirty pounds. I had tuberculosis, coughed my lungs out, spit up blood, and had to drill these holes that were used to put the dynamite in, and then make these big holes, [unclear]. And, that’s where I worked until the end, almost to the end, and then I was declared asocial, and I was put on a scale and my weight was sixty-seven European pounds. So I was put in a block called the A-socialen blok – you didn’t have to work anymore, but you didn’t get much to eat either. You get half rations. And that’s where we were waiting to die. And one morning, I looked up, and the watch tower was visible from the side where we were, and instead of a military with a machine gun, was a typical Austrian, you know the man that yodels in the mountain, with his cap and his feather standing there. And I said, “Something is different.” But, you know, I looked at it, but I was really too sick to think of anything else. I didn’t even think of liberation at the time. And then we heard a tremendous noise and I had to know what was going on. And so I slid out of bed and I crawled to the door, opened the door and there were the American tanks coming in. And at the same moment I felt a lot better. I didn’t feel that sick anymore. And that was the end.

Racism and Race Relations

There was a store – there was a delicatessen, as a matter of fact there was one of the first delicatessen, of really, like a New York delicatessen, in Atlanta. It was called Leb’s and it was at the corner of Forsythe Street and all the way through to Peachtree Street, the famous Peachtree Street. And it was just when we won a little bit ground with Martin Luther King and John Lewis, with the movement. And Lebs [sic] was as anti-black as Maddox. He doesn’t know who Maddox – you know who Maddox is? The man with the, with the ax handle he was going to use if black customers entered Maddox’s restaurant. And he closed his store, his delicatessen and pasted all the windows with brown wrapping paper, and on that wrapping paper, so you could see it from the outside, was written, “I don’t want niggers in my place.” And on the other one it says, “I don’t want niggers because they pee on your table.” And all these things. And we decided to march. So John [Lewis] got it all together. And he got blacks, he got whites, and he got Jewish people. But I worked for Ellman’s. And I was on a television show in the morning, the Ruth Kent show. Do you remember that, Ruth? No, you don’t remember that. WSB [radio station], and I talked about diamonds, and I interviewed people who came through, and I had a ball there. And I did that so I didn’t have to pay for advertising on that TV program; I got that for free. And I do anything for free. So, so, a lot of people knew me. And Lebs of course, his wife had all the jewelry from– [Ellman’s]. So we were walking around with our placards and Lebs opens the door and he walks up to me, and he said, “Aren’t you ashamed to do this as a Jew?” I said, “You are talking? Aren’t you ashamed of doing this on your windows? After what I went through?” And I raised my hand [to show his number]. And you know what he did? He spit in my face. And the other guys jumped on him, and the police came, and they got him back in his store. And you know, nobody did anything about it. He never got to jail. So that was the big one. So, you see, it’s everywhere. He was afraid that black people in those years, Negroes, were coming to his restaurant and sat there and ate his wonderful sandwiches.

Life Lessons and Perspectives

So, when the government takes these people, these learned people, doctors, who go to years to school, and were teaching the medical profession, and then they misuse it in this way. People should know that this is possible. And it is possible when the government sanctions it. Sanctioning – that’s the end. And that is the trouble in so many countries today. Darfur. It is the government that does this, and the people that actually do it become monsters. And the trouble is, and that is what I always say at the end when I talk about it with my friends, these people that do that during the day to us Jews in a camp sanctioned by the government, they go home at night and they sit on the floor playing with electric trains with their children. So they are not that much different from other people at that time, but the only difference is that they have a chance to become something that is close to monster, just by sanctioning. And that makes me sometimes very afraid, and I’m an optimist. I’m an optimist. But sometimes it gets me, because that can happen anywhere, anytime. After all this what has happened, that there was no lesson learned. Because anywhere today on earth, the beautiful planet that we live on, there is a government that sanctions these kinds of things. And in those years, it was a secret, because it was not until 1945 when the peace was signed, that the people who weren’t, that didn’t experience that personally, found out about that and practically said, and today still say, some of them, “It’s made up, that never happened, that is impossible.” That’s how unbelievable it is, and that makes it dangerous, and that’s why I was willing to do this. It’s frightening. And the big scare is that we have not learned, we – they – have not learned the lesson, because it’s coming up all the time.

Well, I have a problem always with the women’s world, the Christian world. They should all get together, because they all have the same darn problem: to separate themselves from the rest. A good example – what I am against is that there is a black so-and-so, and a black so-and and a Jewish so-and-so. I know I cannot change it, but I’m still against it, because that’s where the trouble starts. That’s where the trouble starts. I will not tell you it was, but the craziest experience on that level is somebody that I know went to a sporting event that was held in a Jewish building. And it was basketball. And, you know, you have people that are very involved in the game and they yell and they scream. Well, these were not the same screams that the normal screams were. These were “get these darn Jews!” “Get these darn goyim [non-Jews]!” And when it was told to me, I was in shock. That you go that far that a basketball game becomes a political arena. And beside political and racial, and at the very bottom of the pit – it should be at the top, but it’s at the bottom in this case– the human situation. That the human mind can take a basketball game and turn it into something that is worldwide since the bible. That makes me sick in my stomach. See, it comes to your question. What have we learned? We have learned a lot, but we don’t use what we have learned. We have learned it and we swallow it.

Jaap Groen