5 Passages to Bram: Passage 5: Sipora Groen

20170318_211713 (1)Sipora Katarina Rodrigues-Lopes Groen is the last installment in 5 Passages to Bram and is about Bram’s older sister who in many ways has grown larger in stature since her passing.  Part of that is due to her children who have taken solace and joy in telling her story,  while part may be something far less easy to explain and significantly more spiritual.

Born on January 1, 1922, Sipora, my mother, had what might be looked at as a few different lives.  Part of that story can be told in looking at her name. Although never a large percentage of the Jewish population in Holland, the Sephardic community was a very strong and a significant part of Judaism in Holland since the influx of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. In fact to this day, when speaking about Dutch Jewry, many of the worlds Jews speak of the “Esnoga”, The beautiful Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.

With all the names I mentioned to start this piece, the simplicity with which my mother felt comfortable living her life can almost be seen by the fact that in her early years she was Sipora Rodrigues, and her later years she was Sipora Groen.  But to clarify, simplicity is often a sign of depth that reflects the character of a person focused on things far more important than what people call you.  This was the case with my mother.

I make no apologies for the bias in this piece, partially because of the words I have heard spoken about my mother during and after her life on earth.  She was the oldest of 2 children, her brother Bram born when she was approaching 3 years of age.  She was very close to Bram, a closeness that only got stronger when they lost their mother when Sipora was 13 and Bram was 10.  Despite the pain of being without a mother at such an early age, this very powerful loss was a pivotal event in her life, shattering her innocence early and helping her to acquire a strength that saw her through the rest of her life, a life that saw loss and devastation most of us could not fathom.

Engaged to Hans de Jong before the war, she would survive the war losing her fiance, her father, her brother and countless friends and relatives to the murderous Nazi war machine.  She would however come out with what in many ways was a new and redefined family.  The te Kieftes who hid her for 16 months would be like family for the rest of their lives,  as would their descendants for the rest of hers, and the man who would take it on himself to see to her safety, Nardus Groen, my father, would become her husband for over 6 decades till his passing in 2012.

Besides being a loyal wife and nurturing mother, Sipora was also a person of deep character and kindness.  She would care for people living through their last days and give a caring ear for people who needed someone to listen to them and share a lifetime worth of experience.  She  would redefine herself after Nardus died in a way most people would never have been able to, finding new ways to enjoy life, sharing her story with audiences in schools, synagogues and even prisons.  But what may very well have made her more special than anything else was the pure joy she had in being alive, a joy she shared with others in an inspirational manner.

My brother Marcel who has met presidents and movie stars referred to our mother as a rock star. She truly was a wonderful person to be around and had a character as strong and kind as anyone you will ever meet.  Since her passing on April 19th, 2017 it has remained important for me to honor her memory and legacy.  She is number 5 in this series because, well, for those of you who don’t yet know, you will certainly know next week, when I tell you the story of how I have been blessed to honor her memory and the memory of her lost brother in a way I could have never imagined.

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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 2: Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte

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Jewish teachings say that the very existence of our world rests on the righteousness of 36 individuals. It is believed that these 36 are hidden, inasmuch as there is no public declaration by them or any public organization or group mentioning who these people may be.  All we know is that the belief is that without them the world loses its very foundation of decency and kindness.  Although these are teachings no one can ever prove, as I got older and acquired a greater understanding, I had all the proof I needed in the people I referred to as Oom Bertus & Tante Geisje.

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In the waning months of the year 1944, Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte were the parents of a 7 year old boy and expecting parents of what would turn out to be their first of 2 daughters.  They lived a quiet life in the Dutch countryside.  Although the war was hard on the entire country, had they chosen not to be involved in the consequences of the Nazi occupation, they could have lived a risk free life without concern of any retribution.  But the te Keiftes were not wired that way.  Bertus’s activities in the resistance lead to the fateful day when a short, pretty, dark-haired and dark complexioned woman showed up at their door soaking wet in the middle of the night.   Bertus took one look at this woman and his heart melted with compassion. Geeske immediately saw to her well-being, providing her with dry clothing and a warm meal   For the next 16 months the woman would live with them in Lemerlerved, sleeping every night in a room Bertus built under his workplace so that she would not be detected had the Nazis showed up unexpectedly to do a random search.  For the 16 months that the woman stayed with the te Keiftes she was fed, cared for and treated like a member of the family.  The one man in town known for being sympathetic to the Nazi cause was warned of the consequences should any harm come to the woman.

Those 16 months would be the foundation of a friendship so special it would go beyond the woman, Bertus and Geeske.  It would carry on for generations, making 2 entirely different families see each other as one family, no matter the distance, time or religious belief.  The woman they hid and whose life they saved was my mother Sipora Groen, born Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes.  The relationship was so strong that to this day descendants on both sides refer to each other as family.  I loved going to visit them as a kid, enjoying it so much that I miss them till today and truly believe that if not for Oom Bertus and Tante Geisje, I would not be here to share this story.

I remember Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte with love and honor always.

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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 3: Nardus Groen

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This installment of 5 Passages to Bram is the brief story of my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, of Blessed Memory.  The week picked to tell his story is not a random choice, as 2 days ago was his Yahrtzeit, the Jewish calendar day that commemorates his passing away 12 years ago at the age of 87.

Born December 18, 1919 in Rotterdam Holland, Nardus was one of 5 children. Of his 4  siblings, 2 brothers and 2 sisters, only his sister Elizabeth did not make it out of the war.When he was 6 years old his parents moved the family to Amsterdam where he thrived in the Jewish community.  Blessed with a photographic memory, Nardus would acquire immense Jewish knowledge at a very young age, learning much of the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book and the Chumash, the 5 books of Moses by heart before the age of 18. He loved being active in the Jewish community and gravitated to every opportunity to learn more and more at a young age.

But there was another side to my father. A side that was able to face reality no matter how harsh.  It was this character trait that allowed him to see the truth about the events unfolding in Europe long before most other people did.  This caused him to join the Dutch National Guard, something unheard of in his community, and caused him to join the resistance as soon as the Nazis occupied Holland.

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Although this would serve him well as a contributing factor in not only surviving the 5 years of occupation and brutality, but to save my mother Sipora, he would often say when speaking of his and other’s survival the Hebrew phrase, Hakohl Talooy B’Mazal, Everything depends on Fortune.

He would remarkably escape the Hollandse Schouwberg, the Dutch concert hall set up as a midway point for Jews and “troublemakers” scheduled for transportation to Auschwitz, and would find a way to sneak out of the Labor Camp known as Kamp Erika soon after digging what was earmarked as his own grave.  At the conclusion of the war in Europe he would join the Dutch Marines, as seen in the picture above.

Following the war he would receive Rabbinical ordination from what was left of the Dutch Rabbinate and would eventually be appointed Chief Rabbi in Surinam, Dutch Guiana.  After moving with the family to Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid 50’s he would study with the then head of Agudah for North America, Rabbi Eliezer Silver from whom he would receive his second Rabbinical ordination. He and his wife Sipora would go on to have 5 children, 12 grandchildren, and a still growing number of great grandchildren.

I was fortunate in life to have my 2 greatest heroes be the people I referred to as Mom and Dad.  My Dad would pass away on June 13, 2007 at the age of 87. May his memory be blessed.

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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 2:Marcel & Deborah Rodrigues-Lopes

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As a child growing up I knew different things about the families of both my mother and father.  Over the next 4 weeks as I write these brief posts in the series “5 Passages to Bram”, my intention is to keep it more personal than specific.  When it comes to my mother’s parents, Marcel and Deborah Rodrigues-Lopes, most of what I have to offer is personal.

My mother would always speak warmly and affectionately about the mother she lost when she was a child of only 13. She spoke of her mother Deborah as being a soft and gentle woman, loving and kind. That softness was passed on to both her children, but in many ways even more so to her son Bram, and the gentle kindness was passed on more to her daughter, my mother Sipora.  Although there is an undisputed sadness in her life being cut so short due to an illness very treatable in today’s world, some might say she was fortunate not to have to witness what would take place in Holland only 5 years after her death.  Her husband Marcel was very much in love with her, and my mother would often say that after her passing he was a different man.  A fact that would be easy to understand given the fact that she was taken from them at the young age of 35.    Her passing left a 13 year old Sipora with greater responsibilities than most see at that age, including a significant impact on the everyday life of her little brother Bram, a young boy of only 10.

Marcel Rodrigues was one of those men with a lot going for him.  He was youthful, athletic, handsome and accomplished in business.  I never once heard my mother challenge whether or not he loved his children, but it was clear that he was never the same after his wife Deborah passed away.  Even with that he was a man that by his very nature wanted to make the most of life, a quality I believe he passed on to his daughter Sipora.  An avid soccer player and traveller, he loved his children dearly, looking for ways to protect them when things were at their worst.  Willing to face the bitter reality, he wanted to do whatever necessary to get them to safety after the Nazi onslaught.  Sipora chose to stay in Amsterdam at the hospital where she worked and had the help and support of her relatively new friend and later to be husband and my father Nardus, while Bram would go with his father in an attempt to escape Holland through Belgium, only to picked up at the border and taken to their death in Auschwitz.

My mother honored her parents throughout her life.  May their memory be blessed.

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A correction has been made to the previous post in which I referred to my paternal grandmother as Marjan.  Frankly, I know I did not make up the spelling of Marjan, subsequently knowing I did get it from somewhere and or someone connected to her history, but in looking up the Yad Vashem archives she is referred to as Marianne.  I have made the correction in the post and thank my cousin Bettie for bringing it to my attention.

 


5 Passages to Bram: Passage 1: Leendert & Marianne Groen

Over the next 6 weeks I will be highlighting the story of much of my family, particularly with regards to my grandparents, parents, and individuals key in saving both the lives and memories of much of my family.  I will be leading up to a very special story of a lost family member and a most inspirational and memorable  moment.  I call this series, 6 Passages to Bram.

The first installment will be my grandparents on my father’s side, with special mention of my aunts and uncles from this side of the family.

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We often hear stories of bravery and self-sacrifice.  In many ways the story of Leendert (seen above) and Marianne Groen, my paternal grandparents, epitomizes both of those things like no other story you will ever hear.  They started their family in the port city of Rotterdam, a city that albeit one with a Jewish community in the 1920’s, was not one where being Jewish was particularly easy.   My grandfather Leendert had a successful business until running into difficulties for not being able to remain open on the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat.  Rather than compromising the principles he believed in and was teaching to his children, he chose to close his business, and with my grandmother in agreement picked up and moved the family to the thriving center of Jewish Holland, the city of Amsterdam.  It was there that they chose to raise their children, 4 of which would be active the rest of their lives in the Jewish community or would live in the State of Israel for significant portions of their lives. The 5th, the youngest daughter Elizabeth, would be one of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

When the Nazis raided the Jewish neighborhoods, they systematically emptied them out until nothing remained of anything resembling a Jewish identity.  When the time came near to when Leendert and Marianne would be transported out of Amsterdam, ultimately to their deaths in the concentration camp, Jacques Baruch, close family friend and active member of the resistance, attempted to provide them with baptismal papers in order to allow them to hide long enough to survive the Nazi onslaught.  They refused the papers, with Leendert making the statement to Jacques that would define him for eternity, “We were born as Jews, we will die as Jews”. Sadly they would indeed die as Jews in Auschwitz on February 5, 1943.  They would take their faith with them to their death and their lives and devotion to their faith are an inspiration to us all.

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How Dr. King and the Chofetz Chaim can unite African Americans and the Jewish people

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I hope the day is close where looking at everyone as equal is no longer seen as a political perspective.  As a Jewish American I have always been cognizant of the importance of a strong relationship between Americans of color and the Jewish people.  Although there are some significant sociological difference within our communities, at the very core there is one vital and powerful similarity.  We are both strong minorities playing an enormous role in the development and growth of our country and building towards a better future.

Unfortunately there are those who for political or economic gain put a wedge between our 2 communities, often creating a tension and even worse outright conflict.  On this Martin Luther King Day I implore those in both communities to unite as Americans and realize the importance our friendship has to both of us and the benefit a strong working relationship can offer our future.

But don’t take my word for it.  See the similarity in quotes from 2 men.  One who is widely recognized as one of the greatest Rabbis of the 19th and 20th century, Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, and one of the great Americans of the 20th Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Here are the quotes I speak of.

You can’t drive away the darkness with sticks or weapons. The only way is to light a candle and the darkness will disappear by itself. Our candle is the Torah.- The Chofetz Chaim

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.- Martin Luther King Jr.

The Chofetz Chaim passed away in 1933, 35 years before Dr. King was murdered in 1968.  Yet these 2 men, both great leaders, both saw that the way to eliminate the darkness of this world was to bring forth the light. The light of love, not of hate.  We are 2 communities that will thrive if we live by the words of our leaders starting within our communities before expanding to an effort between our 2 communities.  Two men who wanted a better world not just for themselves, but for the world they lived in can teach us all a lesson from the amazing similarity in philosophy coming from their heart and mind, and let us use this lesson to be a source of light in this increasingly dark world.

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On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, of course I condemn. But first I remember

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On this solemn anniversary of Kristallnacht I have heard shouts from my fellow Jews on the right  side of the aisle calling for those on the left side of the aisle to condemn the anti-Semites of today.  Although I am prepared to do that, I also must make the point that condemning the evil of today is not a prerequisite to mourning those taken from us by the evil of the past.  That is why my first priority is to honor and remember as best I can.

Many years back in trying to relate to another my understanding of the Holocaust, I suggested the following exercise.   Close your eyes and imagine almost everyone you know, are friendly with, or love.  Then imagine them not only all gone, but brutally murdered. Now open your eyes and realize that this is what it was like for most people who survived The Holocaust.  Almost everyone and everything they knew was gone, and all they were left with was the hope that God, if they still believed in God’s existence, would give them the strength they needed to move forward.

However, as if that horror alone was not enough, the Nazis, masters of terror, were so sadistic and obsessed with their hatred towards the Jews that they felt their first priority was instilling maximum fear in the Jewish population and destroying  Jewish businesses and houses of worship. On what we would forever know as Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass”, they proudly and brazenly burned synagogues and businesses to the ground and killed close to 100 Jews.  The following day they arrested 30,000 Jewish men. The Nazi brutality knew no limits and the suffering they caused the Jewish people is unlike anything seen in human history.  The significance of Kristallnacht, beyond the pure destruction and murder, is that is symbolizes the beginning of this horrible time, and must be seen as a day to honor, respect and mourn the 6 million Jewish lives murdered.

It is also however a sad lesson of the ability that evil has to consume an entire society, how anti-Antisemitism and persecution of the Jewish people is nothing new and is a real danger not ever to be taken lightly.  I do condemn the Louis Farrakhans, David Dukes and Linda Sarsours of the world whether or not their anti-Semitism is unhidden and blatant like Farrakhan’s or more devious and masked like Sarsour’s. But I do not, and I say this unequivocally, condemn my fellow Jews who may not see things exactly as I do, nor do I use this day as a reason to condemn Donald Trump or far left wing radicals.  And here is why.

Do you think that when the Nazis went on their rampage through Germany on November 9, 1938 they first asked Jews their political viewpoints?  Do you think if anyone of us would have been crammed into a bunk, starving, exposed to disease and most likely marked for the gas chamber in Auschwitz that it would have mattered whether you were a politically conservative or liberal Jew? We all know the answer.  Yes those that rose up and fought in the Warsaw Ghetto were a special kind of hero, but those who hoped it would get better or didn’t want to believe the worst did not merit scorn, they needed guidance and protection, and ultimately our prayers.  Fighting our fellow Jew takes away from the real fight at hand and plays right into the hands of our enemies.

It is also a time to step back and understand that Kristallnacht, as bad as it was, was nothing compared to what was to follow.  In retrospect the Jewish people would have given anything for it to have stopped there.  Now understand that nothing being done in the United States of America comes close to even comparing to Kristallnacht.  That is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem, it is, but even the worst of actions against American Jews today are not actions taken by any formal institution of any significance. So to compare Donald Trump or left wing extremists, to Nazis is a disrespectful and irresponsible comparison.  To pay close attention and condemn the Farrakhans, Dukes and Sarsours of the world, individuals who directly or indirectly call for the death and destruction of the State of Israel and or the Jewish people is not only responsible, it is necessary.

On this very sad and important anniversary, let us all remember and honor the Jewish martyrs murdered by the Nazis, and use their memory for good to do what is needed to unite and protect us all moving forward.

 

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