Fred Lessing

"Question all authority. Be in touch with and pay attention to your feelings. Respect children. Delete the word hate from your vocabulary and life."

Date of birth
Where were you born?
Name of father, occupation
Nardus (Nathan) Lessing, Musician
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Engeline Elizabeth Van Leer-Lessing, Secretary
Immediate family (names, birth order)
Nardus (Nathan), Lien (Engeline), Ed (Eliazahr), At (Arthur, Abba), Fred (Alfred)
Who survived the Holocaust?
All but 1 uncle, 2 aunts and 1 second cousin. 4 cousins in Indonesia survived in Japanese concentration camps; 1 cousin in America, 3 cousins in Holland but with non-Jewish father and were not hunted
On October 23, 1942, when our names came up for deportation, my family, instead of boarding the German trains to “resettlement in the east,” we went into hiding.  I was 6 years old.  My parents felt that hiding together, like Anne Frank’s family, was too dangerous and so, under mostly my mother’s direction and organization (my father looked too Jewish to operate out in the open), we split up and so there are really five stories that together tell the story of my family’s miraculous survival in hiding. 
I was hidden out in the open, masquerading with dyed hair, changed name and forged identity papers as a Christian child,  displaced from Zeeland, where the dikes had been bombed and the land flooded, and whose parents were looking for a new home and needed someone to look after little Freddie for a short time while they searched.  
In order to find people to tell this totally fabricated story to who might be willing, for some money, to look after – though in reality to hide - me, my mother  pretty much rang random doorbells, though sometimes she followed up leads provided by non-Jewish friends. 
I would then stay with and become part of that family, always guarding with my life the terrible secret of my real identity.  In this way I was secretly hidden by quite a number of different unsuspecting families in various cities in Holland.  From time to time my mother would appear, either to reassure and comfort me or else to move me to another address.  
I somehow knew that each time my job was to assimilate myself as quickly and fully as possible to the new family’s rules, lifestyle and religion and to be or become the cutest, sweetest, most helpful, polite and well behaved little Christian kid in the whole world so that no one would ever suspect or betray me.  
And no one ever did.  
This was my life in hiding from 1942 until 1944 when I came down with a serious case of pneumonia.  My mother, whose name Engeline contains the Dutch word for angel, seemed like a real angel, to always appear when I most needed her, and she did this time as well.  
She found a doctor who was, she told me, “good” – i.e., would not betray me as a Jew, which he would know from seeing that I was circumcised when he examined me.  She got me into the hospital where over the next six weeks I recovered. 
But she herself was arrested at the railroad station on her way back to her hiding place by a Dutch Nazi policeman who was a specialist in forged document recognition.  Like all caught Dutch Jews she was taken to prison in Amsterdam and from there sent to Westerbork, a holding and transit camp near the Dutch border with Germany, and from there to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  
She saved her own life by telling more lies.  She claimed, apparently convincingly, that she was an American citizen and eventually got out of Belsen as part of an extremely rare prisoners exchange.  
Meanwhile an aunt of mine took me from the hospital by train into, for the first time, the country (province of Gelderland), where in a tiny two-room summer cottage near a kind of manor house on a dirt road in farmland, I was met by my father and two brothers!
For me the worst was over.  I would no longer be alone.  Before her arrest my mother had reserved this cottage for two weeks in May 1944 because she wanted us to be together, even if briefly, since it looked to her that the war would go on forever and we would sooner or later all be caught.  
And of course she was and never made it to the cottage.  But the four of us did and we stayed, not for two weeks but for a whole year, until our liberation in May of 1945.  It was an incredible and hard to describe year.  I call it “the ultimate male bonding survival encounter,” a year of continued hiding, of dissimulation, of constant danger and some very close calls; a year of daily searching for food and fuel, of carrying water to the cottage and emptying the outhouse next to it, of stealing the landlord’s canning jars to trade for food with the farmers, and of begging door to door for food from the farmers and of tramping for miles through farm fields towards the sound of a threshing machine to beg or buy for a quarter a small bag of grain.  
It was also a year of waiting for and watching the gradual approach by air and by land of our Allied liberators.  This was scary but also very exciting stuff for young boys and best of all it meant, the closer the war’s front approached, that we would be liberated, that it - the war, the terror, the hiding - would come to an end.  
And it did.  We were liberated towards the end of April 1945 by the Canadian Army and the indescribable joy of that event was never in my lifetime to be exceeded except when we found out that my mother was alive and then when in late September she came home to us back in Delft.
Three years later (4th, 5th, or 6th grade) we immigrated to “Amerika” and I started a whole new life as an American boy.  As with most Holocaust survivors, about forty years would pass before I could revisit, re-view, re-experience and share what had happened to me during what was now named the Holocaust.
The photograph that I am holding in my portrait became a kind of portal through which this recovering of my childhood was initiated.  It entered my life in 1987 when I was 51 years old.  
It shows a large room full of Jewish children and a handful of adults all wearing their yellow stars.  Because I found myself in it – my right index finger points me out – this picture both intrigued and frightened me.  Researching its origin led me, gradually and with much anxiety, back into my own Holocaust experience of 45 years earlier, an often painful and life-changing journey.  
After many years of futile inquiry and research to locate other survivors in or information about the photo, I reached the inevitable conclusion that they are all dead, a miniscule contingent among the one and a half million murdered Jewish children.  But I am still here!  I can – I decided I will – speak for them.  I will be a witness.
In 2002 at the Child Survivors conference in Seattle I at long last found another survivor from the photo.  His name is Pete Metzelaar and he lives in Seattle.  He had not known about the photo.  But in the photo that’s him next to me on my right.  It doesn’t change anything.  But now there are two of us speaking for our murdered classmates.  Because Pete too is a witness and a speaker.  
Where were you in hiding?
As a Christian in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Tilburg, Voorthuizen
Occupation after the war
Professor, Psychologist
Rosalyn S. Sherman-Lessing, Professor, Psychologist
Aaron, business Joshua, engineer Ben, graduate student Shana, graduate student
Six: Shea (1995), Ryder (1997), Maire (1999), Trey (2002), Josiu (2001), and Izabella (2003)
What do you think helped you to survive?
Luck, street smarts, the family not hiding together, my mother’s intelligence, intuition, and courage.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
Question all authority. Be in touch with and pay attention to your feelings. Respect children. Delete the word hate from your vocabulary and life.
Charles Silow
Interview date:
To learn more about this survivor, please visit:
The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, University of Michigan

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