“The most important thing that happened in my life - was that she saved my life”. – Irene Ross, says of her mother.
Irene Krukziener was born 22nd May 1940, in Amsterdam Holland. Germany had invaded just 12 days earlier. Her mother Sara (also known as Susie) was not allowed to go to hospital as it had to be kept for wounded soldiers, even though she had been expecting for the past 12 days. Her doctor had gone into hiding but was able to come at the last moment and Irene was born in her grandparents’ home. It was a scary and chaotic time. Sara’s own writing in the late 70’s - early 80’s - brought to life this period for Irene and answered some of her own questions about what happened.
By 1942 Jewish households in Amsterdam were receiving summons to “work camps”, with instructions of what few belongings they could take. On receipt of her summons, Sara had to report within hours that same day. Uttermost on her mind however, was to find safety for Irene; now two years of age. With a certificate from a Jewish doctor proclaiming she had dysentery and that she was too unwell to work; it was hoped that this would give Sara time to find a way to save Irene. “I wanted postponement hoping for a miracle, because at that moment I did not know what to do to save her life.”
Sara was instructed to go home and drink a whole bottle of Castor oil. On her way home the miracle happened – she met a non-Jewish friend in the street, who against regulations was on his way to visit her. He said he knew a family who were willing to adopt a Jewish child and if the parent(s) did not return after the war they would then legally adopt the child as their own. Any family that did this were also risking their own lives. The Hos family, a Christian couple had moved to a new village where they were not known, in the north of Holland. In her writings Sara recalled how she could still seeIrene leave with her small white teddy bear under her arm, the foster parents with a suitcase and piece of paper on which she had writtenIrene’s child language so they could understand and communicate with her.
“I’m sure that I don’t not have to tell you… what this parting meant to me. And to this day, my nerves have not recovered completely.” It was this determination and the written record of her story that has profoundly shaped Irene’s life. Sara went into hiding and survived the war. Mother and daughter were re-united in 1945. Sara told a story to explain toIrene that she was in fact her Mother. Irene was now 5 years old. “Am I that girl in the story?”she asked.
Irene’s mother remarried to Mr. Krukziener, Irene’s stepfather. They moved to New Zealand when she was17 yrs old. Irene attended Epsom Girls Grammar; but because she had very littleknowledge of the English language she was put back a couple of years in class. Irene had wanted to attend University to study Law. However, because she lacked sufficient English she chose instead to attend evening language classes and enrolled in Business College where she gained thetop Secretarial prize in her year.
Irene recalls that it was often the small things in life that brought back the suffering of the war years for her mother. “Food for my mother was so precious; you didn’t leave any on your plate, little things like that. People who went through it all and survived were never the same.”
Irene met Stuart Ross. They were married in 1965 and have two children, Daniel and Katharine. Stuart’s medical research took them to Montreal Canada in 1972, where Stuart taught at McGill University. In March 1973 they visited Holland as a family. This was the first time Irene had been back since 1957 and the first –ever visit for Stuart. Irene was re-united with the Hos family and visited the house in which she lived as a small child. They remained good friends and in later years the Hos’s visited the Ross family manty times in Calgary Canada, where Mr Hos was able to meet with Holocaust survivors.
Irene’s mother and her new husband, Ian McGrath moved to Canada to be closer to Irene and family. It was there that she wrote her story. Sara lived in Canada for 3 years. She passed away in 1985, from cancer.
In Irene’s oral history interview with her husband Stuart they both reflect on how difficult it was to sit down with Irene’s mother to talk about the war years. “We didn’t want her to have to go through the details again and again. People who went through it all - had gone through hell and survived.”
For Irene she is ever thankful for her mother’s courage and determination to save her. She has reflected often on how difficult it must have been for a mother to give away her own child, to people she hd never met before and not know if she would ever see her again. “It must have been an act of desperation! I just feel I’ve been so lucky. If she hadn’t had that courage – I wouldn’t be here.”
Sara’s own parents were eventually taken to a concentration camp and were murdered there; her brother escaped from the Nazis and survived the war. He went on to become a heart surgeon, to marry and have a family of his own.
The audio excerpt used for this podcast, is of Irene reading from her mother’s own writing. This oral history interview/ conversation between Irene and Stuart was donated to the NZ Jewish Holocaust Oral History collection in 2006.
Header image (above): Photographic portrait of Irene Ross. Image/Permisison to reproduce by the Ross Family © JoM