Jules Schelvis, founder of the Sobibor Foundation, died yesterday night, April 3, 2016 at the age of 95. Anyone who knew Jules Schelvis well might have thought that it would never come to this. Despite his age Jules kept on working tirelessly. With the same power of comprehension and interest in the world developments. Up until the very end Jules read two newspapers, electronically on his tablet!
Jules Schelvis started his working days at 7.15 am sharp with an iron discipline. In his apartment in Amstelveen, where he lived up until the end, Jules would work in his study on a daily basis. He wrote, printed, scanned, photocopied and edited in a most modern way and with the latest equipment. In this study Jules also painted his copies of Chagall, Picasso and Breitner. These paintings were covered all over the apartment. A few selected people would receive a painting as a gift.
Jules was the second child of Jewish parents. His parents were not religious instead they devoted their lives as humanists and members of the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDAP). Some of their Jewish traditions were kept in the family in a natural way. Later in his life Jules still had warm thoughts when remembering ‘kesause mangelen‘ (unshelling peanuts from the Island of Curacao) at the dinner table on a friday night. The sweet pastry from the Jewish bakery. He remembered his youth as happy, warm and educational. Despite the difficult financial circumstances of the thirties there was always food and an interest in culture and science.
After high school Jules was able to get an education to become a printer. He was grateful to his parents, who made this happen, for the rest of his life. Jules graduated in 1939, at the Printing Office Lindenbaum in Amsterdam. At this Office Jules made a quick career. However due to an anti Jewish measure, Jules was fired from the Lindenbaum Office during the war. He returned working for the Lindenbaum Office after war. He realized this only with the help of a legal decision. Not much later Jules switched to the newspaper ‘Het Vrije Volk.’ After the merge with the newspaper ‘Het Algemeen Handelsblad’ in Rotterdam, Jules achieved the position of manager of the technical division of the newspaper.
In the spring of 1940 Jules met with the seventeen year old Rachel Borzykowski through the youth labor organization ‘Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale (AJC). Due to the existing anti-semitism Rachel’s parents fled Poland shortly after the First World War. Jules was welcomed in the Borzykowski family with great enthusiasm and warmth.
David and Gretha Borzykowski played a central role for the Polish Jews community in their Amsterdam neighborhood. Their house often was the center of culture, debate, performances and ‘Jiddish’ reading. Jules enjoyed the Borzykowski house enormously. It soon became his second home.
Jules Schelvis married the love of his life Rachel at the age of nineteen. His main motivation to marry her at such a young age was to protect Rachel from deportation. The Nazi’s regarded Rachel, who was born in the Netherlands, foreign and from Polish descent. Unfortunately the marriage did not prevent this from happening. Both his family in law and his own family were deported. Only his mother and sister would survive the war. Jules was the only one who would survive the transportation on June, 6, 1943, from the Dutch transit-camp Westerbork.
Jules married Johanna Levendig in 1946. Johanna was also, like his first wife Rachel, a member of the youth organization AJC. The couple was happily married for 53 years. They got two children and three grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Jules suppressed his memories of the Nazi camps by working hard and spending all of his free time with his family and hobby’s such as geology, drawing, painting woodcraft and other handicrafts. However, in the early eighties, almost at the end of his career with newspaper Handelsblad, Jules would collaborate with an article written by a colleague from the newspaper. By doing this Jules basically pushed the envelop. He no longer was able to suppress his memories.
The journey to Sobibor, the arrival at this destruction camp and the subsequent events in six more Nazi camps were put down in writing in the book ‘Binnen de Poorten’. The book was published in 1982 by publisher De Haan. Jules wrote the book by using his own notes from directly after the liberation. At the time Jules was recuperating from typhoid in an hospital in Vaihingen an der Enz, Germany. Interesting enough Jules would use the back of German forms to write down his own experiences. After his return Jules had given the notes to the RIOD the previous name of the current NIOD, Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
In 1981 Jules visited his sister in Australia after early retirement. In Australia Jules met with Chaskiel Menche, a survivor of the revolt in Sobibor. Menche was called before the court of Hagen during the revision trial, in order to testify against Karl Frenzl, the second commander in charge of Sobibor. In 1960 Frenzl was sentenced for life in prison. The revision trial was basically Frenzl’s appeal. Menche asked Jules to join him to the trial in Hagen. As it turned out Jules was present during the entire legal proceedings. He even became a fellow complainant. A new legal construction. The position of fellow complainant gave Jules entrance towards all documents and witnesses. Jules decided to interview all witnesses. Even witnesses from behind the iron curtain, who weren’t allowed to travel were interviewed by Jules and the Slavic language specialist Dunya Breur.
The testimonies, collected documents and information based on worldwide research resulted in the scientific work ‘Vernietigingskamp Sobibor.’ This research was published by De Bataafsche Leeuw in 1993. Jules was given access to any archive he contacted. Currently the research material can be found at the NIOD www.sobiborinterviews.nl. The first edition even included the transport lists of all nineteen trains from Westerbork to Sobibor. Lateron it appeared as an independent publication. A memorial to all murdered passengers. Vernietingskamp Sobibor was internationally recognized as the scientific research on Sobibor. With the research Jules became the Sobibor expert. In 2008 he received a honorary doctorate for his research from the University of Amsterdam. The year before Jules Schelvis was honored with the royal decoration ‘Officier in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau’. He was also decorated with the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
Jules Schelvis initiated the memorial ‘De Tekens van Westerbork,’ founded and chaired the Dutch Sobibor Foundation and appeared many times in guest performances for students, pupils and other types of audiences. Jules would tirelessly share his knowledge of the events in Sobibor with the rest of the world. Moreover, Jules watched carefully to keep his work up to date. All new editions included new information or small corrections based on new research. Jules claimed that all facts in his work are based on documentation. “And this is the way it should be.” According to Jules Schelvis.
In addition Jules Schelvis initiated the Rachel Borzykowski Award, in memory of his young first wife who was murdered directly after her arrival in Sobibor on June 4, 1943. The award is granted by the Sobibor Foundation to a person who in particular contributed to the knowledge of Sobibor.
In the period 2009-2011 Jules Schelvis again became fellow complainant in the München trial against John Ivan Demjanjuk, the former Ukrainian guard of Sobibor. Jules Schelvis’ sentence demanded during the trial made a deep impression. Jules requested the Judge to declare Demjanjuk guilty without punishment. Jules argued that he came to this demand based on the humanistic way he was brought up.
Besides the referred books Jules also wrote many brochures for the Sobibor Foundation. Those brochures were either related to a person or particulars in relation to Sobibor. Next to this, booklets about his youth and his second wife were written by Jules. His last booklet ‘Er reed een trein naar Sobibor’ still appeared in 2012.
In 2013 Jules experienced a climax while performing with the members of the National Symphonic Orchestra. In between the musical performance, conducted by Jan Vermaning, Jules read aloud from his latest book. In one week time, six performances were carried out in the context of the Dutch Memorial week. During every single performance Jules re-experienced the events based on his own words. It was not easy but Jules was deeply grateful to the fact that he had accomplished and experienced this task. On November 30, 2013, the performance of ‘Er reed een trein naar Sobibor’ took place for the seventh time. In 2014 one of his wishes came true, to perform one more time in an international setting. In July 2014 he went on tour and told his story in Amsterdam, Berlin and Lublin. And then one last time in March 2015 in the Peace Palace in The Hague (the performance was recorded on national television and can be seen via this link).
When asked about his main motivation Jules answered in an interview: “I lost my wife and other family members in Sobibor. I wanted to know what had happened.
I had documents to my disposal and knew the witnesses from the Hagen trial. On the one hand you get used to it and on the other hand it keeps on touching you deeply.” (On the website: www.lategevolgenvansobibor.nl three extensive interviews with Jules Schelvis can be retrieved, in Dutch only. The interviews took place in the context of the project ‘Long Shadow of Sobibor’ initiated by the Sobibor Foundation’)
The Sobibor Foundation is enormously grateful to Jules Schelvis. Moreover, the Foundation will commemorate Jules Schelvis infinitely with love and deep respect.