Maple View Middle School eighth-graders have studied the Holocaust this year and now they have heard a first-hand account from one of its survivors.
Peter Metzelaar, a speaker with the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, spoke to Maple View’s 340 eighth-grade students last week, as they gathered in the auxiliary gym. He shared about how he and his mother were able to hide for more than two years on a farm and later escaped the Nazis with the help of an officer from Adolf Hitler’s forces.
“It’s something that I survived and I lived through,” Metzelaar said. He began by sharing Webster’s definition of Holocaust: The total destruction of people by fire. Metzelaar also gave several examples to try to help the students envision what it means to say that 6 million people were murdered by Hitler. By percentage, he pointed out that only about 34 of the students in the crowd would have survived. Or, take the tragedy of 9/11, when 3,000 people died — and multiply that number by 2,000. The number of Jewish people murdered was nearly as many as the total population of the state of Washington (about 7 million people), Metzelaar explained.
He shared with the students about the Nuremberg Laws, and the invasion of Holland, where he and his family lived. As a child of only 7, Metzelaar didn’t understand what was happening when people from his neighborhood began being taken away by German soldiers.
“Nobody knew — where were these people taken, and for what purpose?” he recalled, trying to convey the terror and confusion that he felt when the Nazis pulled up in front of his family’s apartment complex in the middle of the night. Soldiers were yelling, doors slamming and babies crying. The next day, several of his friends were not in school, he said. Soon after that, his aunt and uncle were taken away, and not long after, his grandmother and grandfather.
One day in June of 1942, Metzelaar’s mother, Elli, sat him down. She cried as she explained that his father had been arrested. “That’s the last we ever saw or heard of him again,” he said.
Somehow Elli Metzelaar was able to get in touch with the Dutch Underground, a network of people who helped save the lives of Jewish people. The mother and son were offered a place to live and hide with Klaas and Roelfina (pronounced Klaus and Roefina) Post, who owned a small farm in Holland.
“They were so, so, so courageous,” Metzelaar said, recalling how hard the Post family worked and how kindly they treated him and his mother. The Germans began searching for Jewish people who were in hiding, and the raids grew more and more frequent. Early on, the pair would hide under the floorboards in a hole that Klaas created and covered with a rug to mask the location. The searchers walked directly over their heads, Metzelaar said. “All it would have taken was one cough, one sneeze, one hiccup, and it would have been all over.”
Later Metzelaar and Klaas worked to dig out a cave in a nearby wooded area and disguise it with branches so that the pair could hide there, instead, for the raids, which lasted up to 90 minutes.
“I was always afraid this was going to cave in,” he said, recalling that at age 8 he knew and understood that there were people who wanted to kill him. He still wondered: Where were his father, grandfather, grandmother — and what would happen to his mother?
After being with the Post family for more than two years, Elli Metzelaar became worried that they would be caught and killed for sheltering her and Peter. She reached out to the Dutch Underground for a new hiding place, and they moved to an apartment in the city with two women. Living there, the two were frequently hungry, and Elli found out that the women planned to turn them over to the Nazis. So, she asked the underground for a third placement. Then, she sewed a nurse’s uniform and sneaked Peter out of the apartment in the middle of the night. The only way to get to their new hiding place was on a highway that was reserved for the German military. With incredible bravery, Elli signaled for a ride. She had told Peter to stay quiet, and when an SS (Schutzstaffel, or Hitler’s elite force) officer stopped his truck, Elli convinced him that she worked for the International Red Cross and was assigned to transport an orphan.
“He put us in the truck, and they took us to Amsterdam,” Metzelaar exclaimed. “How did she come up with that plan? The enemy took us to Amsterdam — I get excited every time I tell that part.”
In May of 1945, Canadian forces liberated Holland. Peter Metzelaar was 10 years old.
“The war was over. No one in my family returned,” Metzelaar said. He and his mother moved to New York when he was 13. Fifty years later with his family, he returned to Europe, and they traveled to Poland. “Twenty minutes outside Krakow was the largest piece of hell ever created, Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp.” Metzelaar told the students some of what went on at the concentration camp, where crematoriums would burn 24 hours a day, and as many as 4,000 people were murdered in one day.
He shared a bit about propaganda and how the Nazis used it.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” Metzelaar said. He encouraged the students to continue learning, and to use critical thinking skills. “Be tolerant. Not everybody prays the same. Not everybody looks the same.”
On the same family trip, the Metzelaars traveled to Holland and tried to find the Post family to thank them. Although the couple had died, Peter Metzelaar was able to find the farmhouse and the cave where he and his mother hid — and survived.