For Jacobus Betrus Wever, known as Coos (pronounced Kos), biking is a form of therapy.
“If I don’t feel well or I feel upset, I go on a bike and I can handle what comes my way,” said Wever.
So it made sense that Wever, a non-Jewish Dutch native living in Israel for the last 25 years, and a long-time physiotherapist at Jerusalem’s Alyn Hospital, chose to bike the journey he’s making to trace his family’s Holocaust history.
Wever, with his partner, Martina Zin, a German by birth, leave for Germany on Thursday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, for what they’re calling a Bergen-Belsen–Troebitz Commemoration Bike Ride.
Wever and Zin are making this ride to commemorate 70 years since the end of World War II, and more specifically, marking April 15, the day a train with more than 2,000 people left the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for Theresienstadt. It was liberated nearly two weeks later by Russian troops, near the village of Troebitz, after more than 500 people died aboard the train.
Sixty percent of the people on the Troebitz train were from Holland, said Wever.
Neither Wever nor Zin have any personal connections with those who rode the train to Troebitz. But they have other kinds of links to the impossible ride.
It begins with Wever’s grandfather, Jacobus Jonker, for whom he’s named.
His grandparents, who lived in a rural area north of Amsterdam, hid a Jewish couple in the spring of 1944. They were betrayed three months later and his grandfather was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen in Germany.
According to documents the family obtained, his grandfather was still in Sachsenhausen in January 1945, but they lost track of him after that date. In February 1945, there were five transports from Sachsenhausen to Bergen-Belsen, including some 300 to 400 Dutch prisoners.
Wever’s grandfather never returned home. He knows that conditions in Bergen-Belsen were horrific, he said, with terrible overcrowding and constant death from starvation, exhaustion and typhus.
It wasn’t until Wever was 14 that he began asking his mother questions about his grandfather. He knew he died in the war, and that it had something to do with the Jews, but it wasn’t a matter that was discussed openly in the family.
It was enough to trigger his interest and he began to read and study about the Holocaust and Dutch involvement.
When Wever was 25, he came to Israel as a volunteer at Alyn, having heard about the rehabilitation hospital from someone he knew in Holland. He returned to Holland a year later and enrolled in university, but soon found himself back in Israel, at Alyn. In the interim, he spent time with his aunt, asking her what she knew about her father and his history.
It was during those early years in Israel that Wever began to understand what his grandparents had done — “what a big thing this was,” he said.
“They were taking Jews into hiding and taking risks that I’m not sure they were aware of,” he said. “They paid a very high price, my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother and her sister.”
Israelis began making Wever aware how much they appreciated what his grandparents had done.
“It sort of changed everything,” he said.
He began researching his grandfather’s past, trying to find out what had happened to him and where he was buried, whether in a mass grave or somewhere else.
“I’m almost sure that he went to Bergen-Belsen, but the story is open,” he said. “And the book will never be closed because there is no way to find out.”
In response to his request that his grandparents be recognized as “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, ceremonies were held in 1997 at Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum and in Ursem, Holland, the village where his grandparents lived during the war.
An olive tree was planted in his grandparents’ name in the back garden of Alyn, overlooking an original Polish train wagon on the grounds of nearby Yad Vashem.
Wever first heard about the Troebitz train from his adoptive Israeli parents. They’re also Dutch, but Jewish, and his adoptive father’s parents were on the train. The train became a piece of Holocaust history that persisted in making itself part of Wever’s own story. He kept meeting people who were on the train, including family members of other Alyn staffers.
“It keeps on coming back to me,” he said. “How can you ignore something that’s in your face?”
For the next week, Wever and Zin will bike the opposite route that his grandfather probably took, starting in Bergen-Belsen, where he is thought to have died, and ending in Sachsenhausen, where he was presumably still alive.
“Symbolically, it’s from where he died to where he lived,” he said.
The official commemoration of the transport will be on April 23 in Troebitz and on April 26, in Bergen-Belsen. Wever and Zin plan to start bicycling in Bergen-Belsen on April 17 and to arrive six days later in Troebitz on April 22. The next day, April 23, Israel’s Independence Day, will be full of commemoration events in and around Troebitz, said Wever.
Their respective parents are also joining them. Zin’s parents live near Bergen-Belsen, close to the Troebitz train track, and will join them at the camp. And Wever’s mother, who turns 80 in July, will join them on the fifth day of the ride.
He’s worried about her, and thinks of his mother as a traumatized victim, having had her father taken away when she was eight and growing up in a family that suffered as a result.
That kind of trauma and victimhood is something he’s become familiar with from his work for a Master’s in Holocaust studies at the University of Haifa.
Holocaust victims, said Wever, are “so much a part of Jewish identity, of Israeli identity, and it’s certainly a very big part of my identity. My story makes me part of Israeli and Jewish history, because it’s the same Holocaust.”
The bike ride, he said, is a means of confronting all the various issues that will come up in the course of the trip.
“Biking will help us cope,” he said.