Maurice Blik is a world famous sculptor who was born in Amsterdam in 1939. Interned in Belsen for several years as a child, he recently gave a talk to We Have Ways Fest, a three day festival which focuses on all things World War II. His was a harrowing yet ultimately uplifting story, which he told to a packed house in conversation with journalist York Membery. I have transcribed the talk, with a small amount of editing. It includes some excerpts from his book, which he read aloud to the audience.
I was born in Amsterdam in 1939 and at that time we lived in an apartment above a shop in a very modest area. I lived there with my mother, father, sister and grandmother, who we called Oma, which is the Dutch word for grandmother. My father was born and bred a Dutchman, my mother was English and came to Holland as a child with her parents. My Grandfather had already died.
My sister, Clara, was a couple of years older than me. My father's family in Amsterdam was large; he had three brothers and a sister and there were various spouses and children, so in total about 15 direct family members. It was a very traditional family; my father went to work as a commercial traveller selling car spares around the country. My mother was at home keeping a kosher household, bringing us up and looking after my elderly grandmother. It was a very pleasant, traditional family from what I remember.
YM - on 7th May 1940, Germany invaded Holland and two weeks later Holland surrendered. I wonder how life changed for you and your family after the German invasion?
In the first floor flat where we lived, Clara and I would sit by the window and we could see down the street - we could see German troops so we got the sense it wasn't the same as it used to be.
Mother and Oma were sewing, they'd taken all of our clothing down from the cupboards and it was strewn about on the furniture, yellow stars in little heaps were on the table and they were carefully sewing them onto all of our clothes.
The stars had Jood written on them in big black letters. My mum explained to me we are special people and we needed to be recognised - it made me feel rather proud but it was not long afterwards that I realised that it might not be a good thing. There were hushed conversations amongst the adults, trips out were less frequent and more hurried and eventually we were all but confined to our apartment, only leaving for the purchase of essential items.
Food began to arrive via a basket which was common practice for people living in apartments. People would lower a basket down on a rope and then pull it back it up - it was a way of getting food supplies. We saw a large number of soldiers on foot and in big open cars filled with soldiers. The ones sitting in the back, dressed in long black leather coats, always looking very superior to the foot soldiers. People in civilian clothes would be hurrying along the street. We saw a woman running behind crying and shouting, who was shot.
YM- There was the fateful day when a German soldier confronted you, aged 4, at the bottom of the stairs below the family flat. What happened?
There was a shop below our flat and now and again Clara and I would go down below to get something from the shop. On this occasion I was confronted by a German soldier who asked me where I lived. I said 'upstairs' and off I went. He followed me and went into our apartment. I don't really know what happened, he spoke to my mother, I was just 4 so I wasn't really a part of the conversation.
YM - Shortly after this you were transported?
We were taken out of our flat, put in trucks and taken somewhere, I'm not sure how long we were there.
From there we were taken to Westerbork, a camp in the north of Holland which had originally been built for German refugees but later on the Germans took it over. It was a wooden building filled with wooden bunks where we slept.
For me, very fortunately, there was a rudimentary medical facility, because at that point I contracted a virus which eats away the bone of the skull behind the ear. Fortunately one of the inmates was a surgeon who operated on me, although in very crude conditions. He cut away the bone behind my ear which saved my life, but I've had hearing problems for rest of my life.
YM - Westerbork was where you were separated from your father?
It was one of the most painful moments of my life. In Westerbork they had a soldier who would come into the hut with a list of names, he'd read out names and people would just disappear as far as we concerned, we don't know what happened to them. One day he called my father's name out and so my father said goodbye to my mother and grandmother. They'd figured out they'd never see him again. When he turned around to me he said, "Look after your family, you're the man of the family," and he was gone and I never saw him again. He left me with that legacy, 'Look after your family".
YM - After being separated from your father the rest of you were sent to Belsen where you stayed until you were liberated. You were very young, what were your impressions of the place when you arrived in 1943?
I was 4 and I still remember I had my head bandaged after the surgery and I was wearing a balaclava I'd got from somewhere. Belsen was cold, in the middle of north Germany somewhere between Hannover and Hamburg, and it had wooden huts and bunks. We were put into one of the huts with three tiered bunks and a lady there figured out that if you go in a top bunk, you don't then have to deal with any bodily fluids.
There were three of us in one bunk, I don't know where grandmother was, I don't know where she went as she wasn't with us in our hut. Every morning, in fact at least twice a day, there would be an appell, a roll call, with one of the German guards who we nicknamed 'Popeye' as he would constantly suck on his pipe. We would all go outside, it was really cold, and he would count everybody and he would get it wrong and have to start again. It seemed to me that the more cold and horrible the weather was, the more times he managed to get it wrong. I've no idea why, it was a complete farce really. So that was our exercise outside.
YM - Thousands died in Belsen, how did you make sure you had enough food?
Food was delivered in a big cauldron which was brought in. To call it soup is wrong, it was a watery liquid with vegetables. You would get in line with your bowl and get your portion. The trick was to get back as far as you could in the line because the vegetables would go to the bottom, so you would get more vegetables. Everyone was hungry, those who didn't get enough food died of starvation amongst other things. I'd line up and because I was a kid, I was able to take a bowl back to mother and then line up to get some more.
The other way to get food was to grab it from people who had died if they died in their bunk. You got given bread every now and again and you'd have to eke it out, as you'd know it would be several days before you got more.
The safest place to keep it was under your head, so you'd sleep on it and if someone tried to grab it, you'd wake up. People would die in their bunks and even sometimes when you knew they weren't actually dead, but too weak to move, you knew they wouldn't live out the day, so my sister and I were pretty good at being able to tell if someone was going to die in the next day and we'd sit next to their bunk, waiting for them to die, so we could take their bread and take it back to mother.
YM - obviously there were no toys there but did you ever play games?
The thing about our situation is when I think back, there were other kids but I don't remember anybody other than guards and immediate family. We did have a game in the morning - Clara and I, we'd have a lot of body lice and we had a game where you get the louse, put it on your thumbnail and with the other nail you could snap it. It kills it and also you got a spurt of blood and Clara and I would see how far we could get the spurt. It is the only game that I recall ever playing as there really wasn't the time.
YM - Did your mother go without to ensure you and your sister had food?
I suspect she did, but I don't remember that. I was hungry all the time but after a while I never complained - it was just a fact of life - just the soup in the mornings and bread if you could get it and that was it. She may well have done, I really don't know and I could never ever talk to mother subsequently about what happened, as she was so traumatised. She was 33, she'd left a very pleasant married life with a husband and two kids living in a decent place and then at 33 she was thrust into this situation. I could never ask her anything, if I tried she would well up, so there are some questions I just can't answer.
YM - She gave birth in April 1944 to Milly, while she was in Belsen?
I remember Mother was pregnant and then Milly arrived, it just happened. I just hope when she gave birth she had gone to a quiet corner with a nurse from amongst the inmates and that she had someone to help her. I just remember Milly suddenly appeared one day.
The thing I remember is that I was a big brother and had been charged by father to look after my family. I remember it coming up to Milly's first birthday and being a big brother, I wanted to give her a present. Somewhere I'd found a carrot and I put three little wooden sticks in it for masts to give this to Milly for her first birthday. I kept asking Mother, 'When is it her birthday?' and always got back, 'No, not yet.' This went on for a couple of weeks, I kept asking, but she never made it and she died before her birthday. I was absolutely furious, not being able to give her the present. Can you imagine keeping a bit of food for that long when you are literally starving? I'd held onto this for a week or two weeks, I can't remember, and then the frustration of not being able to give it to my little sister. I was really angry with her - completely ridiculous I know - but that was the way I felt.
YM - Your grandmother died in Belsen too?
I don't remember how, I just remember seeing her around but at some point she wasn't around any more. I'm not sure if I even asked my mother what happened, so I have no idea how she died.
YM - You met the notorious camp guard, Irma Grese?
Irma Grese was a beautiful young camp guard who would take prisoners out and come back with fewer. "Six of you are going out and only five of you are coming back. The dogs are hungry." She was known for that.
I was sitting next to a bunk bed waiting for somebody to die for their bread and in she stormed, black polished jack boots, a holstered pistol and an Alsatian dog at her side.
She saw me sitting on floor waiting for somebody to die; she stared straight at me, thought for a moment and then grinned slowly and deliberately. She reached into the deep pockets of her military jacket and took out a shiny red apple.
She held it in her hand for a moment, admiring it, and then began crunching it, her eyes fixed on me. The juices began trailing down the side of her mouth. I knew she was taunting me. I kept still, not daring to move or show any fear. She ate the apple down to the core, then placed it carefully on the floor. She set the dog to guard the remains before she walked off. The dog and I sat facing each other as it sat on its back legs with the core between its front legs, snarling and baring its teeth. I remained stock still, trying to show no fear. I knew if I grabbed the apple, the dog would tear me apart. We sat like that for I don't know how long until she came back.
She was amused to see I hadn't tried to make a grab for the apple. She stomped on it and ground the remains into the bare wooden floor boards until there was nothing left to even scrape up. She then put the dog back on its leash and she paced out of the hut looking pleased with her lesson. This was probably a minor episode in her daily repertoire of sadism but I like to think that I thwarted her expectations of me. She didn't come back to a 5 year old, bloodied and mauled by the dog, she found me expressionless and calm, exactly as she had left me. In my own way I had stood up to her and I felt the victory was mine.
YM - In 1945 the Allies were fast approaching Belsen and you were put on one of Belsen's 'lost trains'. What is a lost train and what happened?
I discovered this later - I've never made a habit of reading the history so there are just a few bits of information which I later discovered. Towards end of war, the Germans realised they were losing and started clearing the camps in Belsen. Three trains were loaded up and sent off and I was on one of them with my mother and sister. We didn't know where we were going, we had no idea, but we thought it might be better than Belsen.
It became known as the 'lost train' as it meandered all over Germany. We were on it for 12 days and it managed to cover 200 miles in that time - it was stopping and starting every five minutes, sometimes it would stop for a day, then half an hour, then it would trundle off. The Allies must have thought it was a troop train as it was shot at by aircraft and the guards would yell to get out, we'd run off and go into field to get away from the train and then when the shooting had stopped the guards would shout to get back on, and off it would go again.
I don't remember what we had to eat on the train but it was very little. I do remember one time the train stopped in a railway yard where there were piles of beetroot and I sneaked off the train and got some to bring back to Mother. We had a diet of raw beetroot for a while, which I don't recommend. A lot of people died on that train. The carriage was a passenger carriage with wooden slatted seats which Clara and I would sit underneath. At the back of the carriage was a little platform, and when people died we would push them out onto the platform so that when the train stopped, they would be taken off and buried next to the track.
YM - The train ended up near Leipzig where it was liberated by Russian Cossacks?
I awoke to a loud commotion of people shouting and cheering and everybody waving and hugging. I climbed onto a seat and looked out of a little window where there were men in unfamiliar uniforms, armed to the teeth, riding on horseback whooping, shouting and waving their rifles in the air. There was tremendous energy and noise and everyone was over the moon to see them. I scrambled off the train and they escorted us to a nearby village. The majority of German residents had fled but I do recall one villager shouting in German, 'We lost this war but we'll win the next.'
YM - In 1946 you came to England with your mother and Clara - what do you recall about your flight to England?
Mother was born in England but had no papers, but she persuaded one of the Russian officers that she should go back to England with her kids. We all went to Paris in a tiny aircraft with just seven or eight seats and took off. I remember very clearly flying over the coastline with mother beside herself as you can imagine. Then we flew over the city of London and I can remember clearly seeing St. Paul's standing above the rubble. That was my first sight and I have to say that I have had a passion for the city ever since - I even lived there for quite a long time.
My mother's sister lived in Cheltenham with her husband and they picked us up from a little airport and drove us to their house. I didn't speak any English, the only thing I knew for 2-3 years was '201 Arle Road' so if I got separated then I could get back home.
YM - Did you try to find out what happened to your father?
When my daughter was in her 20s, she did some research to try to find out what had happened to him. The story was that he'd gone to Auschwitz, there was some Red Cross letter that Mother received saying he'd died no later than 31st March 1944. It didn't make any sense - if he'd gone he'd have been a fit and healthy guy so he'd have been put to work and tattooed, but there was no trace of him. So I never knew what happened. I had fantasies that he'd made a run for it. I was haunted by this for years when I was living in London. I would be sitting on a bus and I could see him on a pavement and the bus didn't stop or I'd see him on a tube when I was in a station. Of course it was all fantasy.
When I was in my early 40s, I was in a fairly dark place and thought I needed some help, so I went to see a lady called Jean, a psychotherapist. She gently asked about my family and she said, 'What about your father?' and I said, 'I think he's dead' and that was the first time I had to actually confront that for real. The therapy went on and for the first time in my life at the age of 43 I could acknowledge to myself that he'd died, and then the nightmares ceased.
YM - Moving to sculpture - how was your piece Aztek influenced by your childhood?
During therapy I had already started getting a life together and was making sculptures. I was asked to make a trophy for an equestrian company who wanted a horse head rather than a shield or a cup.
It was the first time I had touched clay for 15 years. When I was asked I took a deep breath, said 'OK' and made the horse head. I was enjoying it so much that I made a whole bunch of them. During therapy I showed Jean some pictures of the horse heads which were showing in an upmarket furniture shop, my life was getting better, and she said, 'That's the second time the horses have rescued you!' I said, 'What are you talking about?' and she explained about the Cossacks on horseback. For the first time I made that connection and it resonated with me. I'd never done this consciously, but thinking about it, those energetic Cossacks showing off their horsemanship were so lively and so life affirming. Jean was the first to make that connection.
My sculpture Hollow Dog was influenced by Irma Grese. I'd been making sculptures for five years at that point and was offered a solo exhibition in a London gallery, which felt quite something at the age of 45.
I made the dog that Irma Grese threatened me with. I made the piece big, he's the size of a small horse and I made it with Plaster of Paris, which you build up quickly with no time to fiddle with it - I wanted it to have a brutal appearance. I called it Hollow Dog, partly because it's cast in bronze and all bronzes are hollow, but also because even as a little four year old I recognised this dog was not acting on its own free will; it was controlled by this woman and was entirely under her control, so it was hollow because it has none of its own spirit.
YM -Lots of your sculptures are of figures with their arms raised to heavens?
I've gone on to do quite a few exhibitions. I don't go out consciously to illustrate events of my past - these things kind of emerge, I work with clay and I have a vague idea of what I want, but as I'm working it comes into being and people seem to find them aspirational and life affirming.
YM - How you feel after all of these years about those who are guilty - can you forgive?
I look at my life when I was 4/5/6 in Belsen and on the train, and it took me probably until my 60s to really emotionally understand what happened to me. I'd always somehow dealt with it as if it was somebody else, as if I was seeing a film of a little kid having these awful things going on. I never thought it was awful, it was just life and the way life was, surrounded by dead people every day. Not until I'd managed to separate that off in my mid 60s that I realised that I'd gone through a rather horrible business. It's a form of defence mechanism - if I start crying about it I will never stop.
Question from audience: How do feel about the Nazi guards still being prosecuted today? Should they be?
It wasn't a secret business what was going on, it wasn't behind closed doors - it was open, there was even a film made by Chaplin in 1941/42 in which he refers to concentration camps [The Great Dictator], so if you ask should they still be prosecuted, obviously I will say of course.
My father, grandmother, baby sister, my uncles, my aunt, my cousins were all murdered and that was just one little family. My baby sister might have grown up and had kids - all of them have been wiped out. The camp guards were absolutely aware of what was going on. Irma Grese was 20 when she was hanged so this young woman was quite conscious and sadistic. Had she been alive today, yes I'd want her prosecuted. I don't blame the whole of Germany but it is extraordinary how a country like that, a very civilised nation, could behave like that not that long ago. Perhaps they were bamboozled, but they went along with it by and large, so yes.
Question from audience: Did your art give you some therapy respite?
That is the most difficult question to answer! When I came to England I had further surgery on my skull at the age of 7/8 and so I wanted to be a doctor. My mum was delighted and that was my focus until I had to make A-Level choices. The night I had to choose the subjects that would take me into medicine, I had this flashback of all the dead bodies and the people too ill and half dead who couldn't move and speak. I had a reaction to this and went to Mother and said, 'I can't do medicine, I can't cope with it, I'm going to art school,' and she didn't ask, she just said, 'I'm sure you'll be a brilliant artist.' It must have been a huge disappointment, from 'my son, the doctor' to 'my son, the artist'.
But I went to art school, I liked the whole lifestyle and attitude. I started teaching but didn't touch clay for 15 years after art school. Then came the circumstances of making the horse trophy which kick-started my life again and I enjoyed making the heads. I thought after everything and the dark places that this gave me a lot of positive feedback. The horses' heads were selling, I was enjoying a bit of a success and it carried on from there.
I've never done this as art therapy but when you make a sculpture and someone says, 'That's great, I'll have it in my gallery,' it gives it meaning to me. I feel liked. I shall carry on until the day I die as that has such meaning in terms of my place on the planet. There's a comfort there. I never know when I make something how it will be received and I'm sure it goes back to when I made the present for Milly and she rejected it. Maybe like artist Francis Bacon - 'I want to be loved' and I think that's my 'why' - wanting to be loved.
From the back of the audience came the shout, "Well we love you," and the audience and Maurice all laughed, the tense silence broken. As the audience stood to applaud, Maurice looked somewhat astonished, but it had been such a harrowing hour. He had talked with remarkable frankness and stoicism, except when talking about his father, which had caused him to take a few moments to gather himself, the trauma from nearly 80 years ago reaching across the decades with an immediacy which we all felt in the audience.
You can read his story in his book, The Art of Survival, which was published in January 2022.
Find out more about the excellent We Have Ways Fest >>