‘Not over it yet’: At 87, Northampton Holocaust survivor joins with others to share her story

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton.

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton.

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton.

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton.

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton.

Holocaust survivor, author and artist Francisca Verdoner Kan at her home Thursday afternoon in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2024 6:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For Francisca Kan, the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War could be felt even as a young child.

Kan was born into a Jewish family in Hilversum, the Netherlands, in the year 1937. Her father ran a successful bicycle factory, and for the first few years of her life, the family wanted for nothing. But that began to change in 1940, when Germany invaded the Netherlands.

“Before long, they [the Nazis] instituted their plan to free Europe of all Jews,” said Kan, who is now 87 and lives in Northampton. “They tightened the noose rather gradually. But by 1942, our house was confiscated and the factory was taken away from my father. And we went to live with my grandparents, my father’s parents, in Amsterdam.”

Soon curfews were instituted for Jewish residents of the city, who had to be in their homes by 8 p.m. It soon became clear to Kan’s parents that they and their children had to go into hiding. Kan and her two other siblings were all sent to live with separate families who were members of the Dutch resistance, so that if one was caught, the other two would be safe.

“This is what really gets me,” Kan said. “I did not really fathom what that meant until I myself had three children. And I thought, how did they do that?”

Recently, she has joined 270 other survivors of the Holocaust as part of the Survivor Speakers Bureau, an international program recently launched for survivors to tell their stories about their experiences and provide education as a means of preventing such atrocities from occurring in the future.

The program was created by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, a nonprofit organization founded in 1951 to negotiate for and disburse funds to individuals and organizations suffering losses resulting from persecution by the Nazis. The Claims Conference also raises funds to provide education worldwide about the Holocaust. Through the Survivor Speakers Bureau, people like Kan will tell their critical stories to students around the world.

“At a moment of dramatically rising antisemitism, this program tells the history and educates for the future,” Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference, said in a statement. “A Holocaust survivor speakers bureau of this scale and reach is unprecedented. Holocaust stories remain as important as ever, for both ends of the generational spectrum. Survivors continue to feel the enormous need to share their harrowing stories, and, encouragingly, schools continue to want to fill their rooms with living, eyewitness testimony.”

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As part of her involvement in the Survival Speakers series, Kan will share her story of how she was sent to live with a family in Zandvoort, a seaside community in North Holland. She recalls memories of playing in the sand dunes there and helping bring home milk from a dairy farmer. But with German fears of an impending British invasion, all residents of the community were ordered to be evacuated, and Kan and her surrogate family were sent to live in Amsterdam in a house that had once belonged to another Jewish family.

Next to Kan’s new home there was a theater where Jewish actors and other performers once entertained audiences, but was now used by the Germans to gather people before they were deported to concentration camps.

“I’m thinking now, in my old age, that may have been the safest place in all of Europe for me to hide,” Kan said. “Because who would hide a child right under the noses of the Germans?”

Life was difficult during those wartime years in Amsterdam, with trees in the neighborhood cut down for firewood and a lack of electricity. Disease was common and food could be scarce, although Kan doesn’t ever recall hunger being a major issue for her. Even going out to play in the park could be a dangerous activity, since Kan had trouble remembering to call her new family “mama” and “papa.”

On one occasion, Kan remembers going to another girl’s house who lived close by, and playing tea party and having goodies like cookies and candy. She later learned that the girl’s family were members of the NSB, the Dutch version of the Nazi party.

“There were a lot of collaborators. There were collaborators all over Europe,” Kan said. “But there were also a tremendous number of heroes.”

In 1945, the war ended and Amsterdam was liberated by Canadian troops. Soldiers paraded through the streets, handing out candy to children and cigarettes to adults, while collaborators, their heads shaved, were also paraded before being imprisoned.

After three years, Kan was finally reunited with her father, brother and sister. Her mother, tragically, had died in the Holocaust. In 1946, the family left for America, although her father died shortly after in 1947.

Since then, Kan married another Dutch escapee, who later worked for the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. State Department, and lived in Pakistan and Japan for a time before settling in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Later in her life, she went on to become an artist, with painting as her primary medium. She’s focused her art around her childhood of being a “hidden child” and the loss that child survivors of war experience, and has hosted exhibitions of artwork in Delaware. She also has written a memoir of her life, which she called “Signs of Life.”

Kan says she wants people to know that the Holocaust wasn’t just another violent event in the long history of the world, but something unique in its sheer scale and complicity of its perpetrators.

“The difference between the Holocaust and all these other killings, is that Germany is the only country where they turned murder into an industry,” she said. “Factories were built for killing, murder, and it turned into an industry. They didn’t just drop bombs or use spears or bows and arrows and kill people.”

She also emphasized the traumatic impact such events can have on children, and that the trauma is something they carry with them their whole lives.

“I was told after the war, when I lived with relatives, they said ‘Oh, nothing happened to you.’ And then the next sentence was, ‘You’ll get over it’,” she said. “Well, I’m 87 now. I’m not over it yet.”

Claims Conference

Since its founding in 1951, the Claims Conference has been dedicated to securing a measure of justice for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. As a result of ongoing negotiations with the German government, the German government has paid more than $90 billion in indemnification.

The Claims Conference also has secured increasing funding for Holocaust education as the need and desire for sustainable Holocaust education has been proven globally.

“It is more important than ever that every student in every school, regardless of where they are, have the opportunity to hear directly from the Holocaust survivors who are still with us,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “First-hand accounts are essential to maintaining Holocaust memory and go much further to ensure people understand the impact of bigotry, antisemitism, and unchecked hatred.”

In a 50-state survey of Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness in the United States, 64% of millennials and Gen Zers over the age of 18 believe that Holocaust education should be compulsory in school, and 80% of all respondents believe that it is important to continue teaching about the Holocaust, in part, so that it does not happen again.

To request a survivor speaker, a school or social group must register their institution on the bureau’s website: claimscon.org/Speakers. Once registered, they can fill out an event request which includes forms for audience size, average audience age and venue, as well as any special requests and requirements. The Claims Conference considers each request before connecting institutions or groups with survivors.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.