His story told by Sydney Weith
at the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau,
April 27- 2018
Good day everybody, My name is Sydney Weith. I am 21 years old, and in 2013/2014, together with Tess Meerding, I wrote a biography of Ernst Sillem. Let me say first of all that I am really happy and very proud that Ernst Sillem is here today. It is something very special to be together again, in the same place after four years. To Ernst and of course his sister Agnes and niece Bibi: Welcome and a huge thank you for your presence. Today I would like to tell you something about the impressive life of Ernst and, of course, about the past five years in which we came to know each other and shared a lot together.
When I started with Names instead of numbers, I was 16, almost 17 years old. I went to the Baarnsch Lyceum, I played hockey in the local hockey club and enjoyed doing nice things with my friends.When Ernst was 17, he also went to the Baarnsch Lyceum. He played hockey in the local hockey club and enjoyed doing nice things with his friends. But there was a big difference: it was not 2013, but 1941. War. The Germans had invaded the Netherlands and Ernst could not understand how could a friendly country do such a thing. Therefore he wanted to become active. No sooner said than done, for on the evening of January 23, 1941, he secretly climbed out through the window of his room. He walked to the Baarnsch Lyceum with a pair of gloves, an empty jam jar, and a paintbrush. When he arrived at the school, he waited for a train to pass and broke a window. He took all the art reproductions off the walls in the corridors, filled the jam jar with ink, and began to write. "Anti-German slogans", Ernst told us, not without pride. "All over. Below and above. Also in slightly different ways, in order to look like different people did it. And also so that it was visible from the outside.
Here you can see one of the slogans that he has painted on the walls. Of course, everyone who came to school the next morning immediately saw all the slogans. It turned into a to large-scale police investigations, in which, among other things, the students had to make a writing test. However, this did not lead to any result, because it was never discovered that Ernst Sillem was the culprit. In addition, with this action, he had helped the school to a week of holliday. As he describes it: It was his "glory years".
After this successful action Ernst was not yet satisfied. He wanted to do more for his country, as did his good friend Jaap van Mesdag. They wanted to go to England so they could join the army and fight the Germans. On the evening of August 31, 1942, they put their words into action. They took a canoe and started their way to England. Everything seemed to go fast. Until the weather changed. The canoe began to sink and as a last chance for rescue Jaap blew the SOS signal on his trumpet. Luckily, a boat has heard the signal. Unfortunately, it was a German boat. So began Ernst's journey through four concentration camps.
From the boat, Ernst and Jaap were taken to Haagseveer, a prison in Rotterdam. After two weeks they were transferred to the Amersfoort camp . Amersfoort was a police transit camp, from where most of the prisoners were taken to concentration camps in Germany. However, the conditions here were no better than in a concentration camp. "Amersfoort was miserable," Ernst said. "You had to work damn hard, it was bad weather and you would get nothing to eat." To survive, Ernst regularly had to think of ways to keep himself warm and get food. For example, when he had to dig the ground near a forest. In that place, when the guards were briefly not paying attention, he could pick up beechnuts, which he later cleaned and ate in the restroom. In order not to be cold he also lied that he was a tailor, so he was transferred to the Strohsack-Kommando . So he could work inside for a while.
In January 1943, Ernst and Jaap were put on a train. Finally they stopped at “'s-Hertogenbosch” station. Here Ernst saw the opportunity to let his parents know where he was going. He dropped a small piece of paper next to the platform and a woman who saw the note sent it to his parents. Here you see the note. It says: "Please let Mr. and Mrs. Sillem, Koninginneweg 2 in Bussum know that Ernst and Jaap are moved to Vugth. We would gladly appreciate a parcel! ". The note reached his parents.
With his positive attitude, Ernst told about Vught, "That he had fun there ". They were the first to arrive. So they could get the best jobs. In addition, the prisoners were allowed to receive packages from home, and even if the Germans took a lot out of the packages, the little food that was left helped them.
The Natzweiler camp, where he arrived in June 1943 was quite different. Here he was not allowed to receive packages or write letters anymore. Als „Nacht-und-Nebel“-Häftling he had to disappear into nothing. In Natzweiler he had to consider the possibility of even more extreme violence than he had experienced in the previous camps. For example, a young man was hanged by Camp Commander Josef Kramer while all the prisoners had to watch. The moment the boy stopped moving, Kramer yelled in German to Ernst and the other inmates: "Now you see what happens if you try to oppose. And if all 2000 of you try to oppose, then I’ll hang all 2000. It does not matter to me!". That left a strong impression on Ernst, but despite it he understood how to survive.
Ultimately, Ernst was taken to where we are today, Dachau. Here Ernst got typhus. He was terribly ill and had hallucinations. Nevertheless, he recovered, and shortly afterwards the camp was liberated by the American soldiers.
Maybe you would expect one to be bitter after he had gone through so many events. But despite everything, Ernst has always enjoyed life. After spending 28 years in Morocco, where he had a citrus orchard, Ernst finally found his home in France. at the moment, he lives together with his two dogs Tara and Cast in a nice house in southern France. Looking back on the war, he sees his time in the different camps as a lesson. In his opinion, the most important reason due to which he survived, is the fact that he has always kept hope.
This is also an important life lesson that Ernst shared with me. When we met for the first time in 2013, I did not really know what to expect. How could life be for someone who lived through so much? And how would it be to talk to someone who personally experienced war as he did? Things I soon found that I really did not have to worry about. Ernst made a joke right away and in the following five years many more followed.
After writing the biography and a lecture in the mansion named Ernst Sillem Hoeve after his great grandfather, in 2014 Ernst and I continued to write each other letters. Unfortunately because of the distance between the Netherlands and France we couldn’t easily visit each other. Nevertheless, through the letters we continued to learn about each other’s life. I wrote to him about the countries I traveled to, about my studies and about the bad weather in the Netherlands. Ernst wrote me about the countries he traveled to, about how he was doing and about the beautiful weather in the South of France. The letters always put a smile on my face and they always finished with the words "Your Ernst"
After 2014, we were lucky enough to see each other a few times and spent beautiful moments together. Such a moment occurred three years ago, when the same exhibition that you are going to see in a moment was opened in the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. It was inaugurated by the King and Ernst knew how to make the King laugh. Just like he actually makes everyone laugh. Another outstanding moment was, last year, when, together with my friend, we visited him in his house in the south of France. Here I learned that, getting up in the winter at 6 o'clock, is really nothing for me. But it was all worth it because Ernst has showed me the beautiful surroundings of Pernes-les-Fontaines.
When I asked him how he manages to take a hike every day in the forest, a place with such a steep terrain, he answered: Oh, if I fall, then the dogs pull me back up. This is why they are big and strong enough. "Of course Ernst, even if I do not believe,that many will follow you on that. Here you can see some photos of our visit. These were some nice days.
Now and then, in my entourage, I notice that the fact whether Remembering is still important, is discussed. Through Names instead of numbers, I know there is only one answer: Yes. We must continue to remember. The war must never be forgotten. I never expected that Names instead of numbers would keep me busy for so long. I always thought "soon I'll finish secondary school, I’ll go and continue my studies and do other things ". Five years have passed since and I find that, for me Names instead of numbers is something that will never end. I will always carry in me the story of Ernst and the stories of the many other inmates.
I am also aware that I belong to the last generation that can talk to the survivors. For the generations to come, the war will feel increasingly farther away. But even though my children and grandchildren will soon be unable to speak to people like Ernst Sillem, Jaap van Mesdag, Willemijn Petroff van Gurp, Pim Reijntjes and Jan "Skippy" de Vaal, I will tell their story. I'll tell the story of Ernst as I did for you today. And if I can inspire even a single person a little, just as Ernst Sillem inspires me every day, then my mission is fulfilled.
Ernst, thank you for sharing your story and much more: Thank you for your friendship. And to you all, thank you for listening and enjoy when visiting the exhibition.
You might like the website of the Book of Remembrance For Former Prisoners