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Niles man keeping father’s story of survival alive

Going back centuries, there is a Jewish tradition of preserving history from one generation to the next. 

That is what Steve Koek is attempting to do as the son of a Holocaust survivor.

In conjunction with National Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, Cindy Belleque of the Mt. Morris Public Library contacted the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and requested a speaker.

Koek, who also hails from Niles, spoke at both the Oregon and Mt. Morris libraries on Jan. 23. 

The talk he gave was titled “Hidden Child: The Story of Joseph Koek”.

It was the same story his father, Joseph Koek, had told numerous times, recounting the harrowing days as a youth when he and his two sisters hid from the Nazi soldiers in their homeland of The Netherlands. 

A month before he was to share this tale with the United Nations, Joseph Koek died in 2015 at the age of 85.

Since then, his son Steve is keeping the story alive. And, a remarkable one it is, as 75 people listened to it at the two libraries.

Joseph, or Joop as he called then, was 12 years old when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands and began rounding up Jews.

Being well-connected, Joop’s parents made arrangements with the Underground and Resistance Fighters for Joop and his two sisters to go into hiding.

Sadly, Joop wasn’t even able to say goodbye to his mother or father, a memory that would haunt him later in life. 

Nor, would he ever see them again, as they were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp and were among the one million who died there.

In 1940, there were 140,000 Jews in The Netherlands. The odds were against Joop and his sisters surviving, as only 40,000 Jews remained after the war ended.

At first, the three kids were hid in the upstairs in a house of a sympathizer, afraid to even look out the window for fear of being spotted. 

Then Joop was separated from his sisters and sent to a working farm.

Luckily, he broke his leg there and ended up in a hospital. 

That saved him from being shot, as shortly afterwards the Nazis rounded up all escapees, sympathizers, and Jews from that area and brutally murdered them.

“The resistance fighters (underground) were heroes to Joop and his sisters,” Steve Koek said. “They risked their lives to save them. The kids were constantly being shuffled from family to family.”

Koek asked the audience to imagine what it would it would be like not to be able to say goodbye to your parents and be taken away by a total stranger.

It was daunting for the three Koek children, but survival took precedence over the nurturing support of a parent.

Koek also related a close call the sisters had. 

They were in a public building when the Nazis made an appearance, seeking out Jews. 

The two girls hid in a bathroom stall, and the older one feigned helping the younger one pull her underwear up, as a Nazi soldier checked the stalls.

Not recognizing them as Jews, he continued on without apprehending them. 

As months became years, it was a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse between the Koek children and the Nazis, with an inherent fear of being caught.

“What the story of the Holocaust tells us is there are people that hate so much, they are willing to kill,” Koek said. “The other story is there are others that will risk their life to save yours.”

Before Germany capitulated in 1945 and the Dutch became free, Joop had a host family that loved him and would have been glad to have him stay on as a member of the family.

Instead he ended up moving to Chicago, following in the footsteps of his sister Eva. Children of that era were sponsored by someone from this country.

Joseph Koek, who became a tailor, kept his story secret for many years, until being encouraged by another Holocaust victim to begin sharing it. 

Now, it is his son’s Steve’s turn to keep those remembrances from fading from history.

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