Louise Lawrence-Israëls was born in the midst of the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II and spent her early childhood in hiding with her family just five blocks from where Anne Frank hid with her family in the building where Anne’s father worked.
“The difference is that I lived, and Anne Frank did not,” said Lawrence-Israëls, a volunteer with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who spoke in front of a packed crowd on April 2 at UA Little Rock.
“I didn’t know my name until I was 3 years old,” Lawrence-Israëls said. “They called me Maria. I didn’t realize until later how amazing my parents really were. With two little children, they decided to do anything in their power to give us a normal upbringing and to save our lives.”
A member of the military, Lawrence-Israëls’s father was captured and held as a prisoner of war for six weeks when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. That began five long years of German occupation in which Jewish rights were restricted immediately.
“Jews couldn’t walk through a park,” she said. “You couldn’t go to a regular hospital. Jewish children couldn’t go to a public school. Using public transportation was forbidden. Every Jew 6 and older was ordered to wear a yellow star. You couldn’t own property. My father owned a textile company. One day, he came to work and was told this wasn’t his business anymore.”
Lawrence-Israëls’s father had the fortitude to gather extra textile and fabrics that he hoped would help his family. In the coming years, her father often traded the materials for much needed food in the family’s time of hiding.
It was in 1942, after Lawrence-Israëls’ parents had witnessed their neighbors being hauled off in a truck to be deported to a concentration camp, that they went into hiding in Amsterdam. Lawrence-Israëls’ father had buried anything that associated the family with Judaism and acquired false identification papers for the family.
Lawrence-Israëls, who was just 6 months old at the time, moved with her parents, older brother, and a family friend into a storage attic at the top of an apartment building in Amsterdam. The attic had no kitchen or bathroom, just a small sink and toilet. They lived in hiding for the next three years. The only person who left the attic was Lawrence-Israëls’ father, who went in search of food or news. The family had little food and struggled to keep warm during winters.
“The only other people we saw were members of the underground resistance,” Lawrence-Israëls said. “My mother and her friend spent most of the time trying to teach us. When you are a child and you learn what a tree is, you go outside and someone points to a tree. We couldn’t do that. My mom was an artist and would draw everything we learned. I could read before I was 3 because that is all we did.”
After Canadian forces liberated Amsterdam in May 1945, Lawrence-Israëls entered a whole new world – going outside.
“Going outside was the hardest memory for me. My parents took us outside, and the sunlight blinded us,” she said. “We went across the street to the park, and they told my brother and I to play. We didn’t know what that meant. We wanted to go back to the security of the attic.”
Lawrence-Israëls and her family moved to the country and tried to put the nightmare behind them. Her parents had three more children, but Lawrence-Israëls is the only one who practices Judaism.
“My parents decided they never wanted anything to do with religion again. Religion was dangerous,” she said. “I told my parents when I was 16 I wanted to learn more about being a Jew. They let me make up my own mind, but my parents were scared for me.”
Lawrence-Israëls earned a degree in physical therapy in the Netherlands. She married Sidney Lawrence, an American medical student, in 1965 and moved to the U.S. in 1967. After Lawrence retired from the U.S. military in 1994, they settled in Bethesda, Maryland.
It took decades for Lawrence-Israëls to let go of the hatred she felt toward Germans. Her wake-up call, she said, came when she received a call from her daughter’s teacher reporting that her daughter had made some derogatory comments toward German students in school. Lawrence-Israëls realized that she had to work through her anger because she did not want to teach her children to hate.
“I finally grew up and realized that hatred breeds hatred, and that is how the Holocaust started,” she said. “We always say that history repeats itself, but people repeat themselves.”