Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner – Holocaust Survivor

From WAR AND GRACE – Short biographies from the World Wars, by Don Stephens, published by Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England

Reproduced by permission of the publishers
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Moving quickly, fourteen-year-old Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner, known as Hansie to family and friends, drew back the curtains of her bedroom window. Aroused early by the unexpected noise of aircraft and gunfire over Amsterdam, she saw that the street outside was full of neighbours. Most of them were pointing upwards and looking agitated. It was very early on Friday morning, 10 May 1940. When Hansie looked up she was astounded to see the sky full of parachute troops. Not many hours later, she saw the terrifying sight of grey-uniformed German troops in her own street. A horrendous time had begun.

The world soon learned that at 04.30 on that morning of the 10th May Hitler had attacked a genuinely neutral country without declaring war. The Dutch had taken no part in the First World War. At the end of it they had even provided a home for life for Wilhelm, the defeated German Kaiser. Hitler had only one reason for unleashing his vast army against the unsuspecting Dutch: parts of their territory offered easy routes for him to deliver attacks on the British and French. The peace-loving Dutch, who had not fought a war since 1830, were beaten into submission within five days. The extremely brutal occupation of their country lasted for five years.

What happened next was particularly frightening to Hansie’s family. Their original home had been in Berlin. Hansie and her two older brothers, Werner and Manfred, had been born there. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Dutch consul advised them to flee from the rising tide of Nazi anti-Jewish prejudice and physical assaults. Hansie was only nine and looking forward to living in the safety of Holland. That was in 1935. When the German troops landed on them literally ‘out of the blue’, the dreaded enemy they had left behind had caught up with them. There had been exactly five years free from menace and terror.

Things quickly became worse in Holland. The Dutch queen, Wilhelmina, warned her people that she might be kidnapped and used as a hostage. Reluctantly she escaped to England on a British destroyer. The rest of the population was trapped. Within days the new German government started issuing laws. The majority of them were directed against the Jewish people, though any Dutch citizen who resisted the illegal occupation could also be in trouble. There was no way of evading the power of the invaders.

New regulations demanded that Jews hand over personal possessions such as cars, bicycles and radios. Notices appeared outside shops, hotels, theatres and cinemas announcing: ‘Forbidden to Jews.’ They were not allowed to use public transport. A miserable Hansie was forced to leave her integrated school and attend an all-Jewish school. Early in 1941 a new law stipulated that all Jews had to purchase bright yellow stars five inches (twelve and a half centimetres) wide with the word ‘JEW’ in capital letters written on them. The stars had to be stitched on all clothing worn outdoors. Anyone who did not wear the star was punished severely, but in the first stage of the occupation it was not a matter of life and death.

On 21 February 1941 anti-Semitism did become a life-and-death issue. Hansie’s two brothers were among many thousands of male Jews randomly rounded up off the streets and sent to concentration camps. Hansie insisted for the rest of her life that her mother’s hair went white overnight. As feared, her two brothers were never seen again. Her parents eventually received some ashes.

Hansie’s ambition was to be a nurse, but for the time being she had to be content with helping a dressmaker. As more and more Jewish people went to the ‘land of no return’, as she put it, fear gripped her and her thoughts became increasingly fixed on the Jewish Hospital. She had the idea that she would be safe as a patient in the hospital. A friendly nursing sister arranged for the unnecessary removal of her appendix. Hansie judged that her appendix was worth two weeks of peace of mind and safety.

In the autumn of 1942 she felt genuinely ill and a doctor diagnosed scarlet fever. Rules required a sign to be put up at the door of the house: ‘Danger. No entry. Scarlet Fever.’ Evidently the Nazis did not like infectious illness. The disease brought six weeks of welcome security. As she lay in bed, her very devout orthodox Jewish parents celebrated the feast of Hanukkah. This comes in December at about the same time as Christmas.

Confined to bed in an upstairs room, and on her own for much of the time, Hansie thought about recent events. She definitely believed in the Jewish religion and its observances. She was Jewish, and did not want to be anything else. But something was missing from this seventeen-year-old’s life. She analysed her religion and that of her parents. It was strict in outward observance of the festivals, yet God seemed distant. God was not part of their everyday lives even though they were so religious. It shook her deeply to think that God was not treated as a present reality. Orthodox Judaism offered festivals, such as Hanukkah, to remember the actions of God in the history of the Hebrew people. She started asking herself whether she could know God personally now. If God was real, could he be contacted? Why did her religion make him so remote?

During December 1942 she went through an experience that she described like this: ‘I became “God-conscious” for the first time in my life… This remote person, the Almighty God, allowed me a glimpse of Himself… I now knew that God not only was, but is… Three words now stood rock-like in my life: “GOD … WITH … US.” I knew myself close to God that evening.’

To share this message of comfort and assurance, she wrote the three words on three pieces of paper, and pinned them to the wall above her bed. The intention was good. If the family trusted in the truth of the words, they would find encouragement. That was how she reasoned.

However, when she shared this ‘moment of revelation’ about the nearness of God with her parents she was interrupted by her father’s comment: ‘Don’t talk such utter rubbish.’ Plainly the notion that God could be known as a daily reality was not for a devout orthodox Jew. Though she most certainly had not become a Christian, the strange spiritual experience of the nearness of God sustained her through the dreadful events of the next two years.

By February 1943 the scarlet fever was gone. The smell of Dettol antiseptic dispersed, and the notice warning about infectious disease had to come down. The Dobschiner family returned to ‘normal’. All of them felt the sword of Damocles was hanging over them by a very thin thread.

At 22.00 on 9 April 1943 came the bitterest blow of all. The cat-and-mouse existence ended. The doorbell rang, and did not stop ringing, until the door was opened. Hansie heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. A voice shouted, ‘Hurry up. We haven’t got all night.’ Her father and mother were forced out and pushed into a waiting army lorry. Hansie lay frozen with terror in her bed, which was hidden by a partition in the room. To her amazement the soldiers did not see her. The door banged and she was totally alone in a silent house.
Her brain worked at top speed. At first she remained motionless, mostly out of fear. Then she realized the danger she was in. Looters, who always seemed to know when a family had been arrested, might come before curfew ended. Acting quickly, she dressed, put a few essentials in a little black case and walked out as soon as 06.00 came. She dare not return. As she walked away, dazed and in a state of shock, she glanced back. It had been such a lovely flat with a good view of the canal and its barges.

She reported for duty at the Jewish day nursery where she worked. All she had to say was: ‘They came last night … the whole family.’ The others understood without further explanation. On a dreary April morning she watched the ghastly scene as dozens of army lorries lined up ready to receive the pathetic lines of helpless people. Then she saw her mother and father. She wanted to wave to them, but did not dare. If a soldier saw the movement of a curtain and a wave, he might simply point at the window. Other soldiers would burst into the building and take her to join the victims who had already been arrested. It was essential to resist the temptation to wave. Lorries’ engines revved, and then they were all gone. She would never see her parents again. The awful deed, a living burial, was done.

Hansie’s parents were among over 100,000 Dutch Jews murdered during the five years of Nazi occupation. The most well-known was teenager Anne Frank. The diary she kept before she was betrayed was published after her death.

On Sunday, 20 June 1943, Hansie was seized from the house where she was lodging. Soldiers were everywhere, ordering people into waiting army lorries. Some Dutch Nazi black-shirt traitors were on hand to help with ‘language-problems.’ Amazed at her own composure, Hansie said to her escorts in German, ‘Can I do anything to help?’ In her own mind she thought that she could look after some crying children. The offer was accepted. She could mind lost children.

When they reached the railway station in Amsterdam, the children were reunited with their parents. The scene on the station was one of confusion. The adult victims stood around, just accepting what was happening to them. German soldiers ordered a goods train to be filled up. Fifty prisoners about to make the journey to death were to go in every cattle truck. The Jews were packed in like animals. There were no seats and no sanitation.

Before long it was Hansie’s turn to climb into a cattle truck. She helped to lift a pram aboard. The family’s baby was crying. The child was covered with red spots. In a desperate attempt to escape, the ‘nurse’ used her fluency in German. Through the bars she cried out loudly, Attention. Attention. Infectious disease. Open the door at once. Highly infectious family in this wagon. Hurry! Hurry!’

To her astonishment, nearby soldiers opened the door. Boldly, she ordered them to keep their distance. An officer told her that as a nurse she was in charge of the family! They were to go to the station waiting room. With the help of a friendly Dutch doctor, the resourceful seventeen-year-old continued the pretence that what were probably only heat spots were in fact the symptoms of scarlet fever. Trains came and went, clearing the station of its human misery. Finally, Dr van Ebo arranged for the family and a few others to be loaded into an ambulance. Still wearing her yellow star, Hansie climbed in with the family. The ambulance headed for the hospital. In this way, she escaped death once again. Another nightmare was over – for the time being.

Without informing Hansie, Dr van Ebo told the hospital matron what his young helper had done on Amsterdam railway station. As a result the Jewish City Hospital employed Hansie Dobschiner as a nurse, even though she was unqualified. All the time she was there she wondered how safe she really was. When would she be taken away to a concentration camp? It seemed as though an answer came on 5 July 1943.

Officers from the Gestapo came to the hospital, took over the loudspeaker system, and read out the names of everybody who had been employed there for less than three months. H. Dobschiner was one person named. Still in uniform, she was bundled into a lorry. They went through familiar streets to a waiting train.

Hansie climbed into a compartment. Before they moved off, a lady also on the journey to oblivion, asked Hansie on which ward she had worked. ‘Infectious diseases,’ was the reply. Did they not have enough trouble without catching infectious illness from her? A chorus of voices pleaded with her: ‘Please go; please leave us.’ To Hansie it seemed ironic to be concerned about any sort of infection in such a situation.

She broke all the rules and stepped out on to the platform. At once a soldier approached. Ignoring the pointing rifle, she spoke in her Berlin accent: ‘It’s no use; they won’t have me in the train because I worked in the isolation unit for infectious diseases. I think I had better go back to the hospital. Have you any transport please?’

The soldier lowered his gun and turned to another soldier: ‘Are you going back to the city? Drop this nurse at the hospital, will you? Thanks.’

It worked! Hansie was the only person to return to the hospital that day. All the others went to death camps.

The matron in charge of the Jewish hospital assigned Hansie to district nursing. Her orders were to care for a woman with pneumonia called Mrs. Sim. One day Mr. Sim returned from work very early. Out of breath, he gasped, ‘They are doing your hospital. It’s dreadful.’ Sure enough, the hospital was emptied. All doctors, nurses and patients were sent to their deaths. Hansie was saved only because she was off the premises. This inhuman deed occurred on 13 August 1943.

Hansie was now a couple of weeks away from her eighteenth birthday. However, the will to live was ebbing out of her. She became inwardly convinced that her turn to be rounded up was now inevitable. Were all these attempts to escape worthwhile? She decided to end the mental torture by giving herself up. She even chose a date to surrender: 6 September. Hearing of her decision, a friend, Lena, physically restrained her from walking into captivity. ‘You selfish, stupid, childish idiot,’ her friend yelled. ‘Get back at once and stop your nonsense.’

Having been restrained from ‘committing deliberate suicide’, as Lena described it, consider Hansie’s surprise when on the following day some anti-Nazi Dutch people offered her the opportunity to go ‘underground’. This meant that there was the possibility of going into long-term hiding somewhere. Another Jewish girl had been the first choice, but was in bed with influenza. Because the next day was the deadline, Hansie was selected as a substitute.

8 September 1943 was the great day. The instructions were simple, and given to protect everyone involved. They were communicated by Jan, a hall porter who had worked in the hospital. She must memorize, not write down, an address in Amsterdam East. At the corner of that street she was to sneeze and take a handkerchief out of the right-hand pocket of her coat. As directed, she went to the house. Reaching the address, she knocked at the door and walked into the house – and into a new way of life.

A tall slim man greeted her. She had to take him on trust since she had no idea who he was. It might well have been a trap. Instead the man told her to call herself Francisca Dobber from then on. He cut off her yellow star. She changed out of her nurse’s uniform. The man said that she could call him ‘Domie’. Together they took a train to the north of Holland, where he hid her in his house along with five other young people.

In Holland Christian ministers are usually called ‘Dominie’. Domie was in fact Bastian Johan Ader, an evangelical minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Aged thirty-three when he met Hansie, he was a key figure in the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. Bastian Ader not only sheltered Jews; he protected airmen who had been shot down and arranged for them to be smuggled back to England. As well as these activities, he kept up a Reformed biblical ministry near Groningen in the north of Holland. No wonder that one of Hansie’s first impressions of him was that he seemed tired. He is one of the world’s little-known great men.

In the safety of Bastian Ader’s home in the countryside at Nieuw-Beerta, Hansie was away from the world of soldiers, arrests, curfews and raids. Ader’s wife, Jo, had one young son and another on the way, so Hansie helped around the house. It turned out to be tense and lonely waiting for liberation as the Allied armies slowly pushed the Germans back. News of Allied progress after D-Day, 6 June 1944, came from the BBC in London on an illegal radio located in the attic of the church house.

Hansie kept up her Jewish religion as much as the solitude allowed. Hundreds of books lined the walls of every room in Domie’s home. One day in early 1944, as she was looking at titles, she found an illustrated Children’s Bible. She decided to read it. Chores were done, and time passed so slowly that boredom was a problem. Most of the stories it contained were familiar to a religious Jew, such as those about Moses and the prophets. Then for the very first time she read the story of Jesus Christ. It was puzzling. Why had she never been told before about this Jewish prophet? The more she read, the more she admired Jesus. She commented, ‘As the weeks and months passed by, his life became part of mine. I enjoyed the company of my Bible and my new-found prophet and hero, Jesus.’

One day she unearthed a Bible in Dutch. After reading the Old Testament, there was a blank page before a new title page. On that title page was printed: ‘The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. Following this were four books about Jesus called ‘Gospels’ – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. She read the four short books, and some following books, with growing interest. It became easy to understand why these Christians, such as Domie, or ‘Uncle Bas’ as she now called him, acted as they did.

One Sunday morning in February 1944, she asked if she could join the others in a secret position from which she could observe the church service. It was the first Christian message from the Bible that she had ever heard. Domie preached from John chapter 13. Hansie sensed his sincerity. The power of the sermon reached her heart. The whole story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and its implications for her, became clear.

During one evening in April 1944, Domie informed the group that he must go into hiding because the Nazis were determined to arrest him. They would have to move quickly before his house and church were raided. As they all dispersed Hansie asked Domie’s wife for permission to take the Dutch Bible with her. She consented – and seemed not the least bit surprised.

Moved from one safe house to another, Hansie was helpless. Her future, if she had one, was in the hands of Domie and his friends. She knew that these ordinary Dutch people were freely accepting a fearful risk. They could be shot for hiding her. Days and weeks dragged by. More and more her thoughts turned to the Bible.

She wrote, ‘[God] was explained and portrayed so clearly by…Jesus Christ, that I almost felt that I knew Him – that I could depend on him – that I could take Him at His word and live according to His advice. It only worried me when this Jesus Christ made definite claims regarding his purpose on earth or his authority; or proclaimed His …divinity and the part He played in our approach to the Almighty Creator of the Universe. Some of His…words would come to me:

“No one cometh unto the Father but by me.”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
“Come unto me…and I will give you rest.”
“All power is given to me in heaven and in earth.”
“I am come that they may have life.”‘

Then she recorded: ‘Unconsciously, He had stolen His way into my life, and I could no more think of God the Father without visualizing Jesus Christ. Slowly but surely, God became a reality… As day succeeded day [Christ drew] me closer and closer to his heart… What reason did we have to disbelieve this Jesus, when he claimed that he was that promised Messiah who would die for our sins and rise again to be the first of those to conquer death? … A vital truth surged through my very being … He’s alive! … It was [Jesus] who had been busy with me all these months. His vast almighty penetrating Holy Spirit had pierced my iron curtain of reasoning.’

On Easter Monday 1944, Hansie was sharing the attic of a safe house in the south of Holland with Sister Moony. They had known each other in the Jewish Hospital in Amsterdam. Neither had realized the other was still alive. Back in the period when she had worked in the hospital, Hansie had looked up to the sister with awe and dread because she was such a bossy person. However, in the attic they were just two equal human beings. A plaque above the attic door proclaimed a verse form the Old Testament which says, ‘Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).

Hansie’s search for a relationship with a personal God came to an end that Easter Monday. Once chores were done, all her waking hours were taken up with the study of the little black Bible in Dutch. She was oblivious to the once-domineering presence of Sister Moony. As she read, God became more and more real. Matters came to a conclusion with an act of faith and commitment. Hansie was peeling potatoes. She laid down the knife, rose from the stool, and walked to a spot among the attic beams in a little corner of the roof. ‘I slowly knelt down, clasped my hands in absolute surrender and closed my eyes to all around. “Rabboni Joshua Hamoschiach” (“Master Jesus Christ”). It was all I could whisper. Deep thankfulness and love to Almighty God for his inexplicable revelation and gift flooded my entire being. God cared. He cared after all!’

By the end of Easter Monday 1944, even though she had been a Christian for only hours, Sister Moony asked her why she seemed so happy. ‘My inward happiness had spilled over and made her wonder,’ she thought.

During the next few weeks, she eagerly read all she could from both Old and New Testaments. She felt as though she had entered a different world, one with a life that was endless. She was totally secure spiritually because she was in the hands of her majestic Creator, and his appointed prophesied Saviour.

In later years the writer spent hours discussing Hansie’s wartime experiences with her. She explained, among other things, how she found these words in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can kill both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28). That was strong language, she thought. Even if she were arrested now, her Master would look after her, even if she had to die.

The spiritual experience that happened in moments lasted a lifetime. By faith she came to know the risen Christ. Domie and his wife were good examples, but no human being gave her new life. Christ did that directly. No human mediators were involved. It was a living faith in the living God who became real to her as she read the pages of Scripture. She never repudiated her Jewish background, but she was Christ’s disciple from that Easter Monday in 1944 for as long as she lived.

She described her experience like this: ‘Never before did I have such close fellowship with Christ, the irresistible Christ, whose existence some people deny.’ When the air-raid sirens sounded and people ran for shelter, she wrote, ‘Christ stayed with me, His Holy Spirit, able to be everywhere at the same time, covered me with security. I knew myself loved, even when no human being considered my need.’ The cross became a symbol of ultimate victory to her.

In the late summer of 1944, she stood on the edge of the pavement at Treebeek in the south of Holland with thousands of others and cheered and waved at the columns of Allied tanks that set them all free from a vile tyranny. Though in a crowd, she felt alone. There was no Bastian Ader to thank. She had nowhere to go, no friends, no family, no money. There was no one close to her except the Christ she had come to know by faith.

Fortunately she found someone to take her in. She helped the Red Cross, and for the first time in her life began to attend church. She told the minister that she wanted to receive the bread and the wine at the communion service. Naturally the pastor was curious about her since she was Jewish by race and Christian by belief. She had come to believe that by turning to Christ, a Jew became spiritually complete. It was not a matter of being converted to a new religion, but fulfilling the old one by bringing it to completion. It seemed so clear to her that the Old Testament prophecies only had meaning as they came true in the New Testament. As she would say in later years, she exchanged ‘religion’ for the reality of God.

Hansie Dobschiner told the Dutch Reformed minister in Treebeek the story of her spiritual journey. On Sunday, 19 November 1944, she was baptized. She knelt on a special stool in front of the assembled congregation. The minister said, ‘Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’ When the words ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ were pronounced Hansie felt cold water on her forehead forming the shape of a cross. It was as if she was invisibly marked. To her it was an everlasting mark, which nobody else would ever see. After being baptized and confessing her faith, she received the bread and wine from the Lord’s Table.

Soon after being received into the church, Hansie received the news from the north of Holland that Domie had been killed. Betrayed for money, he had been arrested in Haarlem. Taken to a Gestapo prison in Amsterdam, he was tortured, but did not betray a single name. He was shot there on Monday, 20 November 1944, aged only thirty-five. Hansie could scarcely take the news in. It seemed particularly poignant to her that his death came one day after her baptism and communion. A fine Christian man had lost his life just as all Holland was on the verge of liberation by the Allies. She wrote, ‘He died to secure my life in this world. Christ died to secure it in the next. Life here and life eternal by the shedding of blood.’

When the Second World War ended Hansie was only twenty years old. It took her at least two years to recover from living like a hunted animal for so long. Though she never gave way to bitterness, self-pity, or the desire for recrimination which would have been so understandable, she had forgotten how to laugh or live a normal life.

In post-war Holland she was delighted to meet with other Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. When they found out that she accepted Jesus as the Messiah, they accused her of being a ‘Geschmad’. This means an apostate from Judaism, a Jewish person who has been baptized into the Christian faith. The Jewish community would accept that a Jew could be an atheist, a Communist, even a criminal, but never a Christian. It was, and is, seen as betrayal. Though Hansie clung fervently to her Jewish roots and hated anti-Semitism, it made no difference. The Jewish community would not accept her. There is no place in Judaism for the ‘Messianic Jew’.

Britain exercised a magnetic power on Hansie’s mind, probably because it had stood out as a beacon of freedom during the years of war and tyranny. In 1946, sponsored by the generosity of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance, Hansie studied for two years at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow. The training to qualify as a nurse took a further three years at Glasgow’s Victoria Infirmary. The plan was to be a staff nurse at Tiberias Hospital in Israel. It was not to be. Instead, she married a Scotsman, so becoming Hansie Douglas. Twin girls were born soon after. At last she enjoyed a normal family life.

Hansie Douglas had a great gift for friendship, even with many German people. Tirelessly, she worked to foster good relations between Christians and Jews. Both Independent Television and the BBC – the latter in 1989 – made documentaries about her. The cameras followed her as she retraced her steps to the house where she had once lived in Amsterdam, and from which her parents were so cruelly removed. She is seen on Amsterdam station reliving the scenes of the deportations, and in the attic where she peeled potatoes and became a Christian believer. The hero of the documentary has to be Bastian Johan Ader, ‘Domie’. The pictures of her describing her memories of him while glancing down at his simple grave make compelling viewing. The gravestone just gives his name and two dates: 30-12-09 and 20-11-44.

When her husband Donald became a polio victim, he needed to be cared for twenty-four hours a day. With very little help, Hansie fulfilled the role of carer for many years. Her daughter Anne became a consultant psychiatrist in Glasgow. Dorothy married and went to live in Australia.

Hansie Douglas died of cancer in Glasgow in 2002 aged seventy-six. Her faith never changed from the basic beliefs that she had come to on Easter Monday 1944, though her understanding obviously increased. When she was puzzled for a title for her memories, her teenage children thought of ‘Selected to Live”. The book Selected to Live, now translated into ten languages, has rarely been out of print since first published in 1969. It presents a vivid picture of Nazi-occupied Holland, and a gripping pen-portrait of a resilient young woman trying to avoid death as a consequence of one of the greatest crimes in history.

More information on Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner

For over thirty years I had the privilege of writing and speaking to Hansie Douglas. All the papers relevant to her wartime life were photocopied for me. The TV documentaries mentioned above are also sources for details of her life. These are the reasons why there is information in this account that is unique and additional to her other writings.

When Selected to Live went out of print, she was not happy, and was keen to see her book of memories available once again. She was not feeling well at the time and, through a friend within the firm, I encouraged her to approach Hodder Headline. In 2000 they reprinted it. The first copy in her possession was given to me as a Christmas present in 1999 with the inscription: ‘Thank you for allowing the Lord to use you to bring this book back to life…’ Naturally, it is my hope that my readers will follow this account by reading Selected to Live.

Her obituary appeared in the Glasgow Herald on 17 August 2002 and added further minor details about her life story.

A book about the remarkable life of Bastian Ader is available only in Dutch. The details are: Een Groninger Pastorie in de Storm by J.A. Ader- Appels. If somebody with the necessary skills were to translate this book into English it would, I feel sure, make very interesting reading.