A Holocaust saga, obscure no more

A California woman's memoirs, published in 1998, may serve as the basis for a high-profile miniseries.

flory 88.298 (photo credit: )
flory 88.298
(photo credit: )
A Newport Beach woman credits her survival as a Dutch teenager during the Holocaust to small miracles and human kindness, which she chronicled in a deeply personal book, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death. Her 264-page saga got only modest attention when published in 1998 and sold 3,000 copies. Now the story by Flory A. Van Beek is getting international buzz, with word that ABC and actor-director Mel Gibson's production company are eyeing it for a miniseries in 2007. "It's been overwhelming," she said this week. "All of a sudden reporters from all countries are calling me at all times. Some days I just let the messages collect on my answering machine. I don't know how they got my unlisted number." "But," the 81-year-old retired legal secretary said, "I am happy that someone is interested in my book, because it keeps the story of the Holocaust alive." Her book documents how she and her husband, Felix, survived many close calls. It is also a love story that tells how a 16-year-old girl and her 28-year-old boyfriend - both Jewish - were brought together by Nazi tyranny. They have now been married for 63 years. The story came to Hollywood's attention through independent movie producer Daniel Sladek, who sold the idea to ABC. He said he considered "a plethora of Holocaust survivor stories" before deciding on Van Beek's book. Sladek's parents, who were active in the Orange County Jewish community before moving to Colorado last year, gave him a copy of the book, published by Santa Ana-based Seven Locks Press, he said. "My father is a Holocaust survivor. So the Holocaust is something that's very meaningful to my family. Flory's book struck me as unique and loving," he said. "At its core it is a love story set in the background of the Holocaust." Van Beek sat in the living room of her Newport Beach home on a recent afternoon telling how she and her husband were saved from the Nazis' grasp by three Dutch Christian families who hid them for three years. The two served in the Dutch Resistance to the Nazi occupation and survived the war, but each lost many family members in the death camps. Flory Van Beek's sister and a brother were also hidden by Dutch families and survived, as did another brother who escaped to Spain and joined the British army to fight in Europe. The couple were married in 1942 at the insistence of the first man who hid them. A devout Catholic, he did not want them living together in his house unless they wed, said Van Beek. In 1948, the couple immigrated to Los Angeles, bringing along little more than hope and the diaries, newspaper clippings and documents they collected while in hiding. They have lived in their Newport Beach home since 1962. The only link to the past that is evident in their living room is a portrait of their son, Ralph, who was 16 when he died of brain cancer in 1970. Flory Van Beek said he died without knowing about his parents' experiences. "It was just too painful and overwhelming to talk to him" about the Holocaust when he was young, she said. "Then he got sick." Miracles saved her and Felix from the Nazi death camps, she said. The pair was first saved in November 1939, when British sailors plucked them out of the frigid North Sea after the SS Bolivar, the Dutch ship upon which they were fleeing to South America, struck two mines and sank. War clouds and anti-Semitism were beginning to envelop Europe, and Flory's mother had encouraged her and Felix to flee. Both were severely injured by the ship's explosions and were hospitalized for six months in England. They returned to the Netherlands in May 1940, about a week before the German army invaded. Van Beek said another miracle occurred in June 1942. The Nazis were starving the Jews, she said, and she walked to a canal with the idea of committing suicide. Piet Brandsen, a leader in the Dutch Resistance, pedaled by on his bicycle and told her to follow him to his house. He and his family hid the young couple for more than a year before he was betrayed by a Dutch collaborator, she said. On the day of the betrayal, the Gestapo descended on the family's home. The Van Beeks hid in a cramped place at the top of the stairs and heard a German soldier walking up. "We both knew how many stairs there were and counted each one as he climbed," said Flory Van Beek. "But before he could get to the top a German voice yelled at him, 'There is nothing upstairs!' and he climbed down. That was a miracle." Afterward, the pair were hidden by the Hornsveld family. In the 1950s, the couple sponsored two Hornsveld brothers when they immigrated to America. One now lives in Costa Mesa. Flory Van Beek said she considers the publication of her book and the proposed miniseries "other miracles in my life." "My book isn't eloquent, but I wrote what I thought and felt. I still have my mother's goodbye letter she wrote when the Germans took her away," she said, her eyes glistening with tears. "Can you imagine your mother writing you her goodbye before she is killed? I tried to put that emotion in my book." An ABC spokeswoman said the miniseries "has not been given the green light yet." But a writer has been hired for the screenplay, and this month an ABC executive said Gibson's possible involvement could help the network market the project. [Los Angeles Times]