‘It it wasn’t for Hitler, your grandfather and I would never have met’ - remembering my Nanny who survived the Holocaust and has died at 93

PUBLISHED: 15:42 08 February 2020 | UPDATED: 16:01 08 February 2020

Nick's grandmother Cato, right, pictured with youngest daughter Melanie in 2010

Nick's grandmother Cato, right, pictured with youngest daughter Melanie in 2010


Nick Richards remembers his grandmother who died at the end of January and lived a great life in Norfolk despite suffering the trauma of being held in a Jewish concentration camp in the Second World War and losing 41 members of her family.

Westerbork transist camp in the east of The Netherlands were Nicks's grandmother spent four-and-a-half months in 1944Westerbork transist camp in the east of The Netherlands were Nicks's grandmother spent four-and-a-half months in 1944

I lost my grandmother last week. Nothing remarkable about that you may think - she was 93 and had suffered from dementia for some time.

It got worse shortly before Christmas. After 10 days in hospital she moved to a care home where she spent the last month of her life. She consumed virtually nothing during January except the odd Polo mint and a few sips of lemonade. She lost three stone in under two months, the effects of dementia sending her brain messages that she didn't need or want to eat anymore.

She knew her time was up.

It was a sad end to an amazing life. Her name was Cato and she was born into a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1926, the same year as the Queen.

She had a fairly unremarkable childhood in the Dutch capital, her father ran a shop in Amsterdam, she was skinny and was born with a cleft palate.

In May 1940, she'd been a teenager for six months when Nazi Germany invaded The Netherlands. Life for Jews across Europe was understandably bleak and in the spring of 1943, aged 16, she spent four-and-a-half months in a transit camp in Westerbork in the north-east of the country.

From here thousands of Jews were taken to camps such as Auschwitz.

Her sister Liesje was transported on the final train to Auschwitz in September 1944. Anne Frank was on the same train.

Both my grandmother and her sister would survive the war, but our family suffered an unimaginable tragedy as 41 members of her family - my extended family - were executed in camps like Auschwitz and Sobibor in Poland, including her father, cousins and uncles.

Ten family members died before they turned 18, they included two children aged two and four.

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For the survivors like her, life was grim. After September 1944 there were terrible food shortages, they had to queue for half a loaf of bread a week and survived on boiled sugar beet and crocus and tulip bulbs, selling sentimental family jewellery in exchange for bags of grain.

After a torrid time as a teenager, life improved. My grandfather was on a Navy minesweeper in the English Channel and ended up in Amsterdam towards the end of the war where he met his future wife. They married in 1948 and had five children and seven grandchildren, including myself.

After moving to Australia in the late 60s they ended up in Norfolk in the early 70s and never left.

She had a real sweet tooth, probably as a result of the struggle for food in 1940s Holland and loved chocolate, sweets and a nip of Tia Maria plus some gloriously unhealthy Dutch food such as boterkoek (butter cake) and anything laced with marzipan, sherry or ginger.

She loved watching television too, real slapstick stuff like Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army and 'Allo 'Allo - the war was clearly never far from her mind, especially as the dementia all but destroyed any recent memories and probably enhanced those Holocaust horrors that had been darkly swirling around her hippocampus for 70 plus years. She was gritty, stoic and a real survivor with a wicked sense of humour. I saw her two days before she died and she gave me a smile when I went to kiss her, although she probably didn't have a clue who I was.

"If it hadn't of been for Adolf Hitler, I wouldn't have met your grandfather," was one of her favourite phrases.

It seemed apt that she died in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day which this year marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

For much of the last six weeks of her life she laid in bed watching television with the TV remote control in her hand. She was watching Inspector Morse last week when I last saw her.

The care home staff checked her every couple of hours and often found her holding the control even in the middle of the night, with the TV constantly on.

Nine days ago they went to check on her at 6am and she'd died. The last thing she did before passing away was turn the TV off and relinquish control of that remote, placing it on the bedside table.

It was as if she knew it was her turn to see those 41 family members again.

My nanny - television addict, sherry drinker, chocolate nibbler, oh, and Holocaust survivor.

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