BACKGROUNDER (September 2023) Long-standing mystery of young boy’s Holocaust story has surprising outcome


BACKGROUNDER (September 2023)

Long-standing mystery of young boy’s Holocaust story has surprising outcome

John Heymans and his twin sister, Wilhelmina

John Heymans and his twin sister, Wilhelmina, when they were three or four in 1940 or 1941.  As Jews, John, Willy, and their parents hid from the German occupiers in the Netherlands, starting in late 1942.  John and Willy were hidden in different places and separated from their parents, who were hidden in a third location, for almost a year.  Remarkably, in repeated defiance of desperate circumstances, this Jewish family of four survived the war.  Willy died in Amsterdam in 2017.  John lives in Israel.  The photo is reproduced with his permission.

All author Patrick Wolfe knew was that Johnny Heijmans, the son of “Dr. Heijmans of Haarlem,” was in hiding with the family of Barend van Leeuwen of Hilversum in late 1942 and early 1943, during the period when the Nazis rounded-up many of the Jews in the Netherlands.[1] What happened to Johnny? Did he survive the war?

When Wolfe decided to do an internet search for “John Heijmans,” he did not expect to find much. But an article by “John Heymans” about his uncle, “The final story about Hugo Heijmans,” quickly came up. It turned out that John Heymans is the same Johnny Heijmans who, as a five- and six-year-old, was hidden by Van Leeuwen and his family.

Heymans, now 86 and a citizen of Israel since the 1950s, told Wolfe how he and the rest of his family survived the Holocaust. Their story, along with that of Barend van Leeuwen, appears in Wolfe’s new book, A Snake on the Heart – History, Mystery, and Truth: The Entangled Journeys of a Biographer and His Nazi Subject, a biography about Jan Jürgen Petersen.

Heymans’ family life was upturned when two drunk Germans soldiers drowned in a canal in Haarlem in late 1942. The Germans said the soldiers had been pushed and, in response, compiled a list of leading Jews to be arrested. John’s father, David, a family physician, received a phone call from a patient warning him that he was on the list. David asked that his family be hidden by the resistance. “The arrested Jewish leaders… were shot dead… without any delay,” John said. But he, his twin sister, Wilhelmina, and their parents escaped. They were separated and hidden at three different locations. As for the abrupt upheaval in their lives, nothing was explained to John. He was “a very unhappy child” for a time.[2]

John’s parents were “betrayed by neighbours” and arrested at their hiding place. They were sent to Westerbork, a concentration and transit camp in the northeast of the Netherlands, the last stop before the death camps in the east. Dr. Heymans went to work at Westerbork’s hospital. He noticed that children in hiding were being betrayed and sent to Westerbork, from which they were generally sent “directly” to the extermination camps. Fearing that this fate could befall Johnny and Wilhelmina, he got word to the resistance to bring his children to Westerbork, which is how the family was reunited toward the end of 1943, “after almost a year.”[3]

On September 4, 1944, the family left Westerbork in one of the last transports for the east. They made the three-day journey in a cattle car “without food [or sanitary] accommodation.” When they arrived at Theresienstadt in the former Czechoslovakia, Dr. Heymans again went to work “as a physician” but also as an anesthetist, as circumstances demanded. This was possible because the “German camp management” had struck a deal with “Prof. Dr. Stein… a well-known eye specialist.” Under the deal, Dr. Stein was provided with “an ophthalmic clinic with operating room” in return for accepting “senior German officers with eye injuries as patients.” Dr. Stein was permitted to select and train his medical team.[4]

In “The final story about Hugo Heijmans,” John Heymans writes that the first survivors of the death marches from the east, necessitated by the relentless advance of the Russian Army, started to arrive in Theresienstadt in March 1945. “Frozen noses, hands and feet [were] very common.” Most of them had not “eaten any food for days, some had eaten grass…. My father told us that he… could not give prescriptions for urgent needed medication because there was no medication at all. The only thing he could give his patients [who were often terminally ill] was his full attention.” He sat at their bedsides “night after night” listening to their stories, which he “wrote [down].” While doing this, he “made efforts to get information… from Dutch survivors concerning his elder brother Hugo.” In due course, he received confirmation that Hugo had been on one of the death marches and, when “he was not able to walk anymore,” was presumably executed by one of the German guards.[5]

Dr. Heymans, along with his wife, Sara, and John and Wilhelmina, were liberated by the Russian army on May 8, 1945. The main reason they “survived the Shoa” was another condition of Dr. Stein’s agreement with camp management, namely that the members of his medical staff and their families were not to be sent to the extermination camps.[6] The “testimony evidence” collected by Dr. Heymans from the death marchers was donated in 1996 to Yad Vashen in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.[7]

Jan Petersen, the subject of A Snake on the Heart, and his younger brother, Constant, were members of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst), the SS’s security and intelligence service. Both were involved in the roundup of the Netherlands’ Jews. But they both also took steps to minimize their participation in the roundup process. In March 1943, Constant volunteered to serve on the Russian front, a far more dangerous assignment, “because,” he said, “I did not agree with those raids” on the Jews.[8]

In August 1941, while still in the SD, Jan, a former insurance salesman, returned part-time to that industry, possibly as a spy and informer. In January 1943, he further diversified his activities by joining the Schutzgruppe, a semi-military organization attached to the German army that performed rudimentary functions on its behalf. “By playing a reckless game, namely playing the German authorities against each other,” he wrote in a letter in mid-1951, “I managed to remain free till [early September] 1944” when the Allies were about to enter the Netherlands. In response to this threat, German occupation officials declared a state of emergency, and Petersen’s Schutzgruppe unit “was placed on stand-by” for active service.[9]

Jan and Constant, as well as their younger half-brother, Wim Kempen, who was married to Van Leeuwen’s daughter, were all imprisoned as collaborators after the war. In October 1946, Van Leeuwen wrote a testimonial letter on Jan’s behalf. Van Leeuwen hoped it would “contribute to [Jan’s] release.” In the letter, Van Leeuwen describes himself as “an old illegal worker,” meaning a member of the Dutch resistance, and “declares that he guarantees the political accuracy of Mr. J. J. Petersen. Mr. J. J. Petersen had knowledge the undersigned worked illegally and hid Jews in his home.”[10]

The story of the three brothers provides a window onto the labyrinthian reality that prevailed during the harrowing, five-year Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. A Snake on the Heart unravels the manipulation and lies that Jan Petersen used to survive the war, qualities that stayed with him for much of the rest of his life to his detriment and that of others as well.

A Snake on the Heart, published by Iguana Books of Toronto, is available online in hardcover, paperback, and eBook formats.

For more information: See A Snake on the Heart, Chapter 13 – John, Constant, and Wim – The Holocaust in Holland and the Dutch Resistance, pp. 214, 219-222, and Appendix 2 – The Rest of John Heymans’s Wartime Story, pp. 450-451.

  1. Barend van Leeuwen’s statement of October 17, 1946, to the Chief Constable of the Hilversum Police (in Dutch National Archives’ file CABR 107966 on Wim Kempen, Jan Petersen’s younger half-brother).
  2. Attachments to John Heymans’ emails of March 14 and 18, 2019, to Patrick Wolfe.
  3. Attachments to John Heymans’ emails of March 14 and 18 and April 10, 2019 to Patrick Wolfe.
  4. Attachments to John Heymans’ emails of March 14 and 18 and April 10, 2019 to Patrick Wolfe.
  5. John Heymans, “The final story about Hugo Heijmans” – – accessed March 7, 2019.
  6. Attachments to John Heymans’ emails of March 14 and 18 and April 10, 2019 to the author. “The final story about Hugo Heijmans” (Sara’s given and maiden names).
  7. “The final story about Hugo Heijmans.” Attachment to John Heymans’ email of March 21, 2019, to Patrick Wolfe
  8. Maili Blauw’s report of February 14, 2007, 4. (Documentation Binder, D20.)
  9. Jan Petersen’s letter of June 1951. Jan’s statement of October 8, 1945 says: “On September 5, 1944 the Schutzgruppe was placed on stand-by.” His statement of October 29, 1946 says: “On September 6, 1944 the Schutzgruppe had to be on an official base camp.”
  10. Barend van Leeuwen’s letter of October 28, 1946. In a subsequent testimonial letter of June 17, 1951, van Leeuwen wrote: “I experienced that Mr. Jan Jürgen Petersen as an SS man has taken our side totally during the war. He knew we had Jewish people with us at home, and where others were, he helped us in our work, when possible, he also knew where most of the Jewish furniture was stored.”
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