Drillingsberichte in context

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The Drillingsberichte are a collection of letters in which the Jewish doctor Felix Oestreicher writes to his family from 1937 to 1943 about the ups and downs of his three daughters' lives. He writes about the development of his young 'triplets': the twins Helli and Maria (1936) and their sister Beate (1934). Felix calls the letters 'Drillingsberichte', because they are about his 'triplets' and about the upbringing (the 'drilling') of his children. The letters are intended to keep his large family, who are scattered across Europe, informed about the well-being of his wife Gerda, the children and 'omi', the grandmother of the three Felix sisters who lives with them.

The collection of letters gives an insight into how the Jewish familDe drie zusjesy is faring in these troubled times, before and during the Second World War. The family moves from Karlsbad to the Netherlands and also within the Netherlands the family has to move several times. When the children were not allowed to go to school by the occupying forces' decree, Felix taught them at home. It is striking that the war is mentioned infrequently. The letters describe daily life in difficult times, but little is said about these uncertain times themselves. The parents seem to try to lead as normal a life as possible and prepare their children for the future.



On 19 April 1937 in Karlsbad, Felix Oestreicher writes the first 'Drillingsbericht'. He is the editor himself, together with Gerda who corrects his letters. He will write oHuis Karlsbadnce a week (later once every two weeks and then less often). He proposes the letters as a subscription: anyone who does not write back within fourteen days (with return postage, i.e. stamps for his collection), will not receive any more letters. Felix later makes a bit of a joke of it and writes that the letters appear in German, Dutch and Czech, which is actually not the case. German is the main language with occasional Dutch notes or a single English sentence. Nevertheless, he takes the writing of these letters seriously: he hopes that the recipients keep them, so that after these uncertain times of war, he has a kind of diary to read back and reflect upon.

In the letters from 1937, Felix pays a lot of attention to the description of the development of his children, because he finds it a pity that part of his family and friends do not see the girls grow up. Beate is then two and a half, HellDe tweelingi and Maria are one year old. He writes about the twins, who begin to walk and later to talk in complete sentences. Maria is bigger, louder and livelier than Helli, who is smaller and calmer. He also writes about Beate who still has to learn to go to the potty on time and is given a scooter as a present. All three girls love their animal books, which they constantly browse and learn about a lot about animals.


Karlsbad, Bergen aan Zee, Leiden

At the beginning of 1938, Felix is away for a few months on scientific research. Gerda takes charge of writing the letters. In one of her letters, the uncertainty they live with is revealed for the first time. On 20 May 1938, Gerda writes that she has been living in fear for a fortnight, afraid of an event or message that will change their lives completely. IAan het strand in Bergen aan Zeen March 1938 the 'Anschluss' of Austria takes place and after that Germany, led by Hitler, threatens to occupy Czechoslovakia. Shortly after this letter Felix returned and the family fled to the Netherlands, where Gerda's parents lived and where they felt safe from conflicts with Germany. They first stayed in Bergen aan Zee and moved to Leiden in July. Life went on here and the family quickly acclimatised. Gerda introduces the Dutch language by slowly reading fairy tales to them. She has a good command of Dutch, having been at school in the Netherlands since 1922. The children soon start speaking Dutch and German interchangeably. They get used to the Netherlands. They found apple sauce tasty and even celebrated Sinterklaas.

In 1938, much more happened than was written in the letters. Several times, the letters talk about emigration to the US. In reality, Felix has been much more busy with this than he lets on in the letters. In 1938, he is away from home several times to look for emigration possibilities in England. Even though they live in the Netherlands, they are still planning to emigrate outside Europe because of the increasing threat.


Leiden, Katwijk aan Zee

Felix met zijn dochtertjes

In 1939, Felix continued to write weekly letters about his family, often mentioning amusing anecdotes about his daughters. For example, the girls discuss whether animals can talk, play theatricals for Grandma, and would like a rabbit. Beate is already becoming a real girl, Felix writes, and she can already ride a normal bicycle.

In the spring, the family moves to Katwijk aan Zee. The children soon became friends with the neighbouring children. There is no mention in the letters of a threatening atmosphere of war. What the girls learn from these troubled times is not clear, but they do ask questions about Karlsbad, Felix writes. They talk about the nanny in Karlsbad, for example, and when there is a thunderstorm they ask if this will chase the evil people out of Karlsbad. This shows that the girls have some awareness of the occupation of Karlsbad.


Katwijk aan Zee, Blaricum

Les van Felix

At the beginning of 1940, there is no sign in the letters of the approaching war. Felix writes with some regularity, but that will change. He has passed the Dutch medical exam and is busy with his work. The children are the focus of the letters: Beate has lost her first tooth, Helli goes to gymnastics class instead of Beate, and all three love flowers.

The last letter before the German invasion of the Netherlands was written on 4 May 1940, the next one on 8 July 1940. Felix has not written for more than two months, but decides to keep writing about his children, despite everything. What happened in the time between these two letters, he will write again in calmer times. From now on, the focus of the letters is on the learning process of his daughters, who are taught at home by Felix. The children also begin to ask questions about the war. They wonder what it will be like when there is no war and whether there will be no more food coupons. The girls also adapt their games to the war, Felix notices; they like to play merchant "without coupons you get nothing". In October they moved to Blaricum, because the occupier no longer allowed them to live on the coast. The family tried to keep things as normal as possible and celebrated the children's birthdays and Sinterklaas. Felix gave Beate her first reading lessons and reported that he told the children about God once a week.



In his letters, Felix increasingly focused on teaching his daughters. For example, arithmetic is going well, but reading is still more difficult. Reading and writing improve little by little. Beate is already writing letters. The children start asking questions about religion, Catholics and Jews, and why God allows war. The teacher who consBeate, Maria, Helli met Omi in Blaricum 1941.ults Felix on the progress of his children is satisfied with their level. Felix now also writes explicitly that everything must go their way. For example, they celebrate Easter, Mother's Day and Felix's birthday. He finds it difficult when his daughters ask about the war, but is pleased that it has not yet occurred to them to play "war games".

Beate is allowed to spend a week with a school class and turns out to be the best at Spelen met buurkinderenarithmetic. Furthermore, the children are taught at home, about which Felix writes extensively. He notices that his daughters feel their parents' nervousness because of the war. Beate still talks about Karlsbad and likes to see pictures of it, because there are mountains there and not here. The children's learning is going well, including reading and writing. Beate can even use a typewriter.


Blaricum, Amsterdam

At the beginning of 1942, there were two weddings of uncles and aunts of the 'triplets': Hein Laqueur married Judith Révész, and Renate Laqueur married Paul Goldschmidt. Life goes on as usual, despite the threat and the chance of being arrested. Gerda might get a job somewhere as a German teacher, but nothing more is said about this later. The children notice unrest, Gerda met haar dochtersbut do not ask anything. One of the first messages of the year includes an enclosed letter in a sealed envelope, dated 17 February 1942. This letter may only be opened after the Second World War. Then Felix hopes to be able to read it together with the other letters, an addition that expresses concern about the chances of survival.

Teaching the children at home continues, but Felix writes less often about it. He has little desire to teach and little desire to write. He was also reluctant to celebrate Saint Nicholas, but because the children were busy making things for him, it motivated him to join in.

In the spring of 1942, the family made an attempt to go into hiding, but this was not successful. In August they moved to Amsterdam, because all Jews had to live there according to a regulation of the occupying forces. Shortly afterwards, officers came to inspect their house and handed out Jews' stars. The girls wear the stars and also make them for their dolls. Felix writes less and less. Even though they try to live their lives with the children as usual, the fear becomes more and more tangible, also in the letters.


Amsterdam, Westerbork

The family has celebrated Gerda's birthday as if it were peace, Felix writes. The children have written fairy tales and there is a typed story from Beate for her mother. Felix has less and less time to teach, but the children are still learning. In February, the twins turned seven. The girls are already quite independent and receive speech lessons from Uncle Paul. Felix himself teaches subjects like topography and history. One of the last events described is the birthday of Beate, who turned nine on 8 October. She is already a big girl and has a serious conversation with Felix about God. The last letter was written on 25 October 1943: "Time disappears into nothingness", Felix writes.

On 1 November 1943 the family was arrested (this had happened before, but thanks to the intervention of Ernst Laqueur they were not held for long). Together with Omi they were taken to the Amsterdam Schouwburg and then transported to camp Westerbork. Only Helli remained behind; because she probably had diphtheria and the Nazis wanted to prevent infection, she was placed with the Jewish Invalids in Amsterdam.


Westerbork, Bergen Belsen

Maria, Beate, Gerda, Felix and 'granny' Clara were interned in Westerbork. Lisbeth Oestreicher, Felix's sister, has been there since early 1943 and would stay until the liberation. Marie, Felix's other sister, has gone into hiding. The family members stayed in Westerbork for a few months. In April 1944, thFamilie Braakhekke in 1948ey were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where Gerda's sister Renate and her husband Paul Goldschmidt were also imprisoned.

After more than two months, Helli was taken in by the 'underground' from the Jewish Invalids by the childless Braakhekke couple in Gorssel. They take her in as if she were their own daughter. From then on, 9-year-old Helli Oestreicher must call herself Ellie Strijker so that her identity remains hidden from the Nazis.


Bergen Belsen, Tröbitz

The family spent almost a year in Bergen-Belsen; Felix kept a camp diary from the time they were arrested. The diary is mainly a business record: it mentions how many people he treated as a doctor each day, what they were given to eat and who died. On 10 April 1945, as the Allies drew ever closer to Bergen-Belsen, a large group of prisoners was loaded onto trains and transported eastward. The family was also put on one of these trains, without grandmother Clara, who was too weak to go along. She died a few days later in Bergen-Belsen. Felix, Gerda, Beate, and Maria were on a train that was eventually liberated by the Russians in Tröbitz, a small town in the east of Germany. The transport took place under appalling conditions and lasted fourteen days and nights, from 11th April to the morning of 24th April. In Tröbitz the family was given shelter. They are now free, but severely malnourished. Gerda is so weak that she catches typhus. She lives in the house for a few more days, but Beate and Maria are no longer allowed to come near her, as the disease is highly contagious. Gerda dies on 31 May 1945, in freedom, but from the effects of the concentration camps. Felix also becomes infected with typhus, probably because he works in the hospital and still cares for Gerda.  He himself is admitted to hospital. Beate and Maria never see him again and on 9 June 1945 are told that their father has died too.

All this time Helli was in hiding with the Braakhekke family in Gorssel. The Braakhekkes had a daughHereniging van de zusjes in 1945 Helli, Maria, Beateter by the end of August 1944. They see the child as a reward from God for giving Helli shelter. At the end of June, Beate and Maria were taken to the Netherlands and taken in by their grandparents Laqueur in Amsterdam. Eventually the three sisters were reunited on the farm in Gorssel.

Other members of the Oestreicher and Laqueur family also survive the war. Felix's sister Lisbeth married Otto Birman in Westerbork on 6 May immediately after the liberation.

Hereniging van de zusjes in 1945: Beate en Helli

The three parentless girls are well taken care of by their families. Grandparents Ernst Laqueur and Margarethe Laqueur-Löwenthal found care for the girls in Bergen. After the sudden death of Ernst in 1947, his assistant Mieke Mesdag became the guardian of the three girls. Lisbeth and Otto Birman then became the foster parents of Beate, Helli and Maria, who came to live with them in Amersfoort in the summer of 1947. Thanks to the loving care of their grandparents, uncles and aunts, the triplets were able to lead a well-groomed life in the Netherlands.

The war was over, they lived in freedom again. Now the last letter of the Drillingsberichte can be opened, the letter dated 17 February 1942, which can be read as Felix's will. Hope and fear alternate. He writes that he hopes to be able to read the letter himself when there is peace. He feels like a plant that has been taken from the soil and thrown away to wither away. He thanks God and Ernst Laqueur for the fact that they are still alive and have no money worries. He earns a little money here and there by giving first-aid courses, but that is not enough. It is also of little use, Felix thought, because recently, in neighbouring towns, German Jews were rounded up for no reason at all; they were not allowed to bring anything to the camp, only what they were wearing. So there's no point and no joy in buying new things.

Felix's relationship with his father-in-law is difficult, despite his help. Felix needs money to emigrate with his family to the USA, but he does not have the means at the time. And Felix was informed too late that Ernst had put money away in the name of his children in the USA, including Gerda. If he had known earlier, they might now be in the U.S., Felix believes, adding in perspective: "Da wären wir darauf gekommen und vielleicht wären dadurch nach U.S.A. gekommen und jetzt schon längst durch einen Autounfall tot."

He mentions that the atmosphere in the family is tense. Gerda cries a lot and Felix yells at the smallest things, the children notice this too. In the last part he writes that they are thinking about what to do with their belongings in case they are arrested. Felix doesn't really care what happens to them, but Gerda is attached to the furniture.

Finally, Felix writes about the 'Drillingsberichte': "Meine Absicht bei der Erhaltung der Kinderberichte ist, dass sie einmal als Andenken an uns und die Kinder veröffentlicht werden können und so Menschen Vergnügen haben und unser Andenken erhalten bleibt, wir nicht ganz umsonst gelebt haben." (dated 17 February 1942)