Peter Metzelaar, a Holocaust survivor from Amsterdam, shared his story with students at Battle Ground High School during a presentation he gave on April 14.
Metzelaar, who is 86, was born in Amsterdam in 1935. In 1942, when he was 7 years old, the Nazis seized members of his family, who were Jewish. Metzelaar and his mother, Elli, found shelter on a small farm in Mekkinga in northern Holland with the help of Klaas and Roefina Post.
They later moved from place to place in hiding until the war ended in 1945.
“In Holland, it was a very small country, and at that particular time, there were only about 140,000 people of the Jewish faith,” said Metzelaar. “The Nazis took over in May of 1940. By the time it was over in May 1945, of the 140,000 (people), between 75 to 80% were murdered. I don’t even like to use the word killed. They were murdered intentionally.”
When he was a child, Metzelaar said the Nazis raided an apartment building he was staying at.
“It was 10 or 11 at night and a bunch of trucks pulled up in front of the apartment, and I’ll never forget this: In the quiet of the night, these German soldiers yelling, ‘All Jews get out,’” he said. “It was followed by doors being kicked in and babies crying. They hadn’t come to our door yet and I didn’t know what the racket was all about. I was 6 years old. Except some of my friends weren’t in school the next day and it continued.”
Metzelaar said he remembers seeing people who were hauled off in trucks by the Nazis, never to be seen again.
During the presentation, Metzelaar detailed the Nuremberg laws, which started in 1935, that Adolf Hitler imposed on the Jewish population. Jewish people were not allowed to go outside after 8 p.m., they could not be teachers, they were forbidden to partake in athletic activities in public, and they had no political rights.
Since Hitler took over food production in Nazi-occupied countries, people had to use stamps to obtain food, but the Jewish population was not given access to the resource, Metzelaar said.
Metzelaar and his mother established a connection with the Dutch Underground, which is how they met the Post family. They were funneled into safehouses.
The Posts barely had enough food to feed themselves, but they sacrificed some of their limited supplies to make sure Metzelaar and his mother had enough to eat.
“They worked their fingers to the bone to sustain themselves, and now mom and myself,” he said.
Metzelaar said the Post family put themselves at great risk since they could have been transported to the death camps if Metzelaar and his mother were found in their presence.
“When I talk about a death camp, the Germans had throughout Europe over 35,000 camps. Now when I say camps, those were labor camps, food-raising and ammunition camps,” Metzelaar said. “But then they built five of them for only one purpose. It was only built to annihilate people — to kill people.”
Once Nazis started raiding farms, Metzelaar and his mother fled from the farm to the woods nearby to hide in a cave. The duo used twigs to cover themselves and stayed there for days at a time.
They then made their way back to Amsterdam after his mother disguised herself as a nurse using a uniform made out of bed sheets. She pretended Metzelaar was an orphan. A Nazi soldier, who believed her story, took them to Amsterdam where the pair hid until Canada liberated the Netherlands in 1945.
Metzelaar and his mother then immigrated to the United States in 1949, where he has lived ever since. Metzelaar is a keynote speaker for the Holocaust Center for Humanity’s Speakers Bureau.
After the war, he noted how Nazi scientists — notably Wernher von Braun — were transported to the U.S. to take part in Operation Paperclip, where they designed and engineered rockets that were later used by NASA.
Metzelaar said there are Holocaust deniers, but noted the atrocities commited are “one of the most documented” historical events. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped with the cause. Eisenhower visited the concentration camps during the war when he was a general so he could document what happened. Metzelaar said Eisenhower did that because he predicted people would try to deny that the Holocaust occurred.
With the rise of the far-right politics in the United States, which has been exemplified by Charlottesville and the Jan. 6 insurrection, he said the American people should stay vigilant.
“It’s not overblown and we better take it seriously,” Metzelaar said. “It’s not a matter of preparing, it’s a matter of coming out with facts. If you hit a lie, you need to say ‘hey, that’s not true. What you’re saying is not true.”
“If you get enough people and go along with it, as so many do on the far-right unfortunately, then you’re in trouble,” he continued. “There’s a lot I can see with the propaganda, with lies, and misinformation, (which is the) same thing that happened in the beginning of WWII. History always repeats itself unless you do something to not allow it to.”
He urged the students to be open-minded and encouraged them to think independently of others.
“Think for yourself,” Metzelaar said. “Don’t just go along with whomever. If it sounds pretty wild, then just look it up, find out for yourself, and make the determination from there.”