Flory Van Beek has carried the glass shard in her purse for nearly 60 years.
It's about a quarter-inch thick, 2 inches long and three-fourths of an inch wide, the remnant of a shattered porthole on the Dutch ship SS Simon Bolivar. When it hit a German mine and exploded in November 1939, the Bolivar became the first neutral ship sunk in the North Sea during World War II.
The 16-year-old Flory and her 26-year-old future husband, Felix, had joined on the ship numerous Jews fleeing the Netherlands for South America because of the advancing German army. Both were severely injured in the explosion but were among 274 of the ship's 400 passengers and crew pulled from icy waters by British sailors after a second explosion sank the ship.
It was only after doctors in England removed the shard of glass from the back of Van Beek's neck that she learned how lucky she had been: The glass had lodged a millimeter from her carotid artery. Ever since, she has carried the near-lethal piece of glass with her.
"I can't explain why, but I want it with me somehow," said Van Beek, in the living room of her Newport Beach home. "Sometimes I look at it, and I think it was a miracle that I survived. The doctors couldn't believe it themselves."
It wouldn't be the last, she said.
Van Beek chronicles the "miracles" in "Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death" (Seven Locks Press; $22.95), the story of how she and Felix survived the Holocaust. They did it with the help of three Dutch Christian families that hid the couple in their homes for three years.
"They were very courageous, risking their own lives and that of their children," Flory Van Beek said. "They were real patriots, but they didn't consider themselves heroes, really. They thought it was the human thing to do."
Van Beek will discuss her book at a meet-the-author program at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.
Among those in the audience will be Hank Hornsveld of Costa Mesa, one of the two sons of the second family that took in the Van Beeks after a late-night visit by the Gestapo forced the couple to flee their first hiding place.
"We're in the world to help each other," Hornsveld, 77, said of his family's decision to hide the Van Beeks from the Nazis. "People in need need help, and that's the way it was. We don't worry about what nationality or what religion they are."
Hornsveld, a retired electrical contractor who came to the United States in 1957, six years after the Van Beeks sponsored his brother, the late Bertus Hornsveld of Fallbrook, said Flory Van Beek has done a "fantastic job" in telling her story.
The book paints a vivid portrait of life for the Jews in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. As a German nationalist, Felix could not remain in England after they recovered from their injuries. And after their ordeal at sea, Flory Van Beek said, "I wanted to go back to Holland."
The German army attacked the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, eight days after she and Felix returned to Rotterdam.
"We were in the middle of the bombardment," she recalled. "That was another miracle--that we survived that--because [1,000 people died], and all of Rotterdam was flattened."
Once the Germans occupied the Netherlands, she said, every Jew was required to report to a local district government building to sign papers to indicate whether they were Jewish, half Jewish or one-quarter Jewish. They even had to indicate how far back their ancestry could be traced. They were photographed, and their new ID cards were stamped with a "J" for Jew.
Failure to comply with this "summons" meant being sent to the concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria.
That was the first in a long series of ordinances directed at the Jews. Parks, theaters, hotels, restaurants, libraries, museums and other public areas became off limits. Jews had to turn in their radios and bicycles, and they weren't allowed to have telephones. They were required to turn in all their gold and silver. They were forbidden to enter the homes of non-Jewish people.
Professionals and intellectuals had to quit their jobs, and business owners had to turn over their businesses. Yet if you were unemployed, Van Beek said, you would be deported.
Chance Meeting Offers a Chance
In June 1942, she received summons to report for work in Germany. She became nearly hysterical, she said, envisioning it as a trip to her death.
That afternoon, she went to the grocery store for food--"against my mother's wishes, but we needed something to eat." Her mother's fears were well-founded. By then, Jews were being picked up on the street, tortured and shot at the whim of the Nazis.
Wearing her yellow cloth Star of David, as all Jews were required to, Flory stood next to a canal contemplating suicide. Then what she calls another "miracle" occurred: A Dutch man on a bicycle approached her and asked, "What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse? Take that damned thing off and follow me."