Overcoming Obstacles to Freedom
Miriam Keesing recalls her family’s wartime journey from the Netherlands.
“You must not worry too much about us, we are well protected, England and France are helping us, so everything will be all right.” After some chit-chat, my grandmother, Marianne Keesing, devoted a few words to the invasion of the Netherlands by the German Army on May 10, 1940. She was writing to her daughter Emmy, who had been living in Queens, NY, since early 1938 after her marriage to Reuben Fine, an American chess master. Due to the war, all mail service was suspended, and the letter was returned.
My grandmother’s optimism must have been shattered when the Netherlands surrendered four days later. To make matters worse, her youngest sister Espérance, who was married to my grandfather’s younger brother Jacob Keesing, and my grandfather’s two half-sisters ended their own lives on May 16 after a failed attempt to escape the country. Her optimism was all the more remarkable because my grandfather Isaäc had insisted on taking the whole mishpocha with him when he went to the US in early 1939 to explore business opportunities for the publishing firm he had established in 1911, fearing that the Germans would invade the Netherlands during his absence. So, in early 1939, all family members had left Europe: the oldest daughter Elizabeth and her family for the East Indies and the rest of the family for the US. But my father Leo Keesing, born in 1912, decided to return to Amsterdam to marry the girl he loved, apparently less aware of the looming war than his father. My aunt Nora followed because she wanted to finish high school. In September 1939 my grandparents gave in and also returned to Amsterdam.
Right after the occupation, the Keesing family started preparing paperwork to leave the country once again. At this point it was very complicated to leave the Netherlands. The first obstacle was that the US Consulate in Rotterdam had been bombed on May 14, 1940, complicating US visa applications. Additionally, ships were no longer sailing between occupied Europe and the US. And, finally, the Nazis were not keen on letting anyone leave.
To this day I am not sure how the family managed to leave the Netherlands in January 1942. One helping hand was Karel Broekhoff, deputy police chief of Amsterdam and close friend of my grandfather’s. Another helpline was Leonard Keesing, my grandfather’s half-brother. A well-to-do banker, he had lived in the US during WWI and had moved back there just before WWII. Though the two brothers had had a fall-out sometime in the late 1920s, Leonard stepped in and helped, both financially and logistically.
Would my father, who passed away in 1997, have known how they managed to leave the Netherlands legally? I doubt it. There are stories about a Mr. Schulze-Bernett, a Nazi, who would have been the driving force behind a plan that eventually made it possible for about 180 Jews to leave the Netherlands. The reason the Germans would have allowed these people to leave is the allegation that some German-Jewish spies traveled with these groups of emigrants.
The emigration process was very slow. In July 1941, the Cuban visas came through. But it was not until January 30, 1942, that the Keesing family, i.e., my grandparents, my aunt Nora, my father and his first wife Mimi, along with 17 other Jews, finally boarded a train in Amsterdam. They were accompanied by two SS officers, who were to protect them during the journey from other Germans who might want to harm the traveling Jews. Via Paris, they travelled to the French-Spanish border at Hendaye/Irun.
Everyone had a ticket for the Marques de Comillas, which was supposed to depart from Bilbao, Spain, on February 7, 1942. Here they encountered more trouble: the Compania Transatlantica, a Spanish ocean line, told the Keesings that their Cuban visas had expired. On top of that, the Marques de Comillas, ready for departure in the harbor, did not get permission to sail. And Mimi discovered that she was pregnant.
On February 14, Leo wrote a desperate letter to the Dutch Embassy in Madrid asking for help. Their Spanish transit visas were about to expire and they were running out of money. My grandfather had asked the Devisenrat (Foreign Exchange Council) in The Hague for permission to take enough funds for a year, but apparently this was denied. On February 15, my father wrote to the de Lunas, acquaintances in Barcelona, begging them for a loan of funds. It is unknown how the Keesings and the rest of the group got in touch with the JDC, but according to a document from the JDC Archives, on February 16 my family received a first advance of 4,000 pesetas (then $320). Supported not only by the JDC, but also by Leonard and the de Lunas in Barcelona, they arrived in Lisbon on March 6, 1942. After ten days in Lisbon, they embarked on the SS Guiné, hired by the JDC, which took them and 403 others to safety.
Some years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a document about my family in the JDC Archives. In April 2020, I emailed the Archives in New York to ask if there were any more on the Keesings. One week later I got an email with all the documents, which was a great treat and a beautiful addition to the documents I already had in my possession.
Reaching Havana was not the end of the troubles for the Keesings. Completely unexpected, they were interned in Tiscornia, the Cuban Ellis Island, for six months. During this time, they were also supported by the JDC. While I believe that from this point onward Uncle Leonard took the financial help upon himself, it was the JDC that helped with all the bureaucracy. Between 1938-1944, 12,000 Jewish refugees arrived in Cuba. Most of them were supported by JDC and received vocational training, business loans, and job placement assistance.
On October 3, 1942, the Keesings were released. My half-brother Uriël was born in freedom, in Havana, on October 4, 1942. In January 1943 the Keesings left Cuba for the US. My grandfather and aunt found a job at the Dutch Embassy in Washington and my father began working at the KNSM (Royal Dutch Steamship Company) in New York. After the war, they all returned to Amsterdam, where the family business had survived the war more or less intact thanks to the heroic efforts of a friend to whom my grandfather had given a blanket power of attorney. The pull to return home to Amsterdam had not abated.
About the Author
Miriam Keesing is a musician and historical researcher, currently working on a research project about Jewish refugee children who fled from the Third Reich to the Netherlands between Kristallnacht and the start of the war (see www.dokin.nl). She lives just outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands.