It is a journey that changed his life, says Hein Piller de Bruijn (40). “And in which I found what I unconsciously sought: my Jewish identity.” In the documentary Destination Sobibor, which is broadcast around the commemoration of the uprising in Sobibor (14 October 1943), the Amsterdammer makes the same train journey as dozens of his family members, who were murdered in World War II. From Amsterdam Muiderpoort, via Westerbork to the Nazi extermination camp Sobibor in Poland.
Hein’s mother Rebecca, still a baby at the time, survived the war in hiding under the name Sonja van Buuren. Her parents and two sisters were killed.
“I felt and experienced my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and many others on the platform there in the forests of Poland. I made contact with my family in that serene environment. I saw everyone taken away. But I took them back here and now try to integrate that history into my life. I feel the task to let them live on, but for that I have to live with them first. The first big step has been taken. ”
Why did you want to recall that family history and all the horrible memories?
My mother turned 75 in 2018. For her birthday she asked for a donation to the Holocaust Memorial of Names. I then started looking for the name Piller and found so many relatives – Amsterdam Jews – who turned out to have been killed. That moved me enormously. I thought: I want to make a film about this. But very little can be found about them. Then director Raymond Grimbergen and I decided to graft the film on my own experience and to make the journey that they also traveled.
Until then, were you hardly aware of your Jewish identity?
My father is non-Jewish and we hardly spoke to my mother about that part of the past, as so often with war victims. The subject was not taboo, but asking about it was not stimulated. It all remained very reactive. We didn’t do anything about faith either. As a result, I felt I could not make any claim at all to being Jewish.
As a surname you bore the name of your father, De Bruijn. The Jewish name Piller seemed to have disappeared with the death transport.
Forty of my mother’s relatives were murdered, but she miraculously survived. She was only a month old when, during the raids of May 1943 in Amsterdam, she was brought to safety with the neighbors. We have no idea how that exactly happened. My mother was then taken to a hiding place in Maasland, in South Holland, to a Reformed couple. She grew up there. I also consider them my grandfather and grandmother.
The couple with whom she was placed suddenly had a daughter.
We do not know how the neighbors and others reacted to this. There was even a hiding place in the house for the baby, where she could be hidden. My mother always stayed in Maasland and became very stable. And I knew no better than it was the way it was. There was never a moment, a conversation, where we really talked about that war past. My mother is not alive, but survives. She is anxiously alone and to this day there must always be someone at home at night. And she developed street fear around the age of 30. That is a clear war trauma. Only she managed to make it liveable.
When you got on the train with your cameraman / director to Sobibor, your mother did not come to see you off.
No, she couldn’t handle that. Although she later said I should have just asked her.
In a way, you also returned to the roots of the Piller family. They are originally from Poland.
But they have lived in Amsterdam for centuries, in the neighborhood behind Carré. Real Amsterdam Jews. Strangely enough, I have always wanted to live in Amsterdam. Even as a child, as if I felt that this is my home. I also wanted my children to have ‘Amsterdam’ in their passports.
The journey to Sobibor seems like one Rite of passage – a rite of passage. We see you, with yarmulke, meditating in that ‘guilty’ Polish landscape.
There was hardly anything left of Jewish life in Poland. I thought: why is there nothing? That started to annoy me. I felt the loss and the pain. My younger brother Maurits wrote a book about Jewishness – THEok my holocaust – and delved into that family history as well.
But going back further to what exactly happened, how they were taken away and so on, I took it upon myself. Our father has always been very supportive and has also been concerned with the question of whether we should be raised Jewish. But that did not happen.
In 2003 you traveled with your parents and brothers to four former concentration camps. You then visited an orthodox synagogue near Sobibor.
I followed my parents. My mother had covered her hair as directed. And suddenly I realized: it could have been that way, it had to be. And then I started to cry a lot. For the first time ever, I really had the feeling of being Jewish. And I got furious too. I thought: if I am not able to find my Jewishness, then Hitler has simply won. I was shocked. That war turned out to be still in me.
You decided to reclaim the name Piller.
I wanted to keep that name alive. But that still took some doing. For example, I had to prove that my Jewish grandparents had ‘passed away’. That’s what they said: not murdered, but ‘deceased’. In the end it worked. I am the only one in our family who has chosen this.
Throughout your life you could not really mirror yourself in your environment.
After all, nobody shared my experience. I can only really talk about it with one friend, who has been through exactly the same thing. He understands my story.
How is this now, after the trip and now that your documentary is ready and is being screened?
I see this as a new beginning. I no longer doubt that I am Jewish. And I am no longer only concerned with that war, but also with the fun aspects of being Jewish: the culture, the land of Israel, the festivals. We try to pass that on to our children as well. They have Jewish names and on Fridays I try to take into account that it is Shabbat. And I focus on what is left of Jewish life in the Netherlands: the organizations and the meetings. I am now getting to know those people.
How did your mother react to the documentary?
She liked the film, but because I am so provocative, she sometimes finds it difficult for me to dive into it like that. And no, she did not suddenly start telling more on her own.
You own a photo of your grandparents, taken shortly before they were taken away.
When I hung that picture on the wall, our little boy at one point wrote the names of our family next to it. It was as if he came full circle.
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