Thanks to the sacrifice of his parents and the kindness of strangers who hid him as a Jewish boy in the Netherlands during World War II, Joe Koek survived his childhood.
He lived 85 years until he died Dec. 27, one month to the day before he was to address the United Nations at its 2016 Holocaust remembrance this month.
After the war, Mr. Koek immigrated to Chicago, raised a family and owned a cleaners that was the “Cheers” of suburban Niles. Neighbors and customers used to drop in to shoot the breeze.
But to the end of his days, a regret tormented him: not saying goodbye to his parents when his childhood was yanked away the last time they were together. After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Joe’s parents, Philip and Katrina, were ordered to a work camp. They decided to hide Joe and their two daughters, Eva and Henny, entrusting them to the Dutch Resistance.
Joe was about 12 at the time. “There is no way to prepare yourself to go into hiding within 24 hours,” he said in a 2011 speech at Normal’s Heartland Community College that was reported in the Bloomington Pantagraph. “My father told us that some ladies would come by to pick us up and that’s exactly what happened.”
“That was the last time I saw them. I mean we just kind of walked out of the house. There was no hugging or kissing. No goodbyes,” he told ABC-7’s’ Paul Meincke in 2015.
“I never had any closure,” Mr. Koek said at a 2013 Holocaust memorial at the Rock Island Arsenal. “I still miss them.”
The Resistance ferried the three Koek children to a school building, the first of many hiding places over the next few years. Like Anne Frank, another “Hidden Child” of the Netherlands, the Koeks entered a silent existence where they were afraid to make a sound. “I couldn’t even fight with my sisters,” he said, according to the Pantagraph.
The Koek children lived with other refugees on the top, empty floor. When school was in session, “They had to take off their shoes and not walk around and not flush the toilet,” said his son, Steve. To pass the time, Joe Koek’s sister taught him to knit.
He told his children that the Nazis even used a photo of the Koek children like a “wanted” poster, urging people to help them find Jews. The Dutch underground separated the three and moved them around. “They kept changing his name and handing him off to different people,” his son said. At one point, Joe was spirited to a farm. “This was a Christian family who took him in and treated him as their own and took him to church,” Steve Koek said. “Not to indoctrinate him — they just made him look as if he belonged.” On the farm, Joe broke his leg when it caught under a dolly. He was sent to a hospital, which saved his life.
“On the second or third day after I had arrived at the hospital, the Nazis had a round-up. They marched into the village where I had been staying,” Mr. Koek said in notes for a speech. “For a tiny village, they were sheltering a very large number of Jews and other escapees. Every single person who was hiding and every single person who was sheltering them was taken to the front of the farm or house, and shot on the spot.”
After the war ended, he learned from the Red Cross that his parents died in Auschwitz. He spent time in an orphanage before re-uniting with his sisters. The Ark, a Jewish social service agency, linked Eva and Joe Koek with a host family in Chicago, Morris and Lillian Bloomberg, who sponsored their immigration. Mr. Koek started Joseph’s Tailors and Cleaners in Niles. His other sister, Henny Swaab, married a Dutchman and settled in the Netherlands.
He and his first wife, Grace, raised their three boys in Niles. They divorced in 1985. In 1990, he married Sheila, who survives him.
He rarely spoke of his wartime ordeal, but about 10 years ago, at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, he told Sam Harris, president emeritus of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, that he’d been a “Hidden Child.” Harris urged him to share his story. Soon, Mr. Koek was speaking at the museum and at schools and Holocaust remembrances.
He also volunteered at least two days a week at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. “In greeting and welcoming visitors with such warmth, he set the tone for their visit,” said Amanda Friedeman, youth education coordinator at the museum.
Despite all he’d been through, he retained an innocence that seemed attached to the boy he’d been when he went on the run. “Part of him was stuck as a 10-year-old,” his son said. Joe Koek preferred to remain a leader of Cub Scout packs, rather than move up the age ranks to head a Boy Scout troop. And, “We always rooted for Holland, the Netherlands, in the World Cup and the Olympics,” Steve Koek said.
“To see us all bar mitzvahed, when he was not able to do that with his family, was a big deal for him,” his son said.
Mr. Koek loved a good nosh, especially at Max and Benny’s in Northbrook. A dapper dresser, he always wore a sport coat. He collected Jerry Garcia ties, which his sons and grandsons wore at his funeral service.
He is also survived by two more sons, Philip and Kenneth; his sisters, Eva Koek and Henny Swaab, and eight grandchildren.