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Toys, Tales, Tenacity: Bep-Rie Gomperts

A black and white photo showing a young girl running in a field. She is wearing a white dress with a collar and a big white bow in her short hair. She is smiling as she moves.

Bep-Rie Gomperts was two years old when the war started in the Netherlands. It soon became clear that she and her family needed to go into hiding for their safety. 

Bep spent the next several years moving from family to family and was seperated from her mother just shy of her sixth birthday. 

Listen as Bep recalls her childhood with several different families and what life was like amid the uncertainty.  

Music

If I Were You, Alsever Lake

Transcript 

LAURA THOMAS: The Shrine of Remembrance acknowledges the Bunurong people of the Kulin nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was recorded. We pay our respects to elders past and present. 

Welcome to the final episode in the Toys, Tales and Tenacity podcast series. In this series, we delve into three stories of how war and conflict have impacted the childhood of three quite extraordinary individuals.

In this episode, you’ll meet Bep-Rie Gomperts, who was born in the Netherlands in 1938.

When the war broke out, Bep’s family made the decision to go into hiding and over several years, Bep moved around living with lots of different people, and was eventually separated from her mother for safety. 

Bep joined me over Zoom, so please excuse the different audio, but I hope you find Bep’s story powerful nonetheless 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Hi, how are you? 

LAURA THOMAS: Good. Now, I thought we could start at the beginning. Bep, could you tell me a little bit about your family and your early childhood?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yeah, we were like a middle of the road family. Nothing really special. My mum was a hairdresser and my father was a tobacco broker. So yeah, life was pretty good.

LAURA THOMAS: And you were born in Amsterdam in 1938. What was early life like, you might not have too many memories, but being told the story, kind of back to you. What were those early years of your life like?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yeah, well, we went on holidays to the seaside. Pretty normal. Nothing like special. I mean, I can't really remember a lot about it. But I see photographs. And yeah, all quite normal.

LAURA THOMAS: So when the war started, how did that impact your childhood initially?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Initially, nothing really happened because the Germans entered in the Netherlands in five days, the Netherlands, Netherlands was overrun. But it took until 1941, before the Germans started to implement measures against the Jewish population. So that first war year, really nothing major happened.

LAURA THOMAS: What kind of things did they introduced in 1941?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: They started to decree that Jewish people could not have any or hold any teaching positions. They could not perform businesses. So they made life really hard for the Jewish population.

LAURA THOMAS: And off the back of that Bep, your family were toying with going into hiding. Can you explain the reasoning behind that? And eventually, what happened after that? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, the reason behind us going into hiding was that my mother came from a politically quite well informed family. Her father was in the resistance. And he helped the refugees that came from Poland and Germany, and was very aware of what was happening in those countries. So when all these measures had been taken, my parents were in the position that they could go into hiding. And that's what they started to prepare for.

LAURA THOMAS: And what was the plan? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, the plan was to go to a family, apparently, I mean, the exact plan from A to Z I don't know, I mean, I was little. But on the day that we were going into hiding, my father said, 'Look, you know, I have to tie up some loose ends at the office before I'm going away'. And so he went to the office, which was right in the centre of Amsterdam, and on his way back home, at the big square in Amsterdam, was the first round up and he had no idea. So he walked straight into it, and he by then, the Jews had to wear the Star of David on their outer clothing, and he wore the Star of David so they took him and we never saw him back again.

LAURA THOMAS: It's a heartbreaking story. And like so many others we've heard around this exhibition. And in the wider stories of the Holocaust Museum and the things that they share. Your mother, after your father was taken, what did she do Bep?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: She wasn't sure but had a fairly okay idea of what had happened. But it was the first round up in Amsterdam. So you know, and she thought, 'Well, let's stay home for a little while longer'. So we did not go into hiding that day. So after a while, and I don't know how long that while was, whether it was long or short, or whatever, the bell was rung one day. And there were two gentleman, and they wanted to take us away. And my mother said, 'Look, you know, my daughter is asleep'. And they said, 'Look, don't worry, wake her up. And you come with us'. And so she goes into the bedroom. And they sort of followed her. And she performed an act, she let herself fall down. 

LAURA THOMAS: She pretended to faint. 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yes. And she did not move anymore, did not react anymore. Nothing. So they thought, What do we do now?' So they thought, 'Let's get a doctor'. So they go out in the street. And by sheer coincidence, they get to our doctor. He comes upstairs, we were on the first floor. And he said to the guy, the gentleman 'Leave the bedroom', because he had to examine what was going on. So when they were out of the room, he said very softly to my mother, 'You're not going today'. So he opened the door. And he said to the guys, he said, 'Look, she's very sick, this lady can't be moved'. And the thing was that even the people, the Dutch people that that cooperated with the Germans, they were all very afraid to catch some illness, you know , that they had no even heard of. So they left. Well, firstly, my mother was on the floor. So Doctor asked the guys, 'Could you please help me to put her on the bed?' So my mother could feel the doctor lifting her up by the shoulders, and then the men or one of men, whatever, took her by the legs, and she said 'They swooped me onto the bed'. And inside, she had to laugh about the whole situation because it was odd, of course. But they left. And that was actually the moment that my mother thought, well, now we really have to get moving. And I don't know how long it took her after that in days, weeks, whatever to get to our first hiding place. 

LAURA THOMAS: Tell me about that first hiding place, Bep. 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, that was with a family in Amsterdam. And they were not a big family. But anyway, in Amsterdam, they're all small flats, but a lot of flats, because there's thick gables in Amsterdam, most flats have what they call an attic room. And so I slept in the attic room. And I can still I mean, it's so many years, I can still see myself in the room. And I could hear voices and I thought 'That can't be right'. After the war. I asked my mother about it. I said, 'What did I hear?' And she laughed, and she said, 'Well, eight o'clock was curfew, so people could not move through the streets anymore.  All these attic rooms have windows and people could move out of the window into their wide gatherings along and they would move from one safe flat stairwell to another flat stairwell.'

LAURA THOMAS: So you were hearing everyone moving around?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yes. And that's how they are moving around. So yeah,

LAURA THOMAS: While you were with that family, what were you told to do? Were you able to be a normal child or was there kind of limits on saying you know...

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: No, no I could play outside because first, I wasn't according to the norms, looking very Jewish. The other thing was that my name is Bep. And Bep is a very Dutch name. So I did never, I never had to change my name. And even my surname was not very Jewish, so I could just use my own name. There was never like, 'Oh, don't say this, or don't do that, or whatever'. And I could play outside with kids.

LAURA THOMAS: So from the house that you were just talking about, the one where you're hearing people running, running over the roofs that that became unsafe, and you had to move again, is that right?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: We had to move, and again, timeframes I am not quite sure about but we had to move. And we got to the Hague. And we were staying in what they call the painters area, which is actually the red light district. And that was a big Catholic family. So I was number 10 in the row of kids. 

LAURA THOMAS: My goodness, nine other children and they they still had the heart to bring in another. What were they saying your relation was to other people around them?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Oh, look, cousins, nieces, you know, and we had to move because of, you know, the Germans were occupying the area, there was always this nonsense of why you had to move. So we were staying with that family. And I was number 10. And my mum, called those kinds of families, you know, with nine or ten kids, organ pipes.

LAURA THOMAS: Because of the slanted way that the organ pipes could be similar to the height of children, there you go. And speaking of your mother, was she able to live a relatively I say normal, very delicately here, but was she able to go out and play with you? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, the thing was, my mum was a hairdresser. And she dyed her hair blonde. And also, she was not what they regarded as the Jewish, what do you call that? A Jewish type. So she moved pretty freely through this and of course, didn't wear the star of David.

LAURA THOMAS: There was one conversation that we've had earlier Bep where you were telling me about your mother, out on the sand dunes and some soldiers. Would you like to share that? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: This whole area was going to be confiscated by the Germans. So the family and all those people that live there had to move. And we were moved to an area in the seaside town of The Hague, which is called Scheveningen. And we were in a flat opposite the dunes. So my Mum took the little ones into the dunes to play where they were the soldiers, they, you know, you had the Atlantic Wall. And that was part of the Atlantic Wall, and there were German soldiers, young boys, you know, and my mum looked very young, so she probably didn't even look like a mother. Very thin and whatever. And my mother's mother, my grandmother, was born in Germany. And actually, my mother was born in Germany, and spoke very well German. So she would speak with German soldiers, and they thought that she was good looking. And they asked her out. 

LAURA THOMAS: And she's thinking 'If only they knew’.

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: 'If you knew who I am, or what I am or who I am, then you probably wouldn't ask', but you know, so she always laughed it away. And yeah, didn't go out with them.

LAURA THOMAS: There came a point after you with that family of nine children that you and your mother actually had to split up and go into hiding separately. Why was that Bep?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, in between this family in The Hague and family where we had not really a place to stay. And we went back to Amsterdam, and we stayed with for a short while with a German lady who was engaged to a German boy and they were both in the green police. 

LAURA THOMAS: And what's that?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: That was the Grüne Polizei, as it's called in German, is the police - they were not the worst. They were like, okay. And she was in the underground with my mother's sister, and her then fiancee. And this was a whole sell. Her fiancee had no idea. At a certain stage were eight Jews there with my future uncle who was not Jewish, but was in the underground cells. And they were all sitting at this lady's flat, when apparently they had some inkling that something was not quite right. The Germans came and looked around. Saw all these people there. And there were eight Jewish people. And my future uncle, the underground guy who really helped me getting where I was gowing was the only non Jew there. But according to the Germans, he looked Jewish. They said to him, you come with me. He happily obliged, because he was not Jewish, and all these Jews could flee, because they left. That was like, a stroke of unbelievable luck, as well. 

LAURA THOMAS: So it was that point that you thought, okay...

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: That that future uncle, because he was my mother's sister's fiance, and that sister was also in the underground. Yeah, so we were at this German ladies place. And I think at that stage, they said to my mother, you have to split up, it's going to be too dangerous to stay together. So then, I was brought by my aunt, the one in the underground, to this place where this couple was waiting for me. 

LAURA THOMAS: And how old were you at this stage?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, I tell you what, and I still remember that, I entered that place. It was April 1944. And my first words to the lady because the men had gone shopping were 'Next month, I'm going to be six years old. And then I can go to school', because I thought in my mind that on the day that you turned six, you can go to school, and I was dying to go to school, that I had to wait till after the holidays, which is in July, August. I didn't know whether I could go to school at all was something you know, we never knew. But I didn't know that. So anyway, I know it was April 1944.

LAURA THOMAS: So you're six years old, and you've just been separated from your mother? Do you remember what you were feeling at that stage?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Not really. I mean, you go with the flow. You know, you don't really ask questions. And I was quite maybe docile, I don't know. You know, and because I was already so used to being slipped from one side to another. That, yeah, it happened.

LAURA THOMAS: It's an interesting theme. And that's come out in the other podcasts, the Toys, Tales, Tenacity ones, that when you're at such a young age, and you've had these experiences from you know, 2, 3, 4 years old, your point of reference is the abnormalities. So kind of the changes, like you said, you just go with the flow, because you don't really know anything different. You might have the suspicions and, and the thinking is that something's not quite right here. But the point at which you're questioning it is a lot different to if you werre to experience them as an adult, I think.

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, you look at things from quite a different angle. I mean, a grown up can maybe reason about all this, you know, you have to do the- I mean, look at the parents, but what did they have to do to either save the children, some parents gave the kids away. And some parents are no no, no, no, we take them with us. You know, but they could reason either way. But a kid you can't reason, I mean, and then I mean, I was two say three when it really, the whole thing started to evolve. Your life starts quite upside down, but you don't know it. Because it is what it is.

LAURA THOMAS: I think that's a great point. So you're with this couple, you've been separated from your mother, what was life like there? Could you go to school? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, he was an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church. So when September came or so, August, September, I could go to school, but that was 1944. And, yes, I could go to school. But that winter 1944, 1945, was going to be very severe. The snow was sky high. We didn't have any shos. And so we were walking on clogs. And I don't know if you know what happens to snow under clogs. I mean, it gets higher and higher. We thought that was good, because you were a bit taller.

LAURA THOMAS: You get taller and taller.

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: So it was cold and in the school, there was not a lot of schooling going on, because it was too cold. But by then, when I could go to school, where those people lived was quite outside the village, there was a whole cluster of houses. So it was a long way to walk from there to the school. And when you walked a bit further outside, you got to the dunes. And in the dunes was or are the Amsterdam waterworks. And I had found a little friend at school, whose father was the manager of the waterworks. And after a while, he would either pick me up to go to school, or drop me off to go home. So that became a bit of a friend and I would play there. And then those people where I was staying were going to get a German pilot. And they had to get rid of me, you know, because I couldn't be there. So they asked my friend's mother, if I could stay there for a little while,

LAURA THOMAS: At this friend's house?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yeah, so she said 'Yeah not a problem'. Anyway, I only, I thought it was only once that I stayed there. 60 years after the event, I found that it was about three times that, that they got that pilot interned, and that I had to leave and are staying with those people. But they didn't know, they thought I was like a little niece from another village. And that those people had a lot of kids and that I was staying with them. But then at a certain stage, they were talking about Rebecca, the one in the Bible, you know, the biblical Rebecca. And I've innocently said, 'Oh, my grandmother is called Rebecca'. And then the mother looks at me. And she thought 'That's a Jewish child'. But she didn't say anything. 

LAURA THOMAS: She kept it totally quiet. 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: She kept it quiet.

LAURA THOMAS: That's incredible. During the last months of the Second World War, Bep you were living through the Hunger Winter, so there were big food shortages. What was that like for you and the family that you were staying with?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, firstly, everything was on coupons. You know, well, there wasn't any butter, there was nothing. But the little bit that was there was all coupons. And everybody got a coupon for a week or whatever, for this much bread, this much, whatever. But for me, there were no coupons because I was not officially there. So the little bit that they had, they had to share with me, or they shared with me, you know, so there was nothing.

LAURA THOMAS: You ate tulips? AmI right in saying that you have memories of that? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yes. Yes. Well, I know that you have to take the core out, you know, when you've got an onion, you've got that core thing that comes out, because that poisonous and they are a little bit bitter. But there was no butter, there was no oil, I mean pots and pans were black, you know, because all you had to do was fry with nothing. 

LAURA THOMAS: So it was burning everything

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: And if they had rice, there was hardly any gas, electricity, nothing. So she had like, a pot and would put the rice in the pot, and that would stand overnight in a, they call it hay box, a box with hay, they will put it in a hay box overnight. And that's would cook. And in summertime, in Holland, you've got this very small, what they call the new potatoes. And the skins are very loose, it's sort of, and they didn't even peel that because you could peel too much, but she would have a wooden shoe, put those potatoes in water. And with the wooden shoe, the peels would get off, you know, just to be, you know, to have everything, as much as you had.

LAURA THOMAS: They didn't know you and they took you in and they went through this for you.

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: They were very religious, and they felt it was their duty to do this. He was an elder in the church. And I went to church every Sunday, you know, and I was sitting there, but I had already gone to Catholic kindergarten. And I would sit in, in church and I would look around and to me, I don't know why, to me, it was like a bit of a theatre. And he would read every evening from the Bible. And I would pray and you know, and that was okay, fine. And I found it very interesting as a story, but the church, it first, like, 'What's happening here?" 

LAURA THOMAS: There was never that connection for you

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: No

LAURA THOMAS:  Now you were reunited with your mother after liberation. Tell me a little bit about that. And your experiences of being with her again? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Whilst I was in with that with that family, I could play outside. And I was forever in a day playing outside. I loved it. And also, when the war was still on, people were going out because there was no wood, there was no heat, there was nothing. And they cut down all the trees, and then the kids would collect all like what they call the kindling, you know, and I would do that as well. So I was always outside. When my mother or when we had to part ways, she said, 'Look, you know, when the war is over, I will come and pick you up'. Later on, she thought 'I should have never said that', she said 'because I didn't know whether I would survive. But anyway, she had said it. So war was over. And I'm playing outside and one day, my say foster mother called me. She said, 'there's a visitor for you'. And i said very flippantly, 'that must be my mother'. I thought well, she was going to tell me that she was going to pick me up. So I didn't want to come inside because 'Oh, it's my mother'.

LAURA THOMAS: Even after all these years as a kid you just...

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: I didn't realise what had happened to her

LAURA THOMAS: Where had she been? What had happened to her Bep?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Well, after we had split up, she ended up in that seaside place of The Hague, there is a jail, which they call the Orange Hotel because of the Dutch royal family and she was picked up and was put there. The first morning, like real prisoners, they could walk around in the courtyard for an hour to get some fresh air. She sees that her sister, the one who was in the underground is also there. She didn't know that. So anyway, how long they were there for, I'm not quite sure. But at a certain stage they were put on transport to go to Westerbork Transit Camp, and all these people were put on the train. But they were bombings going on by then left, right and centre. And every time when there was some bobbing, the train stopped. Everybody had to get out. It took them three days before they got to Westerbork. And then they got to Westerbork, the last train to the east had left that night before and the railway lines were bombed. My mother and her sister, with all the other people, sat it out until liberation.

LAURA THOMAS: Again, another close call, isn't it? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Unbelievable. So when they were liberated, they wanted to go back Amsterdam, and trucks went back to Amsyerdam and they could go on the truck. And on the way back to Amsterdam, they said, 'Can you make a detour to a place called Apeldoorn because that's where my father's sister was in hiding?'. And they picked her up. So the three girls came to Amsterdam. And that's when my mother came to see me. 

LAURA THOMAS: So after your mother came to pick you up, did you ever see the family that you stayed with? That couple that you stayed with? Did you keep in touch?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: They became our family. Birthdays, whatever days, we were there on their birthdays, they came to us on our birthdays. Now my birthday is on the fourth of May. So what happens, they, on the fourth of May is Remembrance Day, the whole of the Netherlands stops at eight o'clock at night. It's still light then, but all the street lights go on. And people remember, and everything stops, I think for two minutes. So everybody made sure that they came to our place. Before eight o'clock. We had two minutes silence. And then the coffee and cake came. 

LAURA THOMAS: So you kept that connection going with them? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: We kept that always going

LAURA THOMAS: And what about the young boy that you made friends with? Did you ever hear anything from him again?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Now, we skip I don't know how many years and I said to my husband all the time 'I wonder what happened to my friend'. And I thought how, because he has a very common surname that you've got no idea where to start looking. So I thought one day, you know what, one of the radio stations, television stations, they had programmes, if you wanted to find somebody, and I thought, I'm trying that. And they found him. 

LAURA THOMAS: Wow, the way that the world works. It's incredible.  I'm assuming you met him? What was that like?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: It was unbelievable. But not only that, he calls me his little war sister. And I said no. I said, I am your big war sister. I tell you why. I am born on the fourth of May 1938. He was born on the fifth of May 1938.

LAURA THOMAS: So you just got him.

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Fourth of May is Remembrance Day. Fifth of May is Liberation Day.

LAURA THOMAS: There's something beautiful in that isn't there? 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yeah, it's unbelievable.

LAURA THOMAS: So you tell your story to school groups and children coming through the Holocaust Museum. Why do you think it's so important that you're involved in that, and that the younger generations hear your story and hear what you went through?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: I don't even know whether it is what I went through. But to maybe get them to realise that it's real people. You know, it's because what you see on television, you see all the kids and, and my heart aches for what ever child and when, because even the kids that survive they are, well they've got a life sentence about all this. And that is more or less not to tell them how terrible or how this or that. And in, in essence, my war years, were not that bad. And I always said my war started after the war when the realisation set in and that is really why I want to tell them that what happens has this enormous impact later in life. When I got my own children, I thought oh my god, all these babies, all these, you know, and I mean, I haven't got horror stories to tell, on the contrary, but how it impacts and they always ask what do you want to tell the kids and I say 'think for yourself, you know, don't let others dictate what and how'.

LAURA THOMAS: I think that's a very powerful message and benefits. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your stories and your experiences and also how they translate to today. I was wondering if you had any last words to share with us about your experiences or a message for those listening at home about this as well?

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Yeah, well, try live your life as good and well as possible because you never know what's around the corner, especially these days. 

LAURA THOMAS: I think as we discussed earlier, your story is that case in point, all of the close calls that you had all of the what ifs and and what might have been, but I really appreciate you Bep taking the time, as I said, to share your story, and to share it hopefully with future generations so that we know that history shouldn't repeat itself and we need to be the ones to stop that. 

BEP-RIE GOMPERTS: Okay

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Toys, Tales and Tenacity podcast series, and a special thanks to Bep Rae Gomperts for being so open in sharing his story. 

This series accompanies the Toys, Tales and Tenacity exhibition, which is on display at the Shrine of Remembrance until August 2024.

The exhibition delves into the experiences of children during war, shedding light on their unique perspectives and the profound impact war has had on their upbringing. To learn more, head to the Shrine website – shrine.org.au 

This was the final episode in a series of conversations about how conflict has impacted the childhoods of three different people. To hear the rest of the series, search Shrine of Remembrance wherever you get your podcasts. 

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