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‘We Were Afraid’

Concentration Camp Survivor Shares His Story To Rotary

Cornelius Feenstra shared his experience as a political prisoner in five different concentration camps during World War II at a recent Dunkirk-Fredonia Rotary Club meeting. Photo by Mary Heyl

DUNKIRK — Although it can be challenging to gain the silence and attention of a roomful of people enjoying lunch, Corenlius Feenstra had no such trouble at a recent meeting of the Dunkirk-Fredonia Rotary Club. Feenstra, 95, of Portland shared his experience as a political prisoner in five different concentration camps during World War II.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” said one Rotarian after Feenstra’s talk. “I’ve never heard anything so moving.”

Seated on a stool at the front of the Beaver Club dining room, Feenstra began his story while his daughter, Nancy Feenstra, presented slides featuring photographs from Feenstra’s past. “I was arrested in 1944 in Den Helder,” Feenstra explained, “and most of the men of Holland of my age were put to work in Germany.”

Indeed, during the German occupation of the Netherlands, men in their twenties through early 1950s were viewed as threats by the Germans and were taken in large groups as political prisoners. While the fate of some six million Jews during World War II is common knowledge, many other minority groups and non-Germans, such as Feenstra, were imprisoned in concentration camps, too.

Before his arrest, Feenstra was fortunate to receive help from “the underground,” the resistance group that got him German papers to help him avoid arrest. However, Feenstra was literally “sold out” to the Germans by a Dutch collaborator, who traded his life for gold, and Feenstra was taken prisoner at the age of 21.

Feenstra shared the harrowing train ride to the first camp, Amersfoort, where he was packed in a train car with an entire village’s worth of men who had been arrested too. “The train was so old that there was no bath or toilet,” Feenstra recalled. “It really was just a hole in the train and a big round pipe. Normal people were not able to go through it. But three prisoners — I heard later on — went through that pipe and lay under the train. When the train started running again, they looked and they made a run for it. One went over the bridge in the river. The other one we could see was shot. What happened to the other one, I never found out.”

Feenstra was taken to a large concentration camp, Neuengamme, outside of Hamburg in Germany, where he was stripped of everything, including his own name. “When we came in there, they took everything that we had. They looked up in your mouth at your gold. If you had gold in your mouth, they noted it. And I got my number there. It was 56,146. If you’re a prisoner, you become a number. You don’t have a name anymore.”

By 1944, Feenstra and many, many others had heard of the horrors of concentration camps. “When we went through (the camp) and we were checked, we were all naked. All our clothes were taken and they made a notation of everything. And we had to go to the room to be showered. It was a really big room with all shower heads around and I had asked my friend (an earlier transport from Amersfoort), ‘Are they taking us to the gas chamber?’ We were afraid. He said, ‘No, but if you get to the shower room, stay on the side.

The SS play with the shower and they put hot water and then cold. If you’re on the side, you’re okay.’ And I was okay,” Feenstra said. “I made it.”

Others were not so fortunate. “It was bad. We had to line up in the morning to be counted, and it sometimes took forever. The next day that we went out, they hanged up three people. And one was Dutch boy that tried to escape, and they made an example (out of him),” Feenstra recalled. “The camp was surrounded by electricity: 15,000 volts. But quite often, people went out there to get shot. To get killed. They weren’t able to stand it.”

Food was scarce and sickness was rampant in the camp, but prisoners did what they could in order to survive. Feenstra recalled one startling incident during his early days at the camp. Speaking of the barracks, where prisoners were “stacked” as many as two people wide, four high, Feenstra said, “I looked one morning and heard, ‘Bang!'” A man had fallen from his bunk and landed on the floor nearby. “And I looked and the fellow next to me says, ‘Don’t worry about it. That guy has been dead for three days. The fellow on top, he has to take his hand out on the right and the guy next to him puts his hand out when they check him so they get more food. Yeah, smell him. That’s the way it is here.'”

During his time at the camp, Feenstra was surprised to meet a rather well-dressed Dutch prisoner. He discovered that the prisoner was a Dutch senator, a communist, who had been imprisoned since 1942 and was treated comparably well. When the senator learned that Feenstra had fallen ill with a fever, he helped secure him a more comfortable place in the camp with him, but after three days, he could no longer keep Feenstra there. He was, however, able to secure Feenstra a better job than digging holes for the German tanks that were coming over the border.

Shortly after returning to his barracks, Feenstra was called back. On the first of December, his new job was as an electrician. “We had to overhaul airplane engines from the Germans who were shot down,” he explained. “Take it all apart. Put them back together. They had given us a little room for the electricians in the maintenance part. There, I met a German — he was a worker and he became our boss. He really stuck his neck out. In the morning, we had to say, ‘Heil, Hitler!’ but he didn’t like Hitler at all,” Feenstra chuckled.

Feenstra worked alongside five others, including one other electrician, and was instructed to always keep the door shut. Speaking of his German boss, Feenstra said, “He brought in a radio and said, ‘See if you can fix it. But keep the door locked.’ I fixed the radio, and what we did? We listened. Sometimes we’d get Boston, but most of the time London for the news. Find out what’s coming up in the war.”

Feenstra went on, “What Paul did — Paul Frank, our German boss — was he’d go stand by the spark plug tester. If he see that the SS comes, he tapped ‘SOS’ (in morse code) on the spark plug tester and we stop the radio. And then we’d use the solder iron and disconnect the wire. The radio would quit and the SS would knock at the door. He’d say, ‘Open up! You got it working?’ We’d said no. He said, ‘You listen to the English news, you will be hanged!’ I almost peed in my pants. I was that scared. I said, ‘No, I think we need to get the tubes checked. I think we have a bad tube.'”

“He said, ‘When the tubes are cooled off, you take them out, and I’ll take them to the village and get them checked.’ I said okay. He left and I took two of the tubes and put them on my knee and shook them until I knew they were broke inside. He came to get the tubes and he took them in and said, ‘You’re right. They were two bad tubes,'” Feenstra laughed at the memory.

Feenstra went on to describe his multiple transports to other camps during the war. In all, he spent approximately one year — the last year of the war — as a prisoner. “It was the end of the war,” Nancy said after her father’s talk. “At that point, the Germans kept shuffling prisoners around, trying to hide them from the Allies, who were closing in on them.”

Eventually, Feenstra was transported to the Wobbelin camp near the city of Ludwigslust, which was a subcamp of Neuengamme. “It was hell on earth,” Feenstra remembered. “We got hardly any food. We had to lay on the floor. Had no beds. It ended up that we were liberated by the 82nd Airborne division, the Americans. He (General James “Slim Jim” Gavin) was my hero,” Feenstra recalled.

He remembered his rescue and the Americans’ disbelief at Feenstra’s and others’ physical conditions. “I had no shoes on. I was barefooted. I had the pants and the jacket. That was all I had. The man called them pajamas, but we had no pajamas! Those were my pants. My striped pants,” Feenstra said. His daughter, Nancy said that her father weighed barely 89 pounds at the time of his liberation on May 2, 1945. He had lost 100 pounds during his year as a concentration camp prisoner.

After the war, Feenstra was reunited with his parents and all of his siblings in Holland, and later married his girlfriend who had been waiting for him to return home. In 1956, Feenstra, his wife and two children moved to the United States and settled in Jamestown, where Feenstra worked at Weber Knapp for 30 years. Nancy, whom Feenstra refers to as his “Yankee daughter,” is his third child who was born in the United States. Most recently, Feenstra has lived in Maui, Hawaii, with one of his children, and Nancy is now pleased to be sharing her home in Portland with him.

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