And 79 years later…

Mom'sroom

I offer you the following excerpt from my book together with a picture that illustrates one more incredibly moving facet of this remarkable story.

It was 4:30 the morning of May 10, 1940, and being that it was springtime, the first signs of daylight had begun.  Sipora was suddenly awakened by the sound of airplanes flying overhead.  A young woman of only eighteen, she was clueless to what this really meant, and all she felt was curiosity and confusion.

Like so many Dutchmen who were aware of what was happening in other parts of Europe, Marcel Rodrigues had a good idea of the intentions of the Nazi war machine.

“They want to throw us all in the Zuider Zee (South Sea)”, he said, a statement that was not literally accurate, but was sadly prophetic in substance.

So that morning when the planes were flying overhead, on a night when Sipora heard sounds she had never heard before, she asked her father what was going on. He was to answer her in a very distinct, yet uncharacteristically cold way, and very accurately said to his daughter Sipora, “It’s war.”

After my brother Marcel established contact and subsequently a friendship with the current residents of my mother and Bram’s old home a number of years back,  he was able to put my mother in touch with the woman who currently lives there with her husband and beautiful children, and through the magic of FaceTime my mother was able to confirm which room was actually hers.  On Sunday July 21, 2019, thanks to the kindness and hospitality of Jantien and her family, I was able to stand in the very room where my mother had this exact conversation with her father on May 10, 1940.

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Nothing left to say but Thank You..to a whole lot of people

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My Uncle Bram Rodrugues, killed at the age of 18 in Auschwitz in 1943

How do I sum up an incredible trip in which my family and I were presented with the violin of our lost uncle ( https://www.timesofisrael.com/ )    better than saying thank you to everyone around me that helped make it the trip of a lifetime.  So here it goes.

Thank you…

Eli Baran, for not only giving me a place to stay in London but for being a great friend for over 40 years.

Thank you to David, Giel and all the crew of the production company filming the documentary for helping to make this feel like even a bigger deal and for making me feel like a celebrity from the moment I got off the plane in Amsterdam.

Thank you to my cousins Eli, Aanya and Bettie for making this part of your life for a few very special days, and an additional special thank you to Eli and Aanya for their hospitality.

Thank you to Bar, the young Jewish man who gave a special private tour and review of documents from the Spanish Portuguese Syanagogue to me and my sister and her kids.

Thank you to Els, the woman who, 5 minutes after I met her,  showed me around the last neighborhood my mother worked in before fleeing Amsterdam.

Thank you to Rabbi Amiel and Susan Novoseller for coming from Philadelphia just to be at the ceremony. You are true friends.

Thank you to the magic 12 representing the te Kieftes. A special thank you to Harm Kuiper for his help in the process.

Thank you to Nico de Haan, an unsung hero in the entire process.

Thank you to my nephew Jackson for being the artwork hero.

Thank you to Nina Staretz of the Israeli Embassy, David Simon of Friends of Yad Vashem in Holland and Peggy Frankston of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC for not only attending but for sharing their beautiful and meaningful thoughts.

Thank you to Huize Frankendael for hosting a tremendous event in a professional and friendly manner.

Thank you to various friends and family who came from far and wide to witness this special occasion.

Thank you to Jennifer, Ami, Matan, Becca, Jack and Josh for representing the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Mom and Dad, their Oma and Opa (and Uber Opa).

Jantien van de Berg and her family for opening up the home where my mother and Bram grew up to me and my family.

Thank you to all my siblings, blood or otherwise for being on the same page from day one.  I’m proud to be the brother of such good people.

Thank you Wim de Haan. Of all the things you did to make this happen and all you accomplished, I think the one thing that exceeded everything else and what you may be happiest about is that you would have made your father proud.  Your decency and character is not only a tribute to you but a tribute to where you come from.

Thank you Oom Bram.  To relate to this thank you may need to believe in souls and the power they have, potentially forever.  Thank you Oom Bram for being a presence that stayed in our lives even before something so tangible presented itself, and thank you for having such character that your short life ultimately presented an opportunity to see the best that life has to offer.

Thank you Mom…..Just thank you.

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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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