41 members of my mum's family were executed in the Second World War – I had to tell their story
PUBLISHED: 21:08 11 April 2019 | UPDATED: 21:12 11 April 2019
Nick Richards spoke to Melanie Martin, who wanted to tell her family’s war story, despite the fact her mother didn’t want the harrowing details committed to paper
A former Norwich student has written the history of her family’s ordeal in the Second World War in which 41 relatives were killed, many at Auschwitz.
Melanie Martin, 59, who went to the Hewett School and, later, the UEA between 1972 and 1981 has spent 20 years tracing the moving story of her family’s life in occupied Holland during the war for her first book, War and Love.
Over two decades she interviewed ageing members of her Dutch family, some of whom told of their war experiences as they neared the end of their lives.
Many of the memories and stories proved tough to recount and Melanie’s mother, Cato, 92, who was born in Amsterdam but has lived in Norfolk for the last 45 years, even said she didn’t want to the book to be published.
Melanie persevered and when she presented her mum with the first copy of the book she included a letter with it for her to read when she has doubts about why she wrote the book.
Melanie’s mother Cato Granaat, is the youngest of five children who all survived the war, but her father, uncles and cousins were among the 41 relatives, all Dutch Jews, who died in the Holocaust, mostly in gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor in Poland.
Nicknamed Tootje (‘little toe’ in Dutch), Cato was 16 in the spring of 1943 when she spent four-and-a-half months in a transition camp at Westerbork in north-eastern Holland. From here thousands of Jews were herded into cattle trains and taken on the three-day journey to the death camps in Poland. In the book she talks about making friends with girls her own age at Westerbork who went away and never came back.
She recounts the horror of the daily roll call of names that were to go on the trains, with whole families being taken away in a ruthless extermination exercise. They learned that the entire residents of a mental hospital in the town of Apeldoorn were executed en masse.
It brings home the utter pointlessness of war and what the Nazis were trying to achieve. Quite what they hoped to gain by sending children to their deaths we will never know – 10 members of Melanie’s extended family were executed before reaching 18 including a two-year-old and a four-year-old.
Melanie’s Aunt Liesje was transported on the final train to Auschwitz in September 1944 which was the same train as Anne Frank and her family. Liesje was held at Birkenau, one of the smaller sub-camps of Auschwitz and would survive the war.
Melanie said: “The most emotional moment came when I was at Westerbork with my son Jamie and my cousin Erik and we spoke to an archivist who found my grandfather’s original index card from when he was transported to Sobibor. It was essentially the last trace of his human life. Seeing the feint pencil scratch of his name made me imagine how he would have dealt with it all as he faced his death. My mother thinks he would have used his hand to cover his head and he would have died with dignity.”
Death is inevitable in a book about the Dutch Jewish experience in the Second World War, but the book doesn’t deal in great military detail or analyse war tactics. This is the human side of war, telling the day-to-day story of essentially surviving. How they found food, clothing, how they tried to carry on, how they fell in love, how they tried to keep hold of hope.
It was clearly a tough time to be alive though. The hunt for food was a feature of daily life. From September 1944 the struggle got worse as food trains stopped bringing in supplies. Melanie’s mother Tootje was given half a loaf of bread a week for which they had to queue for hours, they sold the family jewellery, gold chains, and sentimental watches in exchange for a bag of grain. At other times they ate tulip and crocus bulbs and boiled sugar beet. There was no heating, gas or electricity as the Netherlands endured its infamous Hunger Winter of 1944/45.
Melanie, a company director at an HR specialist, who now lives in Teddington, said: “I felt a sense of duty to write it and was driven to do it, to see it through. I did it for the 41 and for the rest of the family. Some of them think they know the whole story but they don’t. It has never been laid out and pieced together before for us all to try and understand. But now it is there for them, and future generations to appreciate what they all went though.”
War and Love is published by Matador and available now in Norwich bookshops or online