‘We don’t know where we are going’

Sophia (Sophie, Fietje) van Geens, Rotterdam 10 August 1925 — Sobibor 28 May 1943

Eric Burger
5 min readMay 2, 2021
Postcard (detail) from Westerbork 1943; image Eric burger 2021

Because really we will soon return with the whole family to see you again…

My mother remembered in 2016 how Fietje came to say goodbye in the Zoomstraat, in the Oude Noorden area of Rotterdam. My mother was still under eight years old, but she would never forget that moment. Fietje was her 17-year-old niece. “She didn’t have to go …” she added. I was afraid to ask what she meant and a few months later asking was no longer possible.

Fietje’s mother, Paulina van Geens-Silberstein, got married in 1918 to the Amsterdam merchant Hartog van Geens. Like her brothers, she married within the Dutch Jewish community. Her parents, Abraham Silberstein and Sophia Levie (also: Levin, Lewin) were immigrants from Kaunas, Lithuania and Paulina was their second daughter, born in Rotterdam. Their first daughter, Gusta, was the only one who would marry outside the Jewish community, which was so decisive for survival from 1942 on. Only those that were “mixed married” in time could stay. The nazi’s never settled their judicial dispute on the ‘question of mixed marriages’ before war’s end. Gusta managed to have herself officially “de-starred” at the authorities in The Hague in the autumn of 1943, which was recorded by the Municipality of Rotterdam with zeal and precision. The metadata of life and death.

Hartog and Paulina settled in the Lijnbaanstraat in Rotterdam, where more people of Jewish descent lived at the time. In 1918, three months after their marriage, they had a first daughter, Margaretha. Abraham followed in 1920 and Jonas (1922), Sophia / Fietje (1925) and Levie (1929). Margaretha was killed in a car accident at the age of nine. She wanted to go to the Schiekade with a girlfriend and crossed the road under the viaduct of the train to Hofplein Station and was scooped in the process.

The area around Lijnbaanstraat was severely hit during the bombing of Rotterdam, May 1940. The Van Geens family had to flee, found shelter in Rotterdam Spangen, later at Duindigt (Wassenaar, near The Hague) and finally on the Van Ravesteinstraat in the Schilderswijk in The Hague. Fietje went to live with a friend on Jan Blankenstraat opposite Hollands Spoor Station. In the summer of 1942, summons came for Jews to present themselves with luggage for the “work expansion” in Germany. Fietje’s father Hartog and brother Jonas had already left for a labor camp in the Drenthe province when Abraham decided to sneak out of the house in the Schilderwijk after curfew. His mother and then thirteen-year-old brother Levie were asleep, he was never able to say goodbye and in 2000, remembering those days in ’42, he still felt the terrible pain and guilt.

Abraham went into hiding (‘onderduik’) in Haarlem and would from then on call himself “Harry”. He became a resistance fighter in the group around Hannie Schaft and survived the war (more about this later). From Haarlem he made an attempt to bring his brother Levie and sister Fietje to Haarlem, because there was a warning that the remaining family members in The Hague would be taken away. Their mother — whom he later characterized as “religious and law-abiding” — did not want to hear about it.

Knowing that deportation would still be a matter of time, Fietje said goodbye to her family in Rotterdam. The forced labourcamps in Friesland were cleared and the men were taken to Westerbork. And almost simultaneously, the remaining families were rounded up in The Hague and transported to Westerbork. The Dutch Railways had previously been commissioned to construct (‘temporarily’ — the track could be removed if it had served its deathly purpose) a branch of the Hooghalen — Groningen railway line to Westerbork. That branch was ready at the beginning of October 1942 to receive large numbers of deportation trains from Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and also The Hague, in Westerbork. There the influx was so great that most of them had “3–5.10.42” (arrived on October 3 to 5, 1942) put on their registration card.

Paulina, Hartog, Jonas and Levie were deported via Westerbork to Auschwitz on October 12, 1942 and murdered. Almost all immediately after arrival on October 15. Only Jonas was employed there for a short time, but the preserved remains of the Nazi administration in the so-called Sterbebücher mention 3–11–1942 as the date of his death.

Fietje remained behind in Westerbork — ignorant of their fate. She was registered as a (fur) seamstress. Her card at the Jewish Council states “6–10–42 Wb’k” as the date of arrival and registration, which is only slightly later than the rest of the family. For unknown reasons, she did not join the transport on October 12. On April 13, 1943 she was registered in Kl. Herzogenbusch, which became infamous as Kamp Vught. She would be sent back to Westerbork on May 23. Fietje wrote a postcard from Westerbork on May 24 to her best friend Sientje Lamers, who then lived on Walenburgerweg in Rotterdam. After the war, the postcard came into the possession of Bram / Harry van Geens, the only surviving member of this family. It was the last sign of his sister’s life, which he had been so anxious to save. With all the possible consequences and dangers that would have entailed. But it had been an opportunity: “She didn’t have to go.”

Fietje is writing to her friend

“Dear all, We are deported from Westerbork, where we were for 2 days. We don’t know where we’re going. However, as always, we are still optimistic and in spite of everything we do not lose heart. We saw many acquaintances in Westerbork and Mark Dassy [Dassi, musician from The Hague] would write. Now dear Sientje and Gerard warm-hearted kisses and stay brave. (…) Because really we will soon return with the whole family to see you again and a swift peace.”

Fietje was deported the next day with the thirteenth Sobibor-transport to the Nazi Sobibor extermination camp, in the forests of eastern Poland. It was one of the largest transports of the nineteen trains that would leave for Sobibor in the first half of 1943 from Westerbork. All 2862 passengers of transport 13, including the seventeen-year-old Fietje, were gassed and burned on May 28, 1943 immediately upon arrival in Sobibor. Prisoners in Sobibor revolted a few months later, killing 12 SS guards and escaped. The nazis then tried to erase all traces of the camp and its function and even had trees planted on the remains of gas chambers and mass graves. Recently a new museum, a memorial place and the final resting place of, among others, 34,313 Dutch Jews is marked with a white stone field.

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Translated from Dutch

In memory of Sophia van Geens and other members of the Van Geens-, Silberstein- and Ruijbroek family, murdered by Nazi’s 1942–1944 Auschwitz, Sobibor, Rotterdam

In memory of my mother, Joke Burger-Van Zandwijk (Rotterdam, April 20, 1935 — Rotterdam, May 4, 2016)



Eric Burger

Dutch historian, writer, #haiku-poet, recordsmanagement geek — World War II: Holocaust & Quislings — The Netherlands — www.destoorvogel.nl