On 14 July 1923 Ernst Sillem was born in Baarn as the eldest of 5 children (of which 2 sisters). He is a sportsman (hockey) and likes theatre, school interests him much less. As a 17-year-old pupil, one night in January 1941, with a different handwriting, he daubed the walls in the corridors of the Baarnsch Lyceum, with slogans such as 'Out with Hitler' and 'Germans murderers'. Police investigation yielded nothing. It was only after the war that Ernst divulged his secret.
He studied at the Colonial Agricultural School in Deventer when he and his friend Jaap van Mesdag tried to sail to England by canoe on 31 August 1942. From the beach of Goeree-Overflakkee, armed with two filled panniers, a few petrol cans and Mesdag's trumpet, they start the crossing. At sea the weather deteriorates and the canoe is in danger of sinking. Fortunately, they see ships sailing in the distance and Mesdag blows the SOS on his trumpet. Unfortunately, they turn out to be German patrol boats and both are arrested.
Ernst and Jaap van Mesdag
Via the Amersfoort and Vught concentration camps, Sillem ends up in the Natzweiler-Struthof, a Nacht und Nebel camp in June 1943 where he is reunited with Van Mesdag. Natzweiler is infamous for the quarry, which caused many people to perish. In September 1944, before the advancing Allied troops reach Natzweiler, the camp is cleared by the Germans and Sillem and Van Mesdag are transported to Dachau concentration camp. Sillem then ended up in outside camp Allach and was put to work at the BMW factory. When it became clear that he was an NN prisoner, he was moved to Dachau in January 1945. On 29 April 1945, together with his friend Jaap van Mesdag, he is liberated.
After the war Sillem leaves with his wife Claartje for Morocco, where he goes to work for a Citrus planter in 1947. With financial support from family and friends, he bought a piece of land in the Sous-valley and started his own Citrus plantation, which grew into a successful business. There their 6 sons are born. After the divorce of Claartje, the Franco-German Maria comes into his life. When the plantation is nationalized in 1976, Sillem leaves for France, where he sets up a rabbit farm in the Ardeche for consumption. When Maria dies after 16 years of marriage, it is another major setback in his life. Some time later, Sillem meets the French artist Nicole, whom he marries. They settle in Provence where Sillem sets up a food bank and picks up food from the supermarket herself with a lorry. After 15 years of marriage, Nicole also dies. With a new peer he lives together until she suffers from Alzheimer's and is no longer able to take care of her.
Sillem remains involved with Natzweiler (chairman of Vriendenkring Oud-Natzweilers) and Dachau until old age and regularly takes part in commemoration trips. In Dachau Sillem has held a "Zeitzeugen" conversation at the Dachau Memorial. They were very impressed by the sober story about his life in the camps, free of hatred and told in a friendly way.
Sillem's war story is also described in the book, "No Numbers but Names", published on the occasion of the similar exhibition. In it Sillem is interviewed by Sydney Weith, who, as a pupil at the Baarns Lyceum, made a paper about him and then got to know him as a vital, positive man. The German version of the exhibition, "Namen statt Nummern", has been shown in the museum of the Memorial.
Ernst Sillem died on 17 October 2020 in Carpentras, France.