Sjaak was born into a family of five. His twin sisters, Jannie and To, were two years younger. Father Sander de Wolf worked in a clothes factory in Rotterdam. When he lost his job he tried to make living as a small-time merchant. As a boy of five, Sjaak regularly went out with his father to sell strawberries in the better-off districts of Rotterdam. In the end, father De Wolf found a job in a clothes factory in Amsterdam. He was married to Netta Kokernoot. When Sjaak was 15, he went to work in the small bicycle factory of Sal Fortuin where they produced spare parts for bicycles. He got on well with his boss and kept working there until the war made it impossible.
As Jews we were almost completely assimilated before the war. The Jewish part of the nation had more or less its own culture and customs, but Jews regarded themselves as normal Dutch citizens. Biblical names were not used. Nathan became Nico, Izaak became Sjaak, Moos or Mozes became Max, and so on.
When he was 20, Sjaak met Netty van Straten and he married her shortly after the start of the war. When the war began, Sjaak was quite soon convinced that it was all much worse than what they heard.
There had already been razzias when men in the street were randomly arrested, maltreated and deported to a penal camp on the pretext that they had carried out hostile actions. After a few weeks the family would be notified that either they had died of an illness or had been shot while trying to escape. Most people didn't want or dare to believe that; many thought it was only horror propaganda to scare us.
Sjaak became more and more convinced that the chances of survival after deportation were nil. He wanted to go into hiding.
When we finally started to look for a place to hide it proved almost impossible to find one. We tried all possible means. We first asked our best friends and acquaintances. They were sometimes willing but too frightened to hide us. Especially if they had children. The penalty for hiding Jews was deportation to a concentration camp. That message was broadcast on a daily basis on the radio and was published on posters all over the major cities. The Jewish centre of Amsterdam was transformed into a ghetto.
Through Bob van Straten, Sjaak’s brother-in-law, they got in touch with Kees Vermeulen, an ex-Navy man who ran a boarding house in Soestdijk.
In my innocence I thought that the war would be over in a few months. We agreed that we would pay 45 guilders per person a month for keeping us, exclusive of food and drink. I then possessed about 4 or 5000 guilders and that had to last for three people. Because it would all be over soon I thought it would be all right. I couldn't imagine that it would last almost 3 years.
Via the house of Marie Vermeulen, Kees’s daughter in Helmerstraat in Amsterdam, they were smuggled to Soestdijk in the delivery van of a man who was in the plot. A large part of the families Van Straten and De Wolf had by then congregated in the boarding house where there were 15 people in hiding.
On 1 August, we were in the attic grinding the wheat we had bought on the black market when Kees came upstairs and said: ‘Lads, it’s payment day today, so do you have the rent for me?’ We nearly had a heart attack because we'd already paid. So we said very kindly and gently: ‘Kees, you must be mistaken because we paid two months ahead. We don't need to pay again until September.’ But however much we objected, he stuck to it: “You only paid for one month”. After lengthy arguments he blurted out the truth: ‘It's no use talking about it. I’m broke and I need the money.’ If we'd had enough money we couldn't have cared less. We had only one purpose in life: to survive the war and make our limited financial means last. In the end we did have to pay him double. So did the other people in hiding, but for them that wasn't a problem at the time.
In the spring of 1943, the Germans ordered that all ex-prisoners of war, and that meant Kees Vermeulen, too, had to report. That meant he himself had to go into hiding and that the address was no longer safe.
Kees Vermeulen’s parents, who lived in Amsterdam in Van Spilbergenstraat, had heard from their son that he was earning well by hiding Jews. They had a small laundry which was not operating because of the occupation so the money was a powerful lure. But more than anything they were also anti-Nazi because Kees had fought the Krauts. They offered to take in our parents, who by then also wanted to go into hiding, together with Annetje, my mother's unmarried sister. We gratefully accepted the offer. My parents-in-law with their youngest son Jopie also went to that address. But more people arrived. Including the 15 people from Soestdijk there was a total of 21 people.
Some of the people went by train from Soestdijk to Amsterdam. This was too dangerous for Sjaak because he looked so obviously Jewish. He was put in a laundry basket in a small van. Sjaak treated his hair with hydrogen peroxide. However, his hair had turned red instead of brown so that he was even more conspicuous.
I wormed myself as well as I could into the laundry basket and then it was put inside the delivery van. When we arrived in Van Spilbergenstraat I was carried into the house inside the laundry basket. That wasn't strange because it was a laundry after all. When I got out of the basket it was an impressive spectacle, not in the last place because of my red hair.
The house consisted of one room for the owners which was originally the laundry and measured 4x5 metres, the bedroom of 3x4 metres, and a tiny room off, measuring 2x3 metres.
Of course there was no privacy at all. We slept on the bare floorboards, sardine fashion, on a miserable blanket. We were young and not sexually inactive. The sharing of our intimate moments often led to situations not everybody was happy with. But you can get used to nearly anything. “Needs must when the devil drives” and the need was certainly there.
The risk of discovery in Van Spilbergenstraat was tremendous. Vermeulen did the shopping for 24 people.
Although I very gently tried to persuade him not to go shopping with 24 food coupons, it didn't help a bit. He would point to the illuminated Holy Heart statue in his living room with the words: ‘He is our protector,’ and that was the end of the discussion.
The problem was partly solved with the help of the small grocery of a widow, Mrs Muller. Vermeulen let her know what the situation was. She proved to be a very kind woman who exchanged the coupons for food as long as it was possible. The increasing scarcity made it more and more problematic. The Mok family, who were also in hiding at Van Spilbergenstraat, found it too crowded and decided to go somewhere else. Soon afterwards they were arrested. In order to earn some money to pay their host, the people in hiding made small woodwork items with pictures of famous city views and paintings. The necessary material was supplied by the Benner family; they were aware of the situation.
The Brenner family took all the finished woodwork items to church on Sunday to sell; “to help Jews in hiding”. It is hard to understand is that all went fine without us being betrayed.
The people in hiding also got in touch with a number of people in the Resistance who helped to sell the artworks so that there was just enough money to pay their host. As a result of the financial difficulties, the tension between Sjaak’s parents and his parents-in-law regularly rose to a high pitch.
When my parents were quarrelling they were not to be stopped, however much we tried to calm them down. Once a quarrel got so out of hand that I had to keep my father in a hold while my brother-in-law Bob wielded a big hammer, saying: ‘If you don't shut up I will knock your brains out!’ Of course we would never have done so, but it shows what the tension could be like.
There was no fuel at all left in the course of 1944. People looked for wood everywhere. One evening the son of the Vermeulens was caught stealing the wooden sleepers between the tram rails. A house search followed.
That evening the bell rang and we all rushed to the small room at the end of the corridor. I had already camouflaged it earlier. I had tried to hide the door from view by screwing a hat rack and an attached umbrella stand to it. We locked the door of that small room on the inside and heard a couple of men, Dutchmen, ask Mrs Vermeulen where the stolen wood was. Mrs Vermeulen did a really marvellous piece of play-acting; we heard her cry grievously and beg for mercy. Luckily it was total darkness and they only went into the garden with her. What they found was so pitifully little that they left again without looking through the house.
By then the diet consisted mainly of water and some rolled oats. Then the Hunger Winter came. There was nothing left to eat at all. In the few soup kitchens you had to show your ration book. That was far too dangerous. The contacts in the Resistance managed to find a different place for all the people in hiding.
Sjaak and Netty went to Wijttenbachstraat.
The people in Wijttenbachstraat were fanatical Communists. The owner was Polish; his name was Frans. He was fiercely anti-German but also fiercely anti-Semitic. He had his Dutch wife, his son and his future daughter-in-law living with him. The daughter-in-law's father was a driver for the food distribution so they had relatively plenty of food in the house.
In spite of the fact that there was relatively enough food, Sjaak was only given potato peels to eat. Netty was employed as a housekeeper and ate with the family. Most of her meal she passed on to Sjaak.
Frans also had a big bucket full of tobacco in big rolls. Regularly the tobacco had to be cut fine to roll cigarettes with. To him I was a non-person. When he got home, he’d kick off his shoes and order me about: ‘Hey you, clean my shoes and polish them!” When I had done so, he’d say: ‘Go and cut some tobacco for me and be quick about it.’ I would sit down at the table right in front of him and cut the tobacco. One day I said to him: ‘Can't I buy 50 grams off you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. I asked what it cost. 75 guilders was the answer and I paid him the money I had got from the Resistance. Every night I had to cut tobacco for him and, driven by necessity, I'd become very clever. I would hide the last of the tobacco in my hand and put it in my pocket as soon as I got the chance. After a few days Frans said to me: ‘You're making those 50 grams last long time!” And I replied drily: ‘If I had a bucketful of tobacco I’d have different smoking habits.’
For the last months of the war they found a home with one of Netty’s uncles, Ab van Straten, who was in a mixed marriage. [That meant he was married to a non-Jewish woman. People in mixed marriages were originally exempt from deportation, but they did have to stick to the strict anti-Jewish measures]. They found a loving home there until the war was over.