In a day and age where the most popular stories tend to involve scandal, hate, and violence, I am happy to offer a positive story of renewal, hope, and the re-connection of a family.
For those of you who have read the book Jew Face, you will know of the story of my mother’s favorite childhood cousin David van Hasselt. For those of you who have not yet read it, when my mother, born Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes was 13 years old, her mother passed away of natural causes. With a father who was a young man and somewhat lost with the premature loss of his wife, and a younger brother in need of guidance and love, much of the weight of the world fell into Sipora’s lap. The people who would provide love and support to the family would be critical to the household and in many ways would be the key to emotional survival. One of the main people to provide this support to Sipora would be an energetic and personable young man, her cousin David van Hasselt. It was during this important time in Sipora’s life that David would achieve that special status of favorite cousin.
With the brutal and vicious Nazi war machine occupying Holland in May of 1940, the future of the Jewish people quickly would become bleak. The method used to eliminate the Jewish population and to instill terror and establish control however was gradual and methodical. The first major activity against the Jewish people of Amsterdam would take place in February of 1941 when the shooting of a Nazi official was made to look like the act of a Jewish male and would subsequently lead to the arrest of anywhere from 300-500 young Jewish men. The men would all be deported to Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria where they would be murdered or made to work under the worst conditions until they died a horrific death. One of the men was my mother Sipora’s cousin, David van Hasselt. Although the memory of David would always live in Sipora’s heart, with his death and the subsequent Holocaust which took the lives of 104,000 Dutch Jews, an estimated 75% of the Dutch Jewish population, Sipora would be left with nothing but a memory of the cousin she loved so much.
Fast forward to April 2012 with the release of the book Jew Face, the book I had the great honor to write about my parents’ life primarily revolving around their experiences taking place from 1940-1945 in Nazi-occupied Holland. In the beginning of October I received an email from a man in Holland named Ron van Hasselt. Although in his own words there is some significant distance in the relationship to my mother and our family, he is nevertheless connected. Ron, also an author of a book relating to experiences of his family during the Nazi’s occupation, has been active in finding family, be it close or distant. His book, a Dutch language book entitled “De Oorlog Van Mijn Vader”, means “The war of my father”. His website is in Dutch but with the use of Google translate can be read in English and found by going to the link http://www.deoorlogvanmijnvader.nl/.
Ron, being the tremendous researcher that I have now begun to learn that he is, googled David van Hasselt, found my book Jew Face, and subsequently located both me and my mother. He went on to discover her close proximity to his relative Vincent and forwarded him the information. Who exactly is Vincent van Hasselt? Vincent is the son of Edward van Hasselt, who was David van Hasselt’s brother and another one of my mother’s cousins. All this leads us to the picture you see in this post. It is my mother Sipora Groen, standing next to Vincent, the nephew of her favorite childhood cousin David van Hasselt this past Sunday after they met each other for the very first time. Although the surviving family members lost contact after the war, through Ron van Hasselt’s successful efforts, and the writing of the book Jew Face, I am happy and proud to say that long-lost family members have begun what will hopefully be a meaningful and joyous reunion. Of all the possible achievements I hoped for in writing the book, none has been more special than this one. Not only has it bought joy to a family reunited, but it has helped keep alive the memory of my mother’s lost cousin.
Yet again, from the ashes, the family grows.
The following is an excerpt from the book Jew Face. It is titled “A lost cousin” and tells the story of David van Hasselt:
A Lost Cousin
After her mother died, five years prior to the occupation, Sipora would find solace in whatever support she could from close friends and family. Everyone meant well, and there were people who came by the house often, but between the tough economic times and the fact that people had their own families to attend to, it was difficult for most to come see her, her brother, and her father on any consistent basis.
Sipora was always well mannered and gracious and always showed the appropriate appreciation toward anyone who helped her or her family. Like anyone else, though, Sipora had her favorites. These were the people whose visits brought genuine joy. One such person was her cousin David van Hasselt.
David wore that special mantle of favorite cousin. He had been a regular visitor in their household for years and had every intention of coming at least as often, if not more, after the untimely passing of Sipora’s mother. Sipora loved his visits. He would make her laugh; he would talk with her about music, art, ice skating; and he would even help her with her schoolwork from time to time. Whenever he would visit, it would be the highlight of her day.
After her mother died, Sipora needed anything that made the day a little special. At the young age of thirteen, Sipora had household responsibilities thrust upon her most often given to women at least five years older. Her life at a young age was not easy. Her cousin David was a special friend.
David van Hasselt was a bright, funny, strong young man, who at the outbreak of war in Europe had made the decision to join the Dutch army. On May 15, five days after the Germans attacked,the war was over in Holland. With the Nazis steamrolling through Holland and Belgium and bearing down on France, the Allies planned a defensive assault on Dunkirk, France. If nothing else, it was an attempt to slow down, if not halt, the German juggernaut. So it was on May 24, 1940, fourteen days after the war had begun and nine days after the war was over in Holland, that David van Hasselt was amongst the Allied troops confronting the Nazis in what would be a failed attempt at any sort of conquest.
Although the mission at Dunkirk was a failure, a total disaster was averted when Nazi leadership chose to delay any counterattack for three days in an effort to maintain solid control of its forces. This gave most of the Allied forces time to regroup and evacuate to England.
David, however, chose to go back to his hometown of Amsterdam rather than follow the other soldiers to England. Having all his family and friends in Holland, David felt that the only correct choice for him would be to go back home and be with the people he cared about.
Meanwhile, the Nazi occupiers of Holland, who until now had taken no action against the Jewish population, were getting geared up to make their first raid against what they saw as this inferior race. They planned to hit in the heart of the Jewish community of Amsterdam, sending troops to Rapenburg Street in the center of the Jewish ghetto. Their orders were to pick up between 300 and 500 young, healthy Jewish men for deportation. They wanted to create immediate fear and doubt in those who were most able or likely to oppose them in future attacks, while fabricating a claim of an imposing threat.
David was not a resident of the Jewish ghetto, but a number of people that he was close to did indeed live there. One such person was his sweetheart, who he would visit on a regular basis. The past few weeks had been better times for David than any he had seen since before the war. He had enjoyed the time with his parents, caught up with his best friends, and now was on his way to Rapenburg Street to see his girl. They had been discussing their plans for the future, and although things were not looking very good for Europe as a whole, life had to go on, and being with her was the only way David wanted it to be at this time. They had considered going to England together in the assumption that things on the Continent were going to get worse before they would get better. They had discussed it many times and hoped that if it was necessary, they would be able to leave together.
On February 22, 1941, as David was walking on Rapenburg Street, he heard what sounded like screaming and fighting. When he turned the corner, he saw a mob of what looked like a thousand people; the majority was the Grune Polizei (Green Police). He knew he could do nothing and was considering turning around or hiding. But it was too late. They had already seen him.
Sipora’s favorite cousin was one of those taken away to Mauthausen in the raid of February 1941. David did not make it out, and would spend the next 7 months in the concentration camp before a report came back saying that he had died. When Sipora’s uncle learned of his son’s demise, he knew he needed to let his daughter know about her brother’s fate. However, being that his wife was no longer with him, he would have to tell her alone. This was something he could not do. He needed the help of someone close to him, and he needed it to be a woman. So he asked Sipora to help him. Sipora, at the age of nineteen, was already experiencing more death than most people would by that age. The lessons she learned at a young age would help see her through even more difficult times and teach her in many ways how to transfer that strength to the people close to her. However, as the war broke out, the first feeling for her, as it was for so many, was terrifying despair. And to have to break the news of the death of someone she loved so much to another relative she was so close with was in itself a horror she had not yet experienced. Especially considering the circumstances, or at least as much as she knew about the circumstances surrounding his death.
David van Hasselt: Murdered September 16, 1941, Mauthausen.
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