As Holocaust survivor Maud Dahme of Flemington was describing her experiences as a “hidden child” from 1942 to 1944 in the Netherlands, the sound of an airplane flying overhead could be heard in the large auditorium at the College of Saint Elizabeth.
Addressing the third of three groups in as many days — a total of 1,600 students — Dahme paused and scanned the room, looking for a window and appearing disturbed at not finding one.
Just a few moments earlier, in response to a question about how her experiences during the Holocaust continue to affect her, she had said, “Every time I hear an airplane overhead, I have to see it. The noise still scares me because of the bombings — the Allied planes used to bomb German installations, but they were not as accurate as they are today. They often missed. You had to watch it when you heard a plane.”
Dahme’s audience were middle and high school students. They and the other young program participants had come to the Morristown campus from 32 schools in Essex, Morris, Union, Bergen, Passaic, and Sussex counties for the CSE Holocaust Education Resource Center’s April 5-7 annual Shoa education program.
It was the first year since its inception in 1990 that the program, which is cosponsored by the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education, had been expanded to three days, to accommodate a record number of students.
Dahme, born Maud Peper, was first hidden at the age of six with her four-year-old sister Rita by Hendrik and Jacobje Spronk, a devoutly Christian couple in Oldebroek, Netherlands; when, in 1944, it was feared they would be discovered, they were moved to a fishing village, where they stayed until the end of the war. In 1945, the sisters were returned to their native Amersfoort, where they were reunited with their parents. The reunion was difficult, Dahme said, since the girls no longer remembered their mother and father.
Although before the war her family had belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, Dahme said, her parents did not join a synagogue again. She herself had become used to going to church with the Spronks, and to this day is comfortable, she said, in both religions. The Peper family left the Netherlands in 1950 for the United States. Dahme married a German man, had four children, and raised them as Lutherans.
‘The last generation’
After watching The Hidden Child, a documentary about Dahme, and then hearing from her, the students had plenty of questions. Did she ever seek revenge? (No.) What are her feelings about Holocaust deniers? (“I can’t even deal with these people.”) How did you and your sister entertain yourselves in hiding? (With unexploded ammunition they found in the fields and, at one point, with the bladder of a pig they blew up into a ball.)
If the irony of an Orthodox child losing her religion while being sheltered by devout Christians during the Holocaust was lost on the students, most of whom on this day were not Jewish, the poignancy and importance of her story as universal history was not.
Most of the young people were moved by her story and the humanity she as an individual found for herself. Eighth-grader Edward Cruz said he and his classmates at Abington Avenue School in Newark were learning about the Holocaust, and “it was good we got to actually talk to someone who has been through it. It helps us a lot.” He added, “I’m grateful I get to go outside freely and walk around with nobody telling me what to do.”
Sylvia Jaramillo, his classmate, also 14, said, “We’re the last generation to experience these accounts of Holocaust survivors first hand.”
Lauren Hayes of Wantage, 17, a junior at High Point Regional High School in Sussex took some comfort in the fact that through Dahme’s years in hiding, she “had hope things would get better and she’d be reunited with her parents.”
It was Dahme’s story about being spotted by German soldiers while taking food to another hidden Jew that proved most affecting for Katie Kohle, 16, a junior at High Point. In relating this extraordinary experience, Dahme told the students that to her shock, the soldiers neither shot nor arrested her. “I never experienced that kind of fear — to turn your back and think you’ll be killed. And that [the soldiers] showed love and compassion — I was also affected by seeing this.”