Peggy Berkelouw Duveen remembers nothing of living through the Holocaust as a toddler in Amsterdam, but she says her entire life has been affected by it.
Duveen, now 80 and living in Winter Garden, was born in 1943. One-and-a-half years later, she and her mother were assigned concentration camp prison numbers and told they were going to Auschwitz.
“Thank God the peace came and the Americans and the Russians and Canadians came,” Duveen said. “I’m the last generation of Holocaust survivors.”
The liberation in spring 1945 spared their lives — but her mother’s stress of being pregnant, giving birth and living in utter fear through the Holocaust would create generational psychological scars.
Stories shared with Duveen have lived in her memory for decades. A neighborhood midwife delivered her when doctors wouldn’t — and the woman paid with her life after another neighbor told authorities.
“It was something I will have with me the rest of my life that this courageous, wonderful soul … had the guts to do that and somebody had to rat her out and she was killed for (the equivalent of $7.50),” Duveen said.
As an infant, she and her mother frequently hid in a secret cellar her father built to keep his family safe from Nazi soldiers.
At the same time she was in hiding, Duveen’s future husband, Hans, and his mother were trying to survive in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Hans would spent three years there, from age 7 to 10. Duveen said he wouldn’t talk about his experiences until he was much older, and what he shared with her made her wince.
“At 6 or 7 years, a child is formed, and this is what he grew up with,” she said. “He saw a lot of stuff. They had to bring the cadavers to some mass grave. They played with cadavers.”
Her mother-in-law was a seamstress and the family breadwinner. After liberation, Duveen’s future husband and his mother returned home to find someone else living in their house.
“They survive concentration camps and then lose their homes,” Duveen said.
Duveen’s Jewish maternal grandparents were saved when they fled to the south of Holland. Duveen lived, in part, because her paternal grandmother told a lie.
According to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, the Mischling Test could be applied to determine whether or not a person was a Jew; a person with three or more Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew. Duveen’s father’s mother was Christian and married to a Jew, so this gave Duveen three Jewish grandparents.
However, the grandmother claimed she had an affair with a Christian neighbor while her husband was fighting in World War I — just so she could say her son, Duveen’s father, was a full Christian. This would give Duveen only “two” Jewish grandparents.
Duveen’s father worked in the diamond industry and ultimately saved the lives of several family members by trading diamonds for people.
About 100 members of Duveen’s extended family were killed in the Holocaust; her husband lost 96 family members, including his father, who was walking home from work and was picked up, taken to Auschwitz and never seen again.
Of the 120,000 Jews living in Holland, only 7,000 came back, she said.
The effects of the war affected Duveen as she got older and understood more.
“Don’t think the war was over and it’s all done,” she said. “Today, it’s not done. You can take it as a ‘me victim,’ which I don’t want to do. I’m no victim. And my husband, too; of course, he was a victim, but he didn’t want to play that role.”
For years, Duveen covered her ears when she heard fireworks and loud booms. She discovered later that a bomb went off while her mother was pushing her in a stroller.
“That must have been a tremendous noise in my subconscious,” she said. “So, when I hear that, I get extremely uncomfortable, fearful and I want to get out.”
LIFE AFTER WAR
After World War II, Duveen was sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Amsterdam, having afternoon coffee with a friend, when she met her husband, Hans. She was 17; he was 26. They ran into each other often for about 10 years before starting a romantic relationship. They were married in 1971 and enjoyed 45 years together before his death.
It would take Duveen all those years to finally understand all that her husband endured.
“Living with a man with this background was not a piece of cake,” she said. “But you don’t know that. You’re 27 and you think you know everything. … You learn very fast.”
After marriage, they settled down in a quaint bungalow with a lilac tree. Once it bloomed, Duveen placed some of the flowers in a vase on the table. When Hans came home from work one day, he yelled and threw the vase and its contents outside.
She made her husband explain what was happening, and he told her he and his mother where in a train car heading to a camp and when they arrived, his mother was more dead than alive.
“So they got a wheelbarrow, and they put his mother in there, and there was a farm where they had a big open stable, and they wheeled her over there,” Duveen said. “She said, ‘See those lilacs over there? Please put them in my hands so if I die, I die with beautiful flowers in my hand.’
“During my marriage, I kept discovering things,” Duveen said.
They moved to the United States, and Hans served two years in the U.S. Army.
“He threw away his Dutch passport; he never wanted to go back,” Duveen said. “They treated the Holocaust survivors disgustingly during the war and after.”
Her husband did a lot of healing through the years, and when he was in his 60s, he decided he was ready to visit the Auschwitz memorial site. The trip was cathartic, and he would eventually become a guide and committee member at the former concentration camp.
Duveen said she has dealt with antisemitism her entire life, even as an adult. She built a career in the airline industry and learned how to handle name-calling and discriminatory remarks.
“I’m not religious,” she said. “It’s my DNA, my culture, my being. I’m Jewish, heart and soul. I don’t have to be in synagogue for that.”
Duveen’s husband died in Belgium in 2015 at the age of 80. Three years later, Duveen moved to Florida to be close to her daughter, Linda. It was what her husband would have wanted, she said, knowing she was safe.
“For me, every day is a holiday,” Duveen said. “(I have) my home, my daughter close by, my good friends close by, and my little doggy.
“I had a difficult life, a turbulent life,” she said. “It’s not easy to live with a man with that background, and you never get to the core because he has that wall in front of him. … But now I understand. There’s a lot I’ve learned the last few years, and now I understand.”