A good shepherd

Nazi camp survivor living on the Ridge says he’s worried about where America is headed

Bert Schapelhouman at age 21, two years after his release from Mauthausen.

Bert Schapelhouman at age 21, two years after his release from Mauthausen.

Courtesy Of Bert Schapelhouman

Bert Schapelhouman thinks his much-loved adopted country has come off the rails. He worries that the United States has lost touch with the best of its values and traditions, and he is so fearful of the direction things seem to be going that he is, at age 80, considering leaving the United States for Canada, the country that first took him in after World War II.

But who cares what Bert Schapelhouman thinks? Another old man living with an opinion. The woods are full of them, and the cities, too. Anyone with a radio and a telephone can vent a crackpot view over the airwaves each and every day. And if not there, then on the Internet, in chat rooms where opinion gets thrown back and forth without the prerequisite that anyone whatsoever know anything whatsoever.

So why give any special regard to the opinions of Bert Schapelhouman, a big Dutchman now living in Magalia who speaks with an accent and who thinks George W. Bush and the powers-that-be are wildly dangerous men? Just another liberal alarmist with an opinion no one wants to hear.

The barracks at Mauthausen.

Courtesy Of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Why give any regard to the opinions of Bert Schapelhouman just because he is a man who had some powerful formative experiences living in a climate of citizen surveillance, constant fear, and clandestine torture?

No particular reason, maybe. That was then, and this is now, after all. And besides, drawing comparisons between fascists and Americans is the kind of over-the-top excess that has made political discourse so coarse and divisive of late.

But maybe, just maybe, this old emigrant, and others like him—that dwindling number of people who survived surveillance, torture and the concentration camps—have something worth hearing, some perspective on how totalitarianism asserts itself.

“When I came to the U.S.,” he says, “I thought it was the country of freedom. Since Bush and his cronies, I feel sometimes threatened. What if I am arrested and never heard from again? That’s what they do; it’s the same thing what the Nazis did.”

Bert Schapelhouman’s parents in an undated photo.

Courtesy Of Bert Schapelhouman

As Ronald Reagan used to say, “There they go again.” Left wingers making reckless comparisons. But it’s a fact that only nine out of 500 detainees at Guantanamo have been formally charged with anything at all. And it’s a fact that an undisclosed number of people once in American custody have been spirited away to shadowy interrogation facilities in countries known to engage in some pretty unspeakable practices.

In the country of his birth, Bert Schapelhouman once numbered among those known as “Onderduiker.” In his native Dutch language, the word means, literally, “under divers,” or those who disappear. He became an onderduiker in August 1942 when he went into hiding to avoid conscription into forced labor for the German occupiers. What that means is that for nearly two full years while he was a teenager, Bert Schapelhouman lived with omnipresent fear, wondering at every moment whether a distressed friend would give information on him, or if a knock at the door was the harbinger of doom. Spies were everywhere, and trust was offered with great caution. Thousands of Dutch kids became onderduikers, hiding to avoid serving the Reich. When those kids were caught, there was hell to pay.

Bert’s hell—a hell he shared with some 12 million others—was justified by Hitler in the following words: “An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child of this great nation,” Hitler said. “We must take steps to ensure our domestic security and protect our homeland.”

And so Bert Schapelhouman was carted away in the middle of the night while the dogs barked and his mother cried.

The women’s camp at Mauthausen after liberation.

Courtesy Of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

When the Gestapo came for him on that cold October night in 1944, he’d weighed 160 pounds. When he was liberated by American soldiers nearly eight months later, he weighed 78 pounds and he could not stand without assistance. The night they took Bert, they also took his older brother. His brother never came back.

The interrogators wanted information about the Dutch resistance, and about families who were harboring Jews in and around the Bert’s little village of Boyl. There were many things Bert could have told them, but during the four years of German occupation of his country, he had vowed to his mother almost daily that, if he were taken, he would tell nothing. Should he give up information, he knew all too well, people would die, and they would be people he knew.

He remembers the fear of those years before he was arrested, of the suspicion that spreads among people who know they are being watched. He remembers the pretty Dutch girls carrying hidden messages rolled up in the struts that supported their bicycle seats.

His father had been in the Dutch army during World War I, but Holland had managed to maintain its neutrality during that conflict. It was not exempt from the horrors of World War II, however, and when the Nazis invaded Holland in 1940, Bert’s father resisted their occupation, a resistance that would cost him his life, and the life of his eldest son.

Survivors carry the body of a former prisoner in the newly liberated Mauthausen camp.

Courtesy Of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Bert, of course, survived, but on the second day of his interrogation, he heard his older brother’s voice, screaming from another interrogation room. He never heard that voice again, and no trace of his brother was ever found.

Four more days of interrogation cost Bert his fingernails, his toenails, and all of his upper teeth. Then he was shipped off to Mauthausen, a place the inmates called “Morthausen,” the house of death.”

Unspeakable things happened to him there, too, and he saw things no human being should ever see, things too gruesome for casual reading in a cozy coffee shop, but things that still happen in the world, are happening even now while we read the paper and drink coffee and discuss going to the movies later in the day.

The camp was about equally divided between political prisoners (politische haftling) like Bert, and Jews, mostly from Poland and Hungary. Most horribly treated of all were the prisoners taken in the Soviet Union, officers captured at Stalingrad. The Germans had been driven out of that city, and their defeat and their losses there made the Germans especially brutal in their treatment of the Russians. Among other horrors, the SS brought in some 400 professional boxers to the special compound built for the Russians. The boxers were fitted with steel gloves. They beat the Russians to death by the hundreds. And though no one had much to eat at Mauthausen, the Russians were not fed at all.

Mass grave for those who couldn’t survive.

Courtesy Of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Bert Schapelhouman remembers hearing the Russians singing songs of defiance in “their dark, brown voices.” He smiles a sad but warm smile. “I have great respect for what the Russians did. They broke the Germans on the Eastern front. But they paid a big price.”

Bert remembers one German officer, a remarkable specimen—handsome, tall, radiant with good health. The first time Bert saw him, he thought he’d never seen a more perfect man, and something in the man’s appearance and demeanor gave Bert a faint hope of kindness or mercy. The officer walked past the assembled inmates, smiling, chatting with an aide. Then he singled out a prisoner, took out his Luger and shot the man dead. He did this each day for two months, picking a man at random and shooting him, the assembled prisoners shuddering fearfully before him waiting to see which of them he’d choose.

Each day the prisoners would walk 4 kilometers to a sub camp known as Gusen Zwei where they were made to work each day. They worked through that winter of 1944-45 in bitter cold, and dozens died each day, of exposure, exhaustion, malnutrition or brutalization. At the end of those work days—from dark to dark—the survivors would carry their dead back to the camp for cremation. Exhausted, stumbling in darkness, with the dead weight of a corpse on his back, Bert carried dead men from that Gusen Zwei sub camp back to the main camps on seven or eight occasions. Other nights he was luckier and all the corpses had been taken by prisoners ahead of him.

“I had the feeling,” he says, “that I was living on the moon. I was always afraid, but always defiant. How can that be? I was like a machine on those nights carrying a dead comrade through that snow and cold. Even when my hip was out of joint from a beating. Icy cold, the bodies. But I knew in the dark behind me was an SS officer with a Luger, and if I fell, I’d be shot, so I walked, one foot in front of the other. Like a machine.”

Bert Schapelhoumanat his home in Magalia.

Photo By Jaime O'Neill

But even at that, Bert and the others had it better than the Soviet military officers, who slept outdoors. Dozens froze to death each night.

More than a quarter of a million people entered Mauthausen—the numbers are inexact because many died before they could be registered—but at war’s end only 17,290 people came out: 2,079 women, 15,211 men.

The first black man Bert Schapelhouman ever saw was an American soldier who gave him a chocolate bar on the day Mauthausen was liberated. And it was the perfume of an American nurse that reawakened him to life. The prisoners were being deloused a few days after the Americans arrived, and a nurse brushed against Bert’s shoulder. The scent of her perfume nearly made him lose consciousness. “I knew then,” he says, “that I was going to live.”

So Bert Schapelhouman loves America with a passion that he can explain fairly directly. It was the country that welcomed him when he came to Los Altos in the early ‘60s, and it is the country that gave him a second chance at life. When he says he worries about the direction his adopted land has embarked upon, there are sure to be scores and scores of armchair patriots ready to urge him to go back where he came from if he doesn’t like it here. There are sure to be those who think him an ingrate.

The garage yard entry

Courtesy Of Steve Gowler

But Bert Schapelhouman knows something about the way occupation feels to the people living in an occupied country, and though he surely does not compare American soldiers to Nazis, he does remember that most German soldiers were conscripts, and none of them set policy. In fact, the first German soldier he ever saw saved his life. He and two of his brothers were at a soccer game. It was 1943, three years after the occupation of his country had begun, more than a year since he’d become an onderduicker, but no Germans had yet found their way to Bert’s remote village. It was a Sunday afternoon when the rumor went through the spectators that the Germans were coming. And then they heard the sound of the vehicles approaching. Bert and his brothers took off running. Bert hid in a dry ditch thinking he’d keep quiet and wait until everyone went away. “All of a sudden,” he says, “there was a German with his rifle. Our eyes met, but he pretended he didn’t see me and just kept on walking.”

Bert wonders now if the Iraqi insurgents might bear similarities to the Dutch resistance. “The Germans occupied my country,” he says, “but they did not occupy the soul of the Dutch population, and the U.S. does not have the soul of the Iraqis. Occupiers never do, no matter what their motives. Hundreds joined the Dutch resistance. We did some stupid things because we didn’t know what we were doing, but we resisted. One woman in Amsterdam I heard about—a beautiful young woman—the Germans killed her boyfriend and she wanted revenge. She went out with a German officer. She knifed him and threw his body in a canal. She did seven of them like that before she was caught. She was killed, of course, but she killed seven.”

Of George W. Bush, he says: “I am so disappointed that he is the president, but he is the president of only a small group. This spying is unbelievable. And the support of torture. Why do we tolerate this?”

And the bombing of Baghdad reminds him of the bombing of Rotterdam. “Rotterdam was an open city when the Germans bombed it,” he says. “It was totally defenseless.”

The cremation ovens of Mauthausen as they appear today.

Courtesy Of Steve Gowler

Bert Schapelhouman’s eldest son is a Bay Area firefighter, an expert at disaster response who has taken that expertise to some of our worst recent disasters—to Oklahoma City, to New Orleans, and to Ground Zero in New York, the site of the terrorist attack that set Bert’s adopted land on the course that has him so worried. He worries that the United States may be forfeiting its moral authority in the world.

Josef Goebbels, German minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, introduced the gambit known as “the big lie.” Goebbels wrote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The costs, the consequences—and the horrors—of Hitler’s regime were not fully known until World War II was virtually over. The economic costs of the war in Iraq have been recently estimated at $2 trillion, and the human toll is yet to be known. What is known is that lies have been marshaled in support of this war.

In the dialect of his region of northern Holland, Bert’s last name—Schapelhouman—means “shepherd of the village.” In telling the painful tales of what he saw and endured as a young man, Bert would like to be a good shepherd to the larger global village made up of people too young to know the world he once knew, and the lessons it may have to offer them. In a sense, Bert Schapelhouman is still carrying the dead on his back, bearing witness in their place, telling a tale few may wish to hear to generations unmindful of things that happened before their time.

In his nightmares, Bert can still hear the screams of the people who died at Mauthausen, and the cries of the people tortured in Holland before he was transported to the death camp.

“Look at the world now,” he says. “So sick. Did we learn nothing?” Adolph Hitler, the man whose insanity created places like Mauthausen, once observed: “What good fortune for those in power that people don’t think.”

Perhaps the past has something to say to the present. Perhaps Bert Schapelhouman’s last name is apt. His 80th birthday draws near. He is one of an ever-diminishing number of people who lived through one of the worst horrors human beings have ever visited upon one another. Much was happening in and around Mauthausen in the last days before the camp was liberated, but Bert was very near death, and so he knew little of what was going on. He came back from that place of the dead to build a life, though health problems acquired there when he was 17 and 18 years old would dog him all of his days.

As would the fear of powerful and unrestrained government and military power over defenseless citizens.

And as a “schapelhouman” must, he feels compelled now, in his advancing years, to signal an alarm about how fear can justify great wrongs, and how powerful men can manipulate fear to create horrors.

Maybe he’s crazy, or he may simply be badly scarred from seeing too much horror at a young age, but he is, nonetheless, a man who speaks with a measured authority, offering memories of abject misery from the comforts of his tidy and well-ordered home just above Paradise. A little irony there. A lifetime encapsulated, from then to now, from Hell to Paradise.

Can such things happen again? We would, ourselves, be crazy to assume they can’t.