Love, Hope & Tragedy during Nazi Occupation

In a word where the most basic emotions and actions are very different than they once were, I offer to you 2 excerpts from the book Jew Face.  The first excerpt speaks of one of the most powerful moments in the history of my parents, Nardus and Sipora Groen and the second excerpt is a story of love and tragedy that represents the period between 1940-45 as well as any story in the book.  On a personal level, it is the story that moves me more than any other, and even having written the story often brings tears to my eyes.  It is the story of my father’s sister and brother in-law, Aaron and Elizabeth Mozes.

 

Excerpt 1

Although Sipora lay on her back with her eyes shut, she was still very much awake. So many thoughts were racing through her head. It was not so long ago that she was engaged to marry Hans. They were going to plan their wedding and live a good life together. She had a degree of physical intimacy with Hans, being that they were in love and planning to get married. However, neither of them had any intention of consummating the relationship before their betrothals. This was how it was done in good families in the 1930s and 1940s, and Sipora never had any problem with this. It was never an issue. They would be married, and only then would they fully live as man and wife.

 That was then, and this was now. The man lying next to her was not Hans and was not her husband. The man lying next to her was Nardus. The man who had brought her through hell and stayed with her.

 After Willem Van de Berg had let them into the house, he was kind enough to provide them with a little bit of food and offered them both shelter. Sipora was to stay in a spare room in the house, and Nardus was to stay in the barn. In the morning, Van de Berg was going to take Sipora to an acquaintance that was looking for help on his ship. He knew the man was looking for a woman to keep the ship clean and organized; Van de Berg was confident that the man would not care that Sipora was Jewish. They were to go there first thing in the morning, but first they would get a decent night’s sleep.

 There had been a feeling between Nardus and Sipora that was new to them both. They did not want to be apart, but they were not given the option. Van de Berg had decided they should be separated. What he did not know was that Nardus and Sipora had arranged that she would leave the window open so that he could come into her room. So forty-five minutes or so after everyone had said good night, and after the lights had dimmed in the Van de Berg household, Nardus quietly snuck from the barn and walked around the house till he found the open window he was looking for.

 He knew this window meant a lot more than just a way into the house. This open window could very well change things forever. Till now, despite his strong feelings for Sipora, Nardus knew that he had just been a guardian for her. In many ways, he was her savior and friend and nothing else. He was fine with that, because this was not something she had asked from him, this was something he had chosen to do. He was in love with her, a kind of love that at this point in time required no reciprocity, just an openness toward him necessary to allow him to do what needed to be done. As commanding and in control as he had been regarding their movements, Nardus was not at all forceful or demanding when it came to any degree of affection from Sipora. Yes, he wanted her, but he was not going to push her. He first wanted to make sure she was safe. Only then would he concern himself with their relationship.

 Many things had changed, however. This day that started in one Van de Berg’s house and ended in another’s, had been filled with so many potential life-changing events that he and Sipora were different people than they had been when they had woken up. Emotions had changed, attitudes were adjusted, and all logic had been altered. Their lives were different, their feelings were different, and their perceptions would likely never be the same. Nardus knew when he found the open window that what would take place would be a lot more than sex. The consummation of this relationship would go beyond sex. It would be a bond that would tie them together for as long as they would live. And tonight, after the events of a very long day, neither one of them knew how long that would be.

 Right and wrong had taken on new meaning in their world. Before the Nazi occupation, people lived freely. People were not arrested just for being what they were, and people were not randomly beaten and killed. The Nazi occupation had changed everything. Right and wrong? This was now about life and death. Good and evil. Neither Sipora nor Nardus knew what tomorrow would bring. They knew that the chances of being dead were as good as the chances of being alive. And they knew that tonight they had each other. Nardus felt calm and alive. Sipora felt comforted and safe. Two years ago, sleeping next to a man who was not her husband, in the house of strangers, and having reached the pinnacle of intimacy would have been wrong. Tonight it was right. Especially with the uncertainty of tomorrow.

 This was about something a lot more important than sex, far more important than Sipora losing her virginity. This was about life and about hope. If they were to go on, it was going to be together.

 But first they both needed to survive.

 

 

Excerpt 2

With the raids increasing in frequency, the population of Nardus’s neighborhood was diminishing in size with startling regularity and consistency. He and Jacques, together with other members of the growing underground Resistance, were doing all they could to help people either get out or at the very least delay or diminish their perils.

 Jacques played the greatest role within Nardus’s close circles in the provision of false papers. These papers indicated that the person in question had been baptized and was no longer a practicing member of the Jewish faith. Jacques was able to get papers to Nardus’s brother Meyer and his wife Roe, and his brother David and his wife Martha. He also had papers for himself and his wife, Nardus’s sister Sofia, and one for Nardus himself.

 While Jacques was trying to secure papers for his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Groen, and her fiancé Aaron Mozes, he had managed to acquire papers for Leendert and Marjan Groen. They refused to accept them, being that it required them to, at least in public, denounce their belief in Judaism and the Jewish way of life. With Elizabeth living at home with her parents, Jacques was hopeful that through Aaron Mozes, he might have a chance of saving his young sister-in-law.

 Aaron’s mental state never recovered after he was released from Amersfoort, making it back to where it had been a few years back; this made the acquisition of acceptable papers as well as his cooperation far more difficult. Elizabeth loved Aaron and would not leave his side, but she knew that the man she loved today was not the man she had fallen in love with a few years back. The time he had spent in Amersfoort had taken such a toll on his emotional and physical state, that even once Jacques acquired the correct papers, his safety would be far from guaranteed. His weakened condition put him in danger regardless of what paperwork he was carrying.

 Despite all of this, Elizabeth’s love for Aaron was unwavering. She would stay with him and hope that the world as it was unfolding before them would allow them some sort of life together. One thing she did know for certain: Whether she was with Aaron or not, neither she nor anyone else around her was safe. If the dangers existed anyway, she might as well bring some joy into their lives, no matter how short lived that joy would be.

 On September 28, 1942, Elizabeth met with Aaron at his parents’ to discuss their plans. After speaking with his parents, Elizabeth planned to talk with hers. Had these been normal times, Aaron would have been there with her, but it was getting later in the day and being outside past midday was becoming more and more of an unnecessary risk to take.

 Feeling a comfort and happiness in her decision didn’t take away the nervousness Elizabeth felt as she walked into the living room to sit and talk with her parents. She was a twenty-one-year-old woman, yet she was still their little girl, and living at home; whatever she would do in her life would, as a matter of respect, require her parents’ knowledge and approval. Elizabeth knew what she wanted to do, and with Leendert and Marjan Groen being Jewish parents with old-fashioned values, she knew she required their blessing.

 When she walked in, her father was sitting and reading, as her mother sat with a cup of hot tea.

 “Papi and Mami,” she said in a tired, yet determined voice, “I need to speak with you about something very important.”

 Seeing the seriousness in his daughter’s eyes, Leendert answered immediately. “What is wrong, my child?”

 “I want to marry Aaron,” she said, getting straight to the point. Knowing that her parents already knew that the two had been planning to marry, Elizabeth continued without pause, making the point she really needed to make. “I, we, want to do it tomorrow. Every day more people are being taken away, to God knows where, and I may not ever get the chance to be Mrs. Aaron Mozes if I do not do this soon.”

 Leendert looked over at his wife. She was not a woman to be expressive with her emotions and would, on most occasions, defer to Leendert to make the statements of affection toward their children. She was a loving and caring mother, but her personality was one that did not normally allow her to show emotion. Today would be one of those exceptions. She and Leendert looked at each other, communicating to each other an understanding of all that was going on and may continue to go on. Knowing that her husband felt just as she did, Marjan spoke for both of them as she said, “It will be our joy to see you marry Aaron. Both your father and I give you our blessing and look forward to tomorrow.”

 Leendert sat back smiling as he saw his daughter’s eyes light up.

 “I’ll speak to the rabbi,” he said. “We can do this early tomorrow morning. He will find the way to get this done, I am sure.”

 Elizabeth hugged them both, laughing and crying at the same time. She would be a bride in what was a very sad time. She left her parents in the living room and went to put together the best outfit she could find.

 In the living room, without saying a word to each other, Leendert and Marjan looked into each other’s eyes once again. Leendert saw the joy in his wife’s eyes turn to sadness. She then looked away from him and dropped her head, praying to herself that her daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law would have an opportunity to enjoy their lives together.

 As he had promised his daughter, Leendert Groen made all the necessary arrangements for his daughter’s wedding the following morning. The ceremony was held in a shop, formerly owned by one of their friends and now being run by a former employee who was decent and sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish community. Everyone moved toward the back, where they would not be visible from the street. The ceremony met all the requirements of Jewish law, which included four men, each holding a corner of a prayer shawl over the heads of the bride and groom, creating the traditional “Chupah” or wedding canopy. The service was brief but joyful. As Aaron stepped on the glass cup, shattering it into pieces, signifying the last component of the ceremony, whatever family and friends that had been able to be present let out a roar of “Mazal Tov!” (“Congratulations”).

 Times being as they were, the opportunity to celebrate beyond this point just did not exist. Aaron and Elizabeth didn’t care. They were now married and could at least hope to live their days together as a couple.

 With the Green Police patrolling the neighborhood, not only was it not safe for Jews to stay out on the street for a long time, it was also not advisable for them to congregate for any significant length of time. So when the family and wedding guests left the shop, they decided to do so in incremental fashion. Marjan and Leendert left first, followed by most of their family and many of Aaron’s family. When they arrived home, just three blocks away, they heard what were now the familiar and ominous sounds of Nazi vehicles driving through the area. They heard the cars and trucks stopping and soldiers shouting; another raid had begun.

 The feeling of helplessness on this day for Leendert and Marjan Groen was immeasurable. Their youngest daughter, their little girl, had just gotten married, not even an hour earlier, and now all they could do was wait. Wait and sit, and pray, that she and Aaron would be safe and that they would see them again.

 Two hours later, Jacques Baruch walked through the doorway of Leendert and Marjan Groen’s house. Leendert stood and approached him as Marjan looked on, not moving from her spot. The expression on Jacques’s face told them the news they were so terrified to hear, but as of yet had not confirmed.

 Jacques shook his head slowly from side to side, the anguish evident in his face.

 Leendert opened his mouth and in saying the two names, formed the question all three in the room knew needed to be asked.

 “Elizabeth and Aaron?” The names came off his lips, the dread evident in his tone.

 Jacques put his head down, not able to look at his in-laws’ faces, and just said, “They’re gone.”

 There was no stopping in Westerbork for Aaron and Elizabeth Mozes. The trip to the death camp was direct and the newlyweds became two of the latest victims of the Nazi killing machine. They both perished in Auschwitz.

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