Betty Knoop and her work with the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center’s Speakers Bureau
Article and Photos by Marianne A. Campolongo
Anne Frank has always been one of my heroines. Armonk resident Betty Knoop, who survived the unspeakable horrors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where Anne Frank and 50,000 others met their death, has now joined that heroine list.
Knoop, originally a Dutch citizen, grew up in Amsterdam. Though the two never met, like Frank, her childhood was cut short by the Nazis and she eventually was taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Unlike Frank, she survived.
Although her story is not as well known as Frank’s, hundreds of area students, civic group members, synagogue and church-goers have heard Knoop speak about her experiences over the past 45 years, most recently as part of the Speakers Bureau at the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center in White Plains. She is one of 20 survivors and liberators who share their message of hope and determination. Said Millie Jasper, the Center’s Executive Director, “You must be an ‘upstander’ not a bystander. When you see something, you need to speak up.” That is their message.
“Betty is a brilliant woman and she has a full life,” said Jasper. “Almost all of our survivors have full lives, families and no room in their lives for hate,” she adds.
This past April marked 70 years since Knoop, her parents and brother were liberated from Bergen-Belsen. Then, 14 years-old, 5’ 7” tall and weighing only 54 pounds, she has since grown into a strong, cheerful, lovely woman who still does yoga twice a week, is quick to offer a visitor coffee and hospitality, and who drives herself all over the region to share her story and a message of hope with her audience. “I should thank God on my knees every day,” she said.
She first spoke in public about her experiences 25 years after her liberation. Having asked her Rabbi at the Rye Community Synagogue to say Kaddish for her family, he asked that she speak to his confirmation class that night in return.
“How do you want me to do this?” she asked.
“Go back to your very first memories,” he told her.
“I still speak like that,” she said, recalling her childhood fears as she picked up on the anxiety of the adults around her when the Germans arrived, but then headed out to play the next minute, forgetting the anxiety as children are wont to do. “When I talk, I’m there again,” she said.
Knoop attended the Wilhelmina Catharina School in Amsterdam. Her eyes light up as she describes the “huge wooden front doors and beautiful vestibule. I thought it was chic,” she said. Although the Netherlands was neutral, nevertheless the Germans invaded, occupying the country in May 1940, when Knoop was nine. Jewish pupils were forbidden to attend school, but “my school didn’t want to give up their children.” No longer safe for them to enter through those front doors, they arrived surreptitiously via a back alley. “Classes got smaller daily because children had gone into hiding, left the country, or been picked up. We lost teachers too,” she sighed.
Three years later, Knoop’s family was taken to Westerbork in January 1943 and on to Bergen-Belsen in February 1944. As the forced evacuations of camps closer to the front began in late 1944, a barracks that held 50 people when she arrived suddenly held 1,000 people, and scarce food became nearly non-existent, she said. The crematorium there was small, so the bodies of those who starved to death were left for long periods. Records show the camp’s population went from 7,300 in July 1943 to 60,000 in April 1945. Prisoners went for days without food. When the British arrived to free them, “I looked like Olive Oyl with my head shaven. I was all arms and legs,” she said. Her mother, age 36, died just three days after they were freed. “I’m happy that I had my mother with me,” she said, though she is saddened that “the time I remember her best unfortunately were the war years.”
After graduating from high school at 19, her father wanted her to visit family in South Africa. “I had come from Apartheid. I didn’t want to go there,” she said. When her stepmother’s cousin invited her to New York, she jumped at the chance, vowing she would only return to Holland on vacation once she left. Coming to the U.S. in 1950, she stayed, meeting and marrying her soon after. Though surprised and distressed by race relations in the U.S., she was happy in America.
Knoop has been back to Holland many times, visiting family and friends, but even now she finds walking through the city “painful.”
Early on in the war, she told her father that she hated the Germans. Her father replied, “Hate is a word that has to go out of your vocabulary,” a lesson she took to heart.
Most of those in the Speaker’s Bureau are now in their 80s and 90s, so the Holocaust Center has a group of about 75 children and grandchildren of survivors, called Generation Forward, whom they are training to carry on their work.
Now widowed, Knoop raised her three children in Rye, but has lived in Armonk for eight years. Her son Gregg, who intends to take up his mother’s mantle and join Generation Forward, also lives in town with his wife and two sons, Zachary and Jason. Her son Henri lives in White Plains and her daughter Clara, named for her grandmother, lives in Florida.
Although she was only 12 when she was taken to the camps, and even younger when the German occupation began, Knoop says she doesn’t like to speak of her experiences to young children, believing 15 or 16 is a better age. When asked to sum up her message in a few sentences, she said, “That racism is evil. It’s always evil and it debases men.”
Marianne A. Campolongo is a freelance writer and photographer from Chappaqua, New York. Her website is www.campyphotos.com