By Jon Micheal Connor, ASC Public AffairsApril 10, 2013
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- He had a happy early childhood; as a European Jewish boy during World War II, he lived through and survived the Nazi Germany invasion of his homeland, the Netherlands; and then he eventually moved to the United States to begin a new life. But like all those who did survive, he went through hell.
And now Joseph Koek is telling his story of a 12-year-old boy's life turned upside down after the German army invaded his country on May 10, 1940. Four days later the Dutch forces surrendered to an overwhelming force that plunged the world into the Second World War.
"I was the middle child of a wonderful Jewish family," Koek said to the audience in the Building 103, April 9. He was the guest speaker in RIA's observance of the Holocaust, an Army-wide annual event organized locally by the Army Sustainment Command Equal Opportunity Office. "I had a wonderful early childhood."
This year's observance theme designated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is "Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs." April 7 - April 14 was designated as "Days of Remembrance" in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and in honor of the survivors, the rescuers and liberators.
There's "not enough words to thank the combined forces who liberated us," Koek said of the Allied Forces in 1945.
Koek said his mother was a manicurist and his father was a custom tailor. It was rare, he said, to have both parents working back then. But, he said, his parents were determined to make sure the family had food on the table.
In 1942, his parents received a letter from authorities stating they were to report to a train station en route to a "work camp."
Unbeknownst to him or his sisters, Koek's parents had been planning for this predicted fateful day to get their children out and into the care of resisters. "Next day, I was leaving home with a resistance guide. I never see my parents again," he said.
His parents also went into hiding, but were eventually caught and deported to the concentration camp, Auschwitz, "where they were murdered," Koek said.
An estimated 6 million Jewish people were killed by the Nazis, along with another 14 million people considered undesirables such as gypsies and homosexuals, historians estimate.
Koek got separated from his sisters and was living on a farm. Those who housed Koek described him to the Nazis as a distant cousin visiting from Amsterdam. Koek had to change his name and claim he was a Protestant.
While on the farm, Koek broke his leg in 1944 and he spent about two months in a hospital. The Nazis came to town where the farm was located, he said, and killed anyone who had been hiding others.
Upon release from the hospital, the underground moved him to another home in northern Holland with a new family, where he attended school in a two-room building.
On June 6, 1944, the feeling hope was now a possibility. Koek and others learned via a BBC radio broadcast of the Allied invasion to liberate France and the rest of Europe under Nazi control. One had to be very careful when listening to anything broadcast in English, he said, for fear the Nazis would find out.
"It is unbelievable how anyone could've climbed the coast with people shooting at them," Koek said of his visit to the French coastline about four years ago.
"How did anyone make it up there?" he said. "There is no end to it," he said of the hilly coastline.
After the liberation, Koek spent his years of ages 15 to 21 living in a Jewish orphanage. This was good because he was reunited with sisters. That's when he learned the fate of his parents in a letter he described as fake.
"I never had any closure. I never got to say goodbye to my parents," Koek explained. "At the present time, I still miss them," the 82-year-old man said. "I think about how much they have suffered. Why am I still living?"
His thoughts are conflicting, he said, yet, Koek said it is not too late to thank his parents despite never seeing them again. "I have outlived them many years. I loved them more than they ever knew."
Accompanying him to this and other recent speaking engagements in the Quad Cities area was his son, Steven. This was the first time, Steven said, that he has traveled with his dad to his speaking engagements.
"It's taken years off his life," Steven said, meaning his dad is younger for sharing his story with the public. "He's a rock star."
Koek has been doing this for about eight years, sometimes twice a week. He is a member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum Speakers' Bureau.
Like his dad, Steven is a middle child. He has two other brothers who both live in California. Steven now resides in the Chicago area, as does his dad.
In 1956, Koek moved to the United States. His older sister, now 84, had moved to the U.S. a year earlier and found a job for him as a tailor. His younger sister, now 80, lives in Amsterdam, and chose to remain in her native country. Koek said she has visited him and their older sister over the years.
"It's very unusual to have siblings alive," who were around during the Holocaust, Koek said.
Koek married twice; his first wife passed away about 10 years ago.
Asked if he ever watches movies or television shows about World War II and the Holocaust, Koek said not very much, shaking his head no. "I've been there."
After his presentation, Koek lit the first of six candles in remembrance of the Holocaust, followed by five others from the RIA community. Koek then was given an appreciation plaque from RIA leadership.
The master of ceremonies was Maj. Jeno Berta, chief, Operational Law, First Army. Candace Davis, Joint Munitions Command, sang the national anthem.
Col. Scott Lofreddo, chief of staff, Army Sustainment Command, provided closing remarks. Lofreddo thanked all those who organized the ceremony and Koek for his "great presentation."
Although he has attended 20 years worth of remembrance events, Lofreddo said one cannot escape the "extreme hardship and pain" of those affected by the Holocaust.
"This has been a privilege," Lofreddo said of hearing Koek's story.
Prior to Koek's presentation, an eight-minute, 40-second video was shown on the Holocaust.
For more information on the Holocaust go these resources:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: 2013 Days of Remembrance: Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs:
Video: Why We Remember the Holocaust:
Planning Observances for Military Audiences:
ASC Public Affairs flickr site: