For a long time he didn‘t know what it means to be Jewish. Until the Amsterdam documentary maker Hein Piller de Bruijn (40), son of a mother who survived the Holocaust, arrived in Sobibor, where almost his entire family was massacred. “Then I felt how much pain and lack there is in me.” The documentary ‘Destination Sobibór‘ can be seen on Friday night at NPO2.
It is a journey that changed his life, says Hein Piller de Bruijn (40). “And what I found, what I unconsciously sought, my Jewish identity.” In the documentary Destination Sobibor, which is broadcast around the commemoration of the Sobibor uprising (14 October 1943), the Amsterdammer makes the same train journey as dozens of his family members who were murdered during World War II. From Amsterdam Muiderpoort, via Westerbork to the Nazi destruction camp Sobibor in Poland.
Rebecca, a baby at the time, survived the war in hiding under the name Sonja van Buuren. Her parents and two sisters were killed.
“ I felt and experienced my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and many others on the platform there in the forests of Poland. In that serene environment, I’ve made contact with my family. I saw everyone get taken away. But I brought them back here and I‘m trying to integrate that history into my life now. I feel the mission to keep them alive, but I have to live with them first. The first big step has been taken.”
Why did you want to bring up that family history and all the terrible memories?
My mother turned 75 in 2018, and for her birthday she asked for a donation to the Holocaust Names Monument. I went to search for the name Piller and found so many family members — Amsterdam Jews — who turned out to have been killed. That emoted me enormously. I thought I’d like to make a movie about this. But about them is very little to be found. Then director Raymond Grimbergen and I decided to inoculate the film on my own experience and to make the journey they also took.
You were barely aware of your Jewish identity until then?
My father is non-Jewish, and with my mother we barely talked about that part of the past, as so often among war victims. The subject was not taboo, but asking for it was not encouraged. It all remained very reactive. We didn‘t do anything about the faith either. As a result, I couldn’t make any claim to be Jewish at all.
As your last name, you carried the name of your father, De Bruijn. The Jewish name Piller seemed to have disappeared with the death transport.
Forty relatives of my mother were murdered, but she miraculously survived. She was only a month old when, during the raids in May 1943 in Amsterdam, she was brought to safety at the neighbours. We have no idea exactly how that worked. My mother was then taken to a safe house in Maasland, in South Holland, to a reformed couple. That‘s where she grew up. I consider them my grandfather and grandmother, too.
The couple with whom she was housed suddenly had a little daughter.
We do not know how the neighbours and others reacted to it. It is true that even for the baby in the house there was a hiding place where she could be hidden. My mother always stayed in Maasland and became very stable. And I didn’t know better than it was the way it was. There was never a moment, a conversation, where we really talked about that war history. My mother doesn‘t live, but survives. She is anxious alone, and to this day there must always be someone at her house at night. And she got street fear around 30. Well, that’s a clear war trauma. Only she managed to make that livable.
When you got on the train with your cameraman and director to Sobibor, your mother didn‘t show you off.
No, she couldn’t handle that. Although later she said I should have just asked her.
You also, in a way, returned to the roots of the Piller family. They are originally from Poland.
But they lived in Amsterdam for centuries, in the neighbourhood behind Carré. Real Amsterdam Jews. Strangely enough, I always wanted to live in Amsterdam. As a child, as if I felt like my home was here. I also wanted my children to have ‘Amsterdam’ in their passports.
The journey to Sobibor seems like a rite of passage – a ritual of passage. We see you, with yarmula, pondering in that ‘guilty’ Polish landscape.
There was hardly anything left of Jewish life in Poland. I thought, “Why is there nothing? That started to annoy me. I felt the lack and the pain. My younger brother Maurits wrote a book about Jew being – also my holocaust – and also dove into that family history.
But going back to what exactly happened, how they were taken away and all that,I took on me. Our father has always been very supportive and has also dealt with the question of whether we should be raised Jewish. But that didn‘t come of it.
In 2003, with parents and brothers, you made a trip through four former concentration camps. You went to Sobibor to visit an Orthodox synagogue.
I was behind my parents. My mother had her hair covered, as prescribed. And suddenly I realized: that’s how it could have been, had to be. And then I started crying so much. For the first time, I really felt like I was Jewish. And I got furious, too. I thought, if I‘m already unable to find my Jew, then Hitler just won. That scared me. That war just turned out to be inside me.
You decided to reclaim the name Piller.
I wanted that name to live on. But that still had some feet in the earth. For example, I had to prove that my Jewish grandparents were “deceased.” That’s what they said, not killed, but “deceased.” Eventually it worked out. I‘m the only one in our family who chose this.
your life, you couldn’t really mirror yourself in your environment.
After all, no one shared my experience. Only with one friend, who‘s been through exactly the same thing, I can really talk about it. He understands my story.
How is this now, after the trip and now your documentary is ready and screened?
I see this as a new beginning. I no longer doubt that I am Jewish. And I’m not just concerned with that war anymore, but also about the fun aspects of being Jewish: culture, the country of Israel, the parties. We‘re trying to pass that on to our children, too. They have Jewish names and I try to take into account on Fridays that it is Shabbat. And I focus on what is left of Jewish life in the Netherlands: the organisations and the meetings. I’m getting to know those people now.
How did your mother react to the documentary?
She liked the film, but because I‘m so provocative, she sometimes finds it hard for me to dive into it like that. And, no, she didn’t suddenly start telling her more on her own.
You own a photograph of your grandparents, taken shortly before they were taken away.
When I was hanging that picture on the wall, our little boy wrote the names of our family next to it. It was like he was rounding the circle.