The first thing you notice about Betty Bausch are her exquisite blue eyes. They—along with her fearless nature and lots of luck—are what enabled her to survive the Holocaust in Holland.
The second thing you notice about her is that she seems much younger than her 96 years. Clear of mind and fully mobile, she didn’t think twice about climbing up on a stool to reach a tea tin in her kitchen cupboard or to search for an old photo album on a high bookshelf when a reporter came to visit her at her apartment in Kfar Saba during Passover.
Bausch fit the interview in as she prepared to leave the next day for a two-month trip to Holland and Germany, where she will speak about her Holocaust experience to many different groups on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of World War II. Even at her advanced age, Bausch makes four to five such trips a year.
“I am one of the very few who can still talk about it. So, when they want me, I have to go,” she said. “But I’ve given up going to the United States at this point.”
What Amsterdam-born Bausch talks to audiences about is how she managed to avoid deportation to a concentration camp by assuming several false identities and moving around German-occupied Holland more than 20 times during the final two and a half years of the war.
“I never had a chance to find out whether I was any good at my jobs as a farmhand, child nurse, housekeeper, cleaner, babysitter, aid to the elderly, housemaid or social worker,” she wrote in the Holocaust memoir she co-wrote with her younger sister Liesje (Elisheva) Auerbach about the different kinds of work she managed to do rather convincingly during the war.
Bausch had acted in some plays when she was in high school, and she put those acting skills to good use.
“In the evenings before I went to bed, I looked in the mirror and worked on not showing any fear on my face,” she recounted.
In the memoir, “Broken Silence,” Bausch’s sister Liesje described her as “full of life and energy, a strong personality who chose her own path in life without allowing other’s opinions to take preference over her own.”
“Perhaps her stubbornness and persistence is what saved her life,” she wrote.
Bausch said that even as a 16-year-old, she paid attention to Hitler’s speeches when he came to power.
“He said that the Jews were the rats of the world and had to be destroyed, and I took his threats seriously even when others didn’t,” she said.
“I told my family the Nazis would never take me.”
Indeed, Bausch was the only member of the Polak family the Nazis did not deport to the Westerbork transit camp and then on to either Sobibor or Bergen-Belsen.
Bausch’s mother and father were killed in Sobibor in 1943, and her older sister Juul died two weeks after liberation in 1945. Her older brother Jaap (Jack) came out of Bergen-Belsen looking like a skeleton, but recovered and lived in America, married to a woman he met in the camps, until his recent death at age 102.
Liesje, the youngest in the family, made it to British Mandate Palestine in July 1944, having been one of 220 Bergen-Belsen prisoners exchanged for the same number of women and children from the German Templar community that had been left behind when the community’s men had left to join the Nazi war effort.
In Jerusalem, she continued the career path she began at the Jewish Hospital in Amsterdam and later in Bergen-Belsen and became the first Dutch woman to graduate from the Hadassah nursing school. Her luck held out once again when, in April 1948, she narrowly avoided being in the convoy of professors, doctors and nurses that was attacked by Arab forces on its way to Mount Scopus. Almost everyone in the convoy was killed.
During the war, Bausch and her husband Philip (Flip) de Leeuw (whom she had married at age 20 in 1939) kept themselves alive thanks to their wits and the extensive connections de Leeuw, a reserve army officer, had in the Dutch Resistance. Early on, the couple, both using false papers, was able to stay together. Later it became too difficult because of Bausch’s ability to pass as a non-Jew and de Leeuw’s looking “too Jewish” to do so.
One might assume that Bausch’s now-white hair was once blond, but it was actually brown.
“I didn’t dye it because I realized that if I were stuck somewhere for some time and my roots began showing before I could color them again, I’d be caught,” she explained.
“But I had blue eyes. My blue eyes saved me,” she said.
In the summer of 1944, the couple was reunited in Bilthoven, and de Leeuw joined the Resistance. Since he had military experience, he was given command of an eight-man combat unit. After a sabotage mission went wrong in November of that year, de Leeuw, Bausch and several others were arrested. They were interrogated at the Bilthoven police station and then at the Wolvenplein prison in Utrecht, where de Leeuw was tortured. Thanks to the help of some sympathetic guards, the husband and wife were able to pass notes between one another and coordinate their stories.
Bausch was taken to SD (Nazi SS intelligence) headquarters in Utrecht and faced interrogation by a notoriously cruel commander. She summoned her best acting skills and managed to make it out of not only the commander’s office, but also out of prison a few days later.
As she was handed her release papers bearing a Nazi stamp, the guard told her, “Make sure never to get involved again with anything illegal, and don’t ever have anything to do with those who are.”
“I thought to myself, if you only knew just how very illegal I am,” she wrote in her memoir.
With great nerve, Bausch returned some time later to the SD headquarters and asked the staff to give de Leeuw a spare pair of glasses she had brought for him. She was told that he was to be killed by a firing squad—which he was, along with five other young men, on November 20 in the woods of Prattenberg on the border between Rhenen and Veenendaal.
“The visit not only proved fruitless, it even heightened the general suspicion under which I was regarded by the Resistance,” she wrote.
“Despite having many good friends in Bilthoven, I turned my back on the place. My acquaintances in the Resistance had cut off any contact, and I too disconnected…Thus began the long period of silence in my life.”
Bausch survived the last half year of the war in hiding in a small city in the west of Holland, and also smuggling food from the eastern part of the country into the starving western part. She rode her bicycle with wooden wheels for hundreds of miles, passing checkpoints and avoiding having her bike confiscated by showing a special permit she finagled from the Nazis by telling them she was a social worker who needed to travel.
“I was such a smooth talker that the Nazis even offered me a job. I thanked them and told them I already had one,” she said.
Despite her having been brought up in a very Zionist home and having been a member of the Mizrahi Orthodox Zionist youth group, Bausch chose not to join her sister in Israel after the war. She remained in Holland, helping to rebuild the country through work she obtained in the Dutch ministry of agriculture in The Hague.
Over the years, Bausch, who worked mainly among men, rose to higher and higher positions in the ministry, breaking the glass ceiling. For many years, however, her personal life was less successful.
“People wouldn’t understand what the war had done to me. I couldn’t talk about it,” she said.
In 1954 she met Dolf Bausch at a conference. He was not Jewish, but he had helped Jews during the war and had worked as an informant for the Allies. He had been sent to a concentration camp, but escaped with the help of an SS man. After the war, the Dutch punished him for having testified on behalf of the German who had saved him.
“We worked in a similar field, he was a bad driver, and he understood me,” Bausch said.
The couple was married in 1961 and Bausch became mother to her new husband’s two sons from a previous marriage. They visited Israel frequently and eventually made aliya in 1981, living half the year in Holland and half the year in a house they built in Eilat.
‘There were people who gave their lives to help me. You have to be open to the needs of others. Don’t wait until they come to you’
Dolf died of kidney disease at age 69 in 1982, leaving Bausch a widow for the second time. She eventually sold the house in Eilat and moved to an apartment in a retirement village in Kfar Saba, not far from where her sister Liesje, now 93, lives. She lives off her Dutch pension, German reparation payments administered through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, and payments from Israel’s Finance Ministry, which were recently greatly increased thanks to help from Aviv (Spring) For Holocaust Survivors, a nonprofit organization that assists survivors in accessing benefits due them.
Having outlived most other survivors who were adults during the Holocaust, the multilingual Bausch feels it is her duty to keep speaking to young people in Israel and abroad. She remained silent until her grandchildren and great-grandchildren (who live in England and Belgium) got her to open up, and now she has vowed to keep talking until she no longer can.
She believes the most important lesson from her Holocaust experience that she can impart to younger generations is the importance of being there for others.
“There were people who gave their lives to help me. You have to be open to the needs of others. Don’t wait until they come to you,” she said.