Holocaust survivor: Childhood on the run

Holocaust survivor Peter Metzelaar visits with students after telling them about his years hiding from Nazi soldiers.

Photo by Jennie McGhan
Holocaust survivor Peter Metzelaar visits with students after telling them about his years hiding from Nazi soldiers.


Peter Metzelaar, a survivor of the Holocaust, speaks to fifth grade students yesterday about his boyhood.

— It’s not every little boy who has to run from soldiers looking to destroy him, his family and his entire race.

Peter Metzelaar did, however.

Between the ages of 5 and 10, he was among the millions of Jews in Europe hunted by Nazi Germany.

“I was much too young to understand,” Metzelaar told fifth graders at Harriet Thompson Elementary School yesterday.

He said the holocaust was a time filled with fear and anxiety for Metzelaar and his mother, who lived in Amsterdam when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis began overtaking Europe.

“The rules of the Nazis were meant to dehumanize people,” Metzelaar said.

Under their rule, all Jews 6 years of age and older were required to wear a yellow star, bearing the word Jood (Jew). Metzelaar’s mother still had one after the war that was eventually donated to a museum.

He said his earliest memories of WWII involve people being stopped in the middle of the street for no reason. German soldiers would demand their identification papers. He said those people were rounded up and loaded into trucks, never to be seen again.

“No one knew where they went,” Metzelaar said.

When he was 7, he remembers waking in the middle of the night to the sound of trucks and German soldiers demanding all Jews inside an apartment building leave.

“Doors were kicked in, women were crying and babies were screaming,” Metzelaar recalled.

The following day, several of Metzelaar’s classmates were unaccounted.

The number of people disappearing from his life began to climb. His aunt and uncle were arrested. Then, his grandparents were arrested a few weeks later.

“At the age of 7, I didn’t understand… my mother didn’t know how to explain it to a young boy,” Metzelaar said.

In June 1942, Metzelaar’s father was arrested for fishing and was never seen again.

The young boy’s mother feared for herself and her son. She learned there were people willing to hide Jews.

That underground network saved Metzelaar and his mother, starting in Holland at a farm owned by Klaas and Roefina Post.

The Post family shared what little food they had, as well as provided shelter to Metzelaar and his mother.

“The Germans found out some farms were hiding Jews,” Metzelaar said.

To keep him and his mother hidden, Mr. Post first created a hiding spot under the floorboards of the house.

“There were soldiers walking not two feet away from me,” Metzelaar said, telling the students he was afraid of being caught.

Not only was he fearful for himself and his mother, but the Post family, as well.

“If we were caught the whole family could have been killed,” Metzelaar said.

He said he was surprised when Mr. Post asked him to go outside with a wheelbarrow one day.

“For more than two years I could not go outside during the day,” Metzelaar said.

He said there was a risk the neighbors would turn the Posts in for hiding him and his mother.

He and Metzelaar dug a small cave into the side of a hill and created camouflage around it. That cave became Metzelaar’s new hiding place with his mother when the German soldiers visited the farm.

He said it was in 1943 the U.S. began bombing raids from England, flying right over the Post farm.

“It was scary. The windows would rattle and the noise was very loud,” Metzelaar said.

The next year, his mother worried about putting the Post family at greater risk, so she contacted members of the underground again.

Metzelaar said two women in The Hague were willing to provide them shelter, but little else.

“It was so different… Klaas was like a father,” he said, noting the Posts shared everything with him and his mother.

In The Hague, his mother often left Metzelaar in the middle of the night so she could find food. She also secured false documents, giving Metzelaar a different last name so he could attend school.

“Peter Pelt didn’t get good grades because I was always afraid,” Metzelaar said of his assumed identity.

He and his mother weren’t in The Hague long because she learned the women sheltering them considered turning them in.

“Bombing raids started happening around the clock,” Metzelaar said.

He nearly blew himself up, picking up what he thought was shrapnel after a raid.

“We traded shrapnel as a hobby at school,” Metzelaar said.

His mother, however, insisted he throw the unusually large piece away. He tossed it and it blew up.

“I still don’t know what it was,” he said.

His mother fashioned a nurse’s uniform from sheets and the two set out in an effort to get back to Amsterdam, where the underground had another apartment waiting for them.

But, the highway was the only way to get there, Metzelaar said.

At the age of 10, he said he was very inquisitive and thought his mother was crazy to think they were going to successfully travel the highway.

Several times, she had to tell him to be quiet and not to speak, Metzelaar said.

She threw out her thumb in an effort to hitchhike, knowing civilians were not allowed to travel the highway between Hague and Amsterdam.

A truck stopped and an officer got out to question the “nurse” on the side of the road.

Metzelaar said his mother told the officer she was a Red Cross nurse charged with taking an orphaned boy to an orphanage in Amsterdam.

Metzelaar ended up riding in the back of the truck atop snow while his mother was seated in the cab.

He had another close call while in Amsterdam. An old high school used by the Nazis had been bombed and he was scavenging for wood when a soldier caught him. The soldier picked him up, pointed a gun at his head and told him he had 10 seconds to run or be shot.

He escaped, but not before a neighbor thought he had been killed and told his mother.

“She was still a mess when I got back to our apartment,” Metzelaar said, stating she hugged him tightly when she learned he was still alive.

It was May 1945 when Canada liberated Holland. Four years later Metzelaar and his mother immigrated to the U.S.

He said he didn’t talk much about his life in Europe and he didn’t think back to his time with the Posts until his son invited him to visit in 1992. His son was in the military and stationed in Belgium.

It is then, Metzelaar returned to the place of his boyhood. He was also able to return to the Post farm.

The Posts, however, died seven years before. The people living at the farm weren’t home, but Metzelaar’s son was able to help him find the cave where he once hid.

“It was such an unbelievable experience,” he said.

After also sharing with students information about his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Metzelaar told them Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were successful because of propaganda. “People were willing to believe the lies because they were told over and over… they didn’t think for themselves,” he said.

“Use your own mind,” Metzelaar told the students. “Stupidity, ignorance and bullying are weapons of mass destruction.”


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