I work with foreign exchange students, primarily from third world countries who are here on scholarship. Most of the students come through the Kennedy-Luger Youth Exchange & Study program (YES) program which started after 9/11. YES works with predominantly Muslim countries to build bridges of understanding.
Joe Keok has spoken to my high school age foreign exchange groups for the past three years. He has touched lives from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Oman, Pakistan, Morocco, Kenya, Mozambique, India, Ghana, Tunisia, Bahrain, Nigeria, Philippines and more!
The author of Joe's book entitled The Hidden Kids is a young man from the Middle East. Like other exchange students who have met Joe, he was impressed by Joe's amazing story of survival. Also, Joe's desire to educate this generation so hearts and minds can be changed.
Joe Koek (sounds like "Keck") was born in The Hague, a city in the Netherlands, in 1930. He had a happy childhood with his wonderful Jewish family. His mother was a manicurist and his father was a custom tailor. Joe also had two sisters who loved him. He had a normal life like any other kid. He went to a regular school most days, and on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings, he went to a Jewish school.
Everything changed on May 10, 1940, when the Second World War came to his homeland. The Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. They bombed the nearby city of Rotterdam. Joe was ten years old.
At that time, about 8,000,000 (eight million) people lived in the Netherlands. About 140,000 were Jewish. Of this number, only 35,000 Jewish people, or about one-fourth of the Jewish population, survived the war. When the Nazis invaded, all Jewish people lost their freedoms. Because Joe's Boy Scout troop was a Jewish troop, they were not allowed to meet any more. Joe loved being a Scout, so this was hard for him to bear.
The Nazis made the lives of the Jewish people unbearable. The Jews had curfews and were barred from many stores and buildings. They were barred from using any type of transportation. They were forced to sew stars on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews. This was so non-Jews would recognize them and stay away from them. These things happened in the Netherlands and in other countries the Nazis had taken over as well.
When Joe was eleven years old, his parents made a very difficult decision. They decided to hide their children from the Nazis in the Dutch "underground." This "underground" was made up of people who tried to protect Jews from the Nazis. Joe and his sisters had only 24 hours to prepare to leave their parents. He was very sad. He felt there was no way to prepare to be separated from his family. His father told the children that a lady would pick them up, and that is exactly what happened. They never saw their parents again.
On August 18, 1942, his parents were arrested and sent to a concentration camp. This was a place the Nazis had built to imprison people they did not like, especially Jews. After their parents were taken away, the three children were moved around from place to place. They were trying to stay alive until the war ended and their country would be free again.
The first hiding place was a three-story building. A school was on the first floor, and a family lived on the second floor. Joe, his sisters, and other Jewish hideaways stayed on the third floor.
During school hours, Joe and the others had to be very quiet, so quiet they couldn't even wear shoes or use the bathroom. Joe couldn't play like a normal kid or even argue with his sisters. He learned how to knit because it was a quiet way to pass the time. He played cards and Monopoly, and learned to keep his voice very low.
Later, Joe lived with a nice family in the northern part of the country. The family was very religious, so he went to a Christian school. They had a small farm, and Joe enjoyed helping with the work. Once, Joe was carrying vegetables to the market when he fell and broke his leg. While he was in the hospital, soldiers raided the village, arresting and killing people who were hiding Jews. Thankfully, the family Joe stayed with was safe because he was not at their house.
Next, he moved to the western part of the country, where he lived with a family of four people. He stayed there a long time, until the war ended and the country was freed from the Nazis. Joe and his sisters had all survived. They were reunited and sent to a Jewish orphanage. They had the chance to start new lives, but they found out their parents were dead.
"The Red Cross told us they had information they were killed in a concentration camp, but I never wanted to believe that," he said. "I always thought they were alive and looking for me. As time goes on, you realize the information from the Red Cross must be true, and you eventually understand there is no point in continuing to hunt for them." After years of counseling, Joe realizes there are some questions that will never be answered.
When Joe turned 21 years old, he moved to Amsterdam. There he learned to speak English and worked as a tailor, just as his father had. Five years later, in 1956, he moved to the United States. He went to Chicago, where he still lives today. One of his sisters also lives in Chicago, and one lives in Amsterdam. Joe fell in love with an American woman, and they married. He enjoys his family, talking to students about his experiences in the war, and volunteering at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.