Until recently, when age finally stopped Selma van de Perre from pacing up and down her main street, she secretly checked the reflections in the shop windows to see who was behind her. It was automatic.
“I would hear people talking and take a look in a window,” says the 98-year-old, half giggling. “It’s an instinct.”
Now she can smile about it. But almost 80 years ago it was instinct that helped keep her alive.
Selma, who lives in West London, started practicing the trick when she wasn’t Selma at all, but Margareta van der Kuit – a Dutch resistance fighter who lives in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
Then she looked in the windows for someone who might be with her.
It was dangerous work for everyone in the underground to fight undercover against Hitler’s rule – even more so for the then 20-year-old, who was forced to give up her real name, Selma Velleman, because she was Jewish.
In 1942, when her father was sent to a labor camp that was soon to be murdered in Auschwitz, and Jews were torn from the streets and even shot in front of their eyes, it fell to Selma, whose brothers were serving abroad to decide her fate, Mother , younger sister and her.
Like so many, she made “Mams” and 15-year-old Clara go into hiding. Since she could not afford to pay the hosts to take them with her, she had to flit back and forth between the homes of a network of non-Jewish friends and acquaintances, many of whom worked for the resistance.
She didn’t stay in a room and hide, her mind just wouldn’t let it. Instead, she changed her identity, “pushed Selma away” and asked to join the underground group.
Her terrible job as a courier would eventually bring her to Paris, where she bravely went on a secret mission to the Nazi headquarters in the infamous Fresnes Prison, where spies were being held and tortured.
And although this would lead to her arrest and her transport to the Ravensbruck women concentration camp in northern Germany, she managed to keep her Jewish identity a secret. As Marga, she escaped death, which the Jewish Selma would certainly have experienced.
“I knew what was happening to the Jews there – they were kept completely separate, but rumors circulated,” she recalls in an imperturbable voice. “I knew they were killed, although at first we didn’t know how.
“I was so scared. I didn’t get lice in the first few months when others did, and I was scared to death that they would think I had other blood – they would discover it was Jewish blood.
“Of course it’s ridiculous, but I was so delighted when I got my first louse.” She wonders if she would have volunteered for resistance work if she had known about the gas chambers.
All she knows for sure is that despite having been warned that she was putting herself in great danger, she had to fight.
Selma says: “I didn’t want to hide. I was angry and wanted to fight the Nazis, I wanted to fight back.”
She explains: “I dyed my hair blonde and pushed everything on Selma away. I stopped thinking about my past, my family, even though I feared I would talk in my sleep and give up on myself.
“Even most of the resistance fighters and all of my friends in Ravensbrück didn’t know that I was Jewish. Selma disappeared and never returned – although a new Selma did. Marga saved my life. “
At the age of 18, Selma was still considered a child in her family when Holland invaded the spring of 1940.
Persecution of Jews increased until rounding up was frequent. Selma knew little about death camps, but when her actor father was taken to a labor camp in May 1942, she had to act.
Selma had learned enough about the Resistance to find someone to hide her mother and sister with a family, but it was too expensive for her to stay with them.
She had no choice but to take her risk and roamed numerous houses to obtain false identification.
“I didn’t have typical Jewish features and I dyed my hair,” she explains.
Eventually, thanks to the contacts she had made with the resistance, she landed on her identity as Margareta.
New distribution cards were introduced for citizens to collect food. The group’s plan was to use the identities of children who had died in infancy to collect forged papers.
Selma was a “guinea pig” and became Marga – as she called herself – a baby who died in 1920. Selma gave a new life to Marga as a Dutch orphan who lost her parents in a car accident and studied archeology.
“I made it up completely and felt like a different person,” she says.
Over time, she worked every other day, delivering and collecting papers, and constantly crossing checkpoints.
“It was a job,” Selma recalls simply. But the stakes were terribly high and near misses were frequent.
Once a suitcase was stolen with papers that she was carrying on a train. A helpful passenger reported the theft to the guard and Selma was ordered off the train by a German officer to explain what had happened.
Fortunately, he was called. “He told me to wait, but I ran and jumped on the train when it left,” she recalls. Then the conductor came up to her with a suitcase and told her to open it to see if it was hers. Fortunately it wasn’t – it was full of clothes. She took it and fled.
Another time she was approached by an Austrian Nazi at her regular bus stop, who invited her back to his apartment.
She refused and told her boss, shocked. But he convinced her to meet with her admirer and steal his identification papers. Selma made it unharmed.
“It was so scary – but in the end I felt sorry for him too,” she sighs. “He was a nice guy and it felt like a lazy trick.” Most frightening of all was her mission in Paris, which was smuggled across the border so she could collect papers from a comrade who had infiltrated the Nazi headquarters in Fresnes Prison.
Two Dutch resistance fighters were tortured there. British spies suffered the same fate within their walls.
The group knew that if they didn’t get them out, they would be murdered.
The papers Selma collected were supposed to be the key – although she never knew how.
“I think it’s amazing myself,” she admits. “But it was easy. I was incredibly scared to go into this office and walk past the flags and uniforms, but I smiled like nothing was going on, asked about the person and he came down immediately.
“My strategy was to flirt with the soldiers in the waiting room. They replied and looked suggestive, so it was clear my plan was working.
“I suppose it never occurred to the Germans that a young Jewish woman in the resistance would dare to enter her building.” The mission was a success. The prisoners survived.
“I don’t know why I was so convincing,” she says. “People would never have thought I looked Jewish, and my papers were excellent – real, even though I wasn’t. But Marga has been through a lot by smiling like nothing is wrong. “
In reality, a great deal was wrong. Selma had only seen her mother and sister four times while they were in hiding.
Then, in June 1943, they were betrayed and taken prisoner. “I cried at night,” she says. Both were murdered the next month in Sobibor, a death camp in Poland.
Ultimately, Selma couldn’t avoid catching herself, even though she was alive thanks to Marga. Selma was arrested at a resistance fighter’s home and taken to prison. In her overcrowded cell, she initially did not dare to sleep for fear that she would speak and reveal her true identity. She was also worried about being discovered.
“In the cell across the street,” Jude “said on the door,” she says. “I was afraid that someone in this cell would recognize me.”
Her interrogators did not question her identity, though it was asked why her hair was colored – her roots showed.
But he accepted the explanation that “women had little else to do”.
Despite this, she was later taken to a Dutch concentration camp, Vught, and then taken by train to Ravensbrück.
She arrived on September 8, 1944. That was where the horror really began.
“The SS had whips and dogs – dogs in the same uniform,” she recalls.
Even as a “non-Jew” she was beaten. Sometimes desperately ill, she avoided the hospital as few patients were kept alive.
Selma says: “Even though it wasn’t an extermination camp back then, we knew that people were being killed.”
Gas chambers were built, and after the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, the Nazis sent more Jews to Ravensbrück. “We could smell the daily massacres,” she recalls with a shudder.
Forced labor at the nearby Siemens plant offered her protection and close friendships.
“My Czech friend said to me, ‘keep your chin up’ … to think of beautiful things. I’ve learned to push bad thoughts away.”
Finally the Swedish Red Cross arrived in Ravensbrück in April 1945 and began to free prisoners.
In Malmö, crammed into a town hall to register, she revealed her true identity for the first time in years.
“First I said ‘Marga'”, she recalls. “I was very scared. They told us we were free, but people told us a lot of things. We were worried that the Germans would get us.”
She later reluctantly returned to management. She thought her brothers might be in England and hoped that her real name could bring her to her.
It turned out that her brother David, who was searching the lists of survivors at the camp, saw her name. Ultimately, she would join him and his sibling Louis here. Selma settled in London, got married, had a son and became a teacher.
But admitting who she really was was perhaps the most terrifying test of all. “I was silent for a long time … I said, really hesitantly:” My name is Selma. “He didn’t say anything – he just scribbled Marga out and put Selma in.”
- My name is Selma, by Selma van de Perre, published by Bantam Press. RRP £ 16.99.