Anne Frank exhibition invokes memories for Leo

May 26, 2010 by Lindy Laird
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The travelling Anne Frank Exhibition is heading to New Zealand’s Whangarei next week…and brings with it special memories for Leo Cappel.

Leo and Karen Cappel phot0: Michael Cunningham

WE ARE sitting in a little wooden bungalow in a leafy Whangarei street. A small man with a soft, accented voice is telling a story so sad and silencing it seems that even the birds outside have stopped singing.

As a child he was hidden in windowless rooms in strangers’ houses … hidden from the Nazis, who would have sent the little boy to a death camp.

His family had lived in a designated Jewish suburb in Amsterdam – “not a ghetto but, until they started exterminating us, certainly where we were forced to live” – in a street near where Anne Frank and her family were in hiding.  Anne Frank’s diary about her family’s experience would become one of the best selling books of all time. The Franks’ two years of hiding ended in 1944 when they were betrayed, no one knows by whom.

“Bounty hunters,” Leo Cappel says quietly. “They would do it for 10 guilders a head, 10 small silver coins for a life …”

His voice breaks. He wipes away tears and looks at his wife Karen. She, too, wipes her eyes.

“We don’t talk about it. Even between the two of us, we didn’t talk about it …” Leo says.

“But now I feel I must talk, especially now, with the exhibition coming here. It is very important people visit it.”

He means the Anne Frank Exhibition, which comes to Whangarei Museum next week.

Leo and Karen have been teaching museum staff a traditional Jewish song about love and tolerance, a song Leo’s grandmother taught him.

He will speak at the opening.

But he says he won’t go inside to see the exhibition. Painful as his story is, recalling some remarkable acts of kindness also evokes Leo’s tears.

The generosity of strangers saved his life when he was a boy. As a young man – “in the grip of an overpowering hatred for a people” –  kindness helped him overcome that hate.

“It took a long time. I hate racism, I can’t tolerate any discrimination, but I no longer hate any people.”

BY THE TIME Leo was 12, he had been hidden in three homes.

In the first, he spent nearly two years in a back room he shared with an 8-year-old Jewish girl who was so traumatised she never once spoke.

The children knew of death. They saw bodies dumped a distance from where the person died, to protect people who may have been helping them.

There was no food or fuel.

Karen, who also lived in Amsterdam as a child, talks of “hunger trips” – where starving people foraged for food, begging from farms, swapping silver, jewellery and other heirlooms, often for something barely edible.

“We ate tulip bulbs, but they gave us sore throats,” she says.

The two, who would meet many years later, saw street kitchens where people lined up for a ladle of slop, and later – like mana from heaven – air drops of dried milk and eggs.

Anne Frank

Even before going into hiding at 9 years old, Leo knew to keep his mouth shut.

“Basically, you never asked a question. If you didn’t know anything, there was nothing you could tell if you were caught. We knew about the gas chambers then.”

The resistance movement helped organise hideouts for the three Cappel children. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish people could not hide, and died.

Leo’s father, a civil servant, had been imprisoned.

“On the eve of the Day of Atonement, one of the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar, the whole camp was deported to Treblinka. My father was one of only three out of 1100 who did not die.”

His father was released that same day because legally he had to be – his address had been incorrectly recorded on prison records. And the Germans were sticklers for accuracy.

“‘They had laws, and did some terrible things, but they did it by the book. One of their laws was Jewish people were subhuman and had to be exterminated,” Leo says, his silentsobs floating like feathers.

The day he was released, Leo’s father went into hiding. But his prison experience had turned up one of the  acts of kindness that would help save Leo’s soul as well as his life.

In the camp, his father met two brothers working as guards. They were from a small farm in Friesland. To help their family make ends meet, the young men answered the call to work in a new facility where, they were told, they’d be helping people who needed “rehabilitation”.

The reality shocked them.

Risking their own lives, the brothers would smuggle food in and do what they could to help the prisoners. They befriended Leo’s father before his release, and offered to take Leo into hiding – out of Amsterdam,  to a safer place in the country.

Leo is still in touch with the surviving brother, who is  90.

There was another place, a third, where he was in hiding before the war ended, but he can’t speak about it. Nor about what  happened to his brother and sister.

“Never mind all that. It is enough,” he says, wiping his eyes.

His immediate family survived, though, and were able to live together again after the war. But before then Leo was sent by the Red Cross to Switzerland for a year, “to eat and eat and eat”.

“They picked the 500 most skinny and worn-out kids in Holland, and I was one of them.”

YEARS LATER, as a young art school graduate, Leo was hitchhiking home from a scuba-diving trip in the Mediterranean. His route took him through Germany.

One driver, an antisemitic ex-soldier, told him he regretted that “we never got to finish the job with the Jews”. Leo will never forget the barely controlled rage, fear and pain he felt at the time. But mostly fear.

The next German driver was the opposite. He took Leo for a meal and apologised for what his country had done. Leo says that encounter made him look deeply within himself and strive to overcome his own hatred.

He met and married Karen, a graduate from the Amsterdam Conservatorium Music. Leo, also a musician and a writer, was an art teacher who had studied in Amsterdam and Paris. They, and their elder son, moved to New Zealand in 1959, where their second son was born.

Leo eventually found work as a display-maker at first Canterbury, then Auckland  museums.

In Auckland the Cappels started up folk music clubs, made and sold wind and string instruments – and then the creative, cultured, courageous couple who had never built a boat before started building a 54-foot yacht.

It took seven years of weekends and holidays.

But Leo’s asbestosis – the result of museum work – curtailed plans to sail the world. They did, though, live on their yacht for many years, for some time in Whangarei Harbour.  They then lived for 10 years on Kawau Island.

It was on Kawau that another chance meeting helped resolve a stranger’s anguish over the war.

The Cappels were standing with others at the wharf, awaiting the weekly supply ferry, when the conversation turned to the Allies dropping food into famine-struck Holland.

One of the group became emotional. He had been an airman who dropped hundreds of bombs on innocent Dutch civilians – and felt guilty about it all his life. He told the Cappels he always wondered if the food drops had been successful.

They were able to tell him how the drops had meant the difference between life and death for so many people. It was an atonement, of sorts.

Leo, who has written many stories, several plays, three musicals, two novels and a book on making museum models, would later write a story about the conversation and, on the man’s death, gift it to his family.

Two years ago the Cappels moved back to Whangarei, where their life is one of music, art, friends and laughter. Among friends are members of the small local Jewish community, through whom Leo made the connection with Whangarei Museum and the Anne Frank Exhibition.

On our afternoon in their safe, pleasant home, surrounded by musical instruments, artworks and family photos, laughter gently ushers away the tears as Leo’s story becomes one not of a childhood of horror, but a life well-lived.

The small man with the sad smile, the  expressive eyes and the solemn tale steadies his gaze and voice. Life is good and full of beauty, he says.

“But talking about these things, it is something that has to be done.

“I would recommend people go to the Anne Frank  Exhibition. From my point of view, it is not to remember what happened back then, it is a fight against racism today.”

This story first appeared in the Northern Advocate

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