I Missed My Train: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story

By Elke Hautala
Seattle / Amsterdam

I first traveled to Amsterdam on my honeymoon. We rented an apartment in the Oud Centrum, the city’s old center. It had tall, narrow stairs and a tiny deck on top with two old chairs, and visiting pigeons. It was heaven.

SONY DSCCheese and Bols Genever in the brown cafés. Walks for miles along cobblestoned streets. Every object and location imbued with echoes of history. For a historian’s daughter from America, it was mind-blowing.

It was on this trip I was reunited, for the first time in my adult life, with Ernst Van Gelderen. Ernst was the cool Dutch exchange student who went to high school with my dad back in the 1950s, in tiny Walnut Creek, California. Amazingly, they had kept in touch through all the intervening years.

I considered Ernst my Dutch “uncle,” but aside from visits as a little kid, I had only talked to him on the phone once – when I was in Texas, back in 2000. Now, in Amsterdam, in 2008, Ernst and his wife, Lies, pulled up in front of our rental house and whisked us away to the countryside town of Laren. This was Holland at its most postcard picture perfect; windmills, fields, a charming town square. We toured, ate, toasted with genever (a juniper-based Dutch liquor), and talked.

Those times became etched in my memory. I vowed to return. But time passed and faded – submitting to the immediacy of day-to-day life.

Several years later, a special gift arrived from my dad: A simple brown package with the story of a long-kept-secret life. Ernst had written down his memories of World War II. Ernst was Jewish.

Tears brimmed in my eyes as I turned the pages. It was an incredible story of survival against all odds.

Ernst and his sister, Karina, shortly before the war separated them.

Ernst and his sister, Karina, in 1942.

At age three, Ernst had been sent into hiding with a family he did not know, only to be discovered by the police. He was sent to prison, to a holding area in an old theater where he was to be put on a train destined for almost-certain death.

Miraculously, he was saved by an underground resistance member, who managed to pull him off the train, just as it was about to depart for Hitler’s concentration camps. He was sent to live with a new adopted family close to the German border. Even more miraculous: His parents and sister all survived the war as well. But then began their search for Ernst. He had vanished without a trace.

In the days before e-mail, Ernst says, finding him was quite an undertaking. Against all odds, they managed to track him down. 

Returning to Holland and sharing Ernst’s story on film has now become my dream. As I look up at the pink ribbon sky, the sun setting on an unseasonably warm day in Seattle, I contemplate this next adventure. In November, we will travel back to Holland. This time Ernst will be the main reason for our visit. We are going to capture his story.

I envision interview sessions over old black-and-white photographs in his cozy house in Laren. The smell of wood smoke and the rustle of leaves as we revisit sites long banished from his early memories in Amsterdam. The castle-like façade and white walls giving little hint of their terrible past in Scheveningen Prison.

Then, Vaals, a town near the German border, where I anticipate a bucolic feeling, and the welcoming arms of distant relatives bound by more than just blood. It will be emotional and overwhelming, cathartic and important.

This time Ernst will be my tour guide through history. And I will preserve his memories forever.

Elke hopes to return to the Netherlands later this year to tell Ernst Van Gelderen’s story and preserve his memories in a video documentary. She and her Heartstone Studios co-producer are crowd-funding their endeavor and are offering thank-you gifts to donors at various levels. If you would like to donate, you can make a tax-deductible contribution here.

You can also follow them on Twitter at @Imissedmytrain and join the discussion on their Facebook page.

This short video clip tells more about their project:

Make a donation and help Elke tell Ernst’s story.

Elke Hautala is an eternal optimist with a passion for storytelling. Among other things, she has talked about Seattle’s early history on Anthony Bourdain’s show, “The Layover,” and filmed female wrestlers in Mexico. She endeavors to tell the world’s stories, one person at a time. Her most recent project, A Modern Creation Story, focuses on renowned Seattle glass-blowing artist Preston Singletary. It will be screening later this month at the Local Sightings Film Festival in Seattle. You can find out more about her on her website:

Published on Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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