Survivor tells story of life during Holocaust

April 27, 1993|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Staff Writer

Amichai Heppner spent much of his childhood hiding in windmills and chicken houses and behind brick walls. His game of hide and seek was not from other children, but from Nazi sympathizers.

Now, at 59, Mr. Heppner tells his story of the Holocaust to people like those who gathered at Rachelle Hurwitz's home in Uniontown on Sunday night to remember the Jews slaughtered in Warsaw during World War II.

"Like other Holocaust survivors, I didn't want to talk about it," Mr. Heppner told the ecumenical crowd of about 40 people as he showed slides of his family, his homeland and pictures he drew as a pre-teen child in hiding in the Netherlands.

The drawings are the basis of his as-yet-unpublished book, "I Live in a Chicken House," written last year.

He was born Max Bernard Heppner to an affluent family in 1933. TC The Berlin native and his parents moved to Amsterdam about six months after Hitler came to power.

Mr. Heppner said he recently changed his name to Amichai, or "my people live," in appreciation of his Jewish heritage.

"My father was one of the early ones to realize that the Jews were not going to be able to live in Germany and be able to survive," he said.

When Nazi forces invaded the Netherlands, the family was again subject to anti-Jewish laws. One of his more painful childhood memories is of German authorities confiscating his bicycle when he was 8, he said.

"They even confiscated them from a little guy like myself who had just gotten a bicycle," said Mr. Heppner, recalling how his father escorted him to an office to receive the official receipt.

After his mother was arrested and released only because she obtained false papers, and his father escaped being taken into custody by hiding in a pile of clothes in the attic, the family decided to move again.

He, his parents and another Jewish family -- Heinz and Ellie Heimler and their son, Michael -- started leaving with the help of the Dutch underground. But their guides became frightened and killed Michael, and the remaining group ended up in the custody of Harry and Hubertina Janssen for two years, until the summer of 1945.

"When Harry found out what happened to Michael, he decided, 'I'm not going to turn you over to anyone else. I'm going to take care of you all myself,' " Mr. Heppner said. "The couple of days dragged out to a couple of weeks to a couple of months to a couple of years."

The combined family shared a two-room chicken coop with Mr. Janssen's brother's family, whose home had been confiscated by the Nazis for office space. Mr. Janssen's other brother also moved his family to the farm because of a food shortage in the city.

"The Janssens were not only courageous, they were loving and sincere," Mr. Heppner said; his benefactors could have been killed by Nazi sympathizers if the Jews had been discovered. "They were simple farm people and had to deal with two Ph.D's from Berlin who dressed up in a suit and tie every day, even on the farm.

"I guess my father felt he needed to do that to keep his individuality."

Most days, Mr. Heppner was tutored by his father and Heinz while the other children attended school in town. The families helped with chores on the farm, and Mr. Heppner's father was able to give the Janssens some money to help with their expenses.

Mr. Heppner was able to come out and play with the other children when they returned from school.

"There were about 24 children living there at that time," Mr. Heppner said, noting that Harry Janssen had nine children. "Who was going to count and notice that there were 25?"

During raids by Nazi sympathizers, the Jews hid deep in the nearby swamp or in a double wall constructed in the barn.

"We could barely stand up between the two walls," Mr. Heppner said. "It was extremely uncomfortable."

Yet, despite the danger all around him, the child drew scenes of the farm and his family life.

"I didn't draw the things that scared me," he said. "I drew the things that reassured me."

Mr. Heppner also said he has bittersweet memories of sleeping in the windmill and walking through the countryside.

"I still remember my father commenting on how beautiful it was," Mr. Heppner said. "The juxtaposition of the extreme danger we were in and the beauty of the countryside has stayed with me."

Eventually, Allied troops came.

"Liberation was not just someone tapping you on the shoulder saying, 'Magic, you're free,' " said Mr. Heppner. "It was also a painful experience."

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