Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Anne Frank, our world today, and the responsibility we have on Holocaust Remembrance Day

 

Anne-Frank-row-REXSometimes as a writer you have to look for a topic to write about, while other times the topic is put in front of you on a silver platter.  As the son of Holocaust survivors, more specifically Holocaust survivors from Holland, with the existing quarantine we live in and the continuing conversations about Anne Frank that some seem to think is relevant to our current state of affairs, I have been presented with that aforementioned silver platter.

It’s been somewhat fascinating to me and even more alarming that there are people out there who feel being quarantined in the comfort of their own home, with food to eat, entertainment available, the freedom to leave their house without fear of being killed by a ruling force is comparable to what Anne Frank experienced.  Those among us who are most likely to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day are sufficiently educated to the point where we understand how wrong that thought process is.  For me, this whole discussion takes me back to last July when I spent 6 days in Amsterdam and had the ceremony where we retrieved the violin that belonged to my uncle who was murdered in Auschwitz.  BRAM’S VIOLIN

I have a confession to make.  In all my trips to Holland, including last summer, I have never visited the Anne Frank house.  This is not because I do not recognize its importance, nor is it not because I do not recognize the tragedy of her life, but more because, having been raised by a mother who was in essence, as she put it herself, the Anne Frank that lived, it was not as important for me to go there as it is for others.  However, while there last summer it was somewhat prevalent in my thoughts, because while taking in much of what Amsterdam has to offer, and looking at what people called the tourist attractions, Anne Frank’s house was often mentioned.  While I recognize the importance it has to society, there too lies the problem.  For so many all it really is is a tourist attraction.

It may be very powerful and accurate in its presentation. Having never been there it would be inappropriate for me to say otherwise. For me the issue is not in what Anne Frank’s house is designed to be, it is more about how people choose to look at it.  And it so clearly is relevant in the discussion that has recently emerged when using it as a frame of reference.  In fairness, if people use it as a comparison without mocking or purposely minimizing Anne Frank’s plight, they are guilty of only one thing. Ignorance.  And to be even more direct, if so many are ignorant, they are not the guilty ones, we are.  Decent people who understand things incorrectly are people willing to listen and learn.  People who are sad, depressed and scared over our current state of affairs should not be criticized or ridiculed for their feelings, but if they incorrectly compare themselves to a 13 year old girl who could never leave the house in fear of being killed by Nazi soldiers, was stuck in small quarters with her family with minimal amounts of food, and ultimately died of disease in a concentration camp designed to ultimately kill Jews, it is our sacred responsibility to educate them.

Much of our cry of “Never Again” has appropriately been directed at those who are evil and would be prone to once again partake in the mass murder of Jews and other groups different from them.  But if this quarantine we are in and the reaction of a segment of the population has taught us anything, “Never Again” also means we must educate and, to use some very relevant words in today’s world, “mitigate the disease” known as ignorance.

May the memories of the 6 million be blessed and let us never forget.

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An Open Letter to Earth’s Angels, the Nurses

thank_you_card_maker_app01Dear Nurses of the world,

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have a friend of mine who is an emergency room nurse share a few minutes of  her time to chat with me on Facebook messenger.  The things I said to her, clearly made a difference, even if only a small one.  So with that in mind I write this following letter to the people I like to refer to as, Earth’s Angels, the nurses.

I have great appreciation for all medical professionals.  They are all indeed the front  line in this war against the Coronavirus and even in the best of times people on who we critically depend on .  Back when I was married in 1992, the woman I was married to spent 5 months in the hospital.  The first 2 1/2 months of that time she was in a private room in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.  During that time in which I was able to sleep in her room, I learned something I believe to be true to this very day.  There are many wonderful doctors out there and the work they do is often awe inspiring, but it is you, the nurses that determine the greatness of a medical institution more than anything else.  You are indeed angels.

They say that you should write what you know.  As someone who sits here with immense appreciation for the sacrifices made by you, our nurses, having had the benefit of having a mother who worked as a nurse during the worst of times, I will share something with you I hope will provide you with some added strength during this very difficult time.

It is human nature to look to history to provide a perspective  that helps us understand and navigate not only the present, but the future as well.  However, with every offering of past perspective we must also be aware of the different challenges presented by each situation.  In 1943, my mother, then a 21 year old woman, was working and living in a hospital in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.  Although she dealt with a different threat and fear than the one facing all of you, had she been alive today, knowing her as I did, I am sure she would have been more than willing to share her perspective and support.  This is not a competition.  So many of life’s challenges and difficulties are different.  I know from my conversations with my mother that she never tired physically from helping someone to who was ill.  The mental exhaustion was a much greater challenge.  During the time I am referring to in 1943, she cared for and comforted the sick, fully aware of the fact that on a regular basis Nazi thugs would raid the hospital and incrementally take patients away to be murdered.  On August 13, 1943, as the last of the patients were removed by the Nazis in their final raid on the hospital, my mother’s first instinct was to go with them. I sit here able to write this letter to you today because frankly, on the insistence of the man who would turn out to be my father, that is not how things turned out.   Had she gone with them, she too would likely have been murdered, and would never have been able to help anyone ever again.

As a child I remember at least 2 instances in which my mother cared for a terminally ill individual by going to their home and caring for them in their final days.  She later became a Director of  a Senior facility in the city of Arnhem in Holland.  When she referred to the war and discussed all that she lost and her sadness during that time, it was always clear to me the strength she not only acquired, but was able to access from the help she gave her patients.  Yes she saw terrible things,  but the lessons she learned from that time were of enormous value to her for the rest of her life.  But, as any mere mortal would, she needed those who would support her, love her, and give her purpose during the course of her life.  When she passed away at the age of 95 she was a happy and fulfilled woman. She faced tragedies and difficulties most of us could never fathom, but she faced them and lived a good life.

So this is my message to all of you angels out there.  No one knows what our worlds will look like when this crisis ends, but we all need to do our part.  You are all already doing more than seems humanly possible and yes, from what the stories seem to already tell us, making an enormous difference.  What I and people like me need to do is to offer you that support, encouragement, love, and mostly gratitude for being there when we all need you the most.  I want you to know that the main reason I shared part of my mother’s story with you today is to help you realize that God willing you all stay healthy, the exhaustion, frustration and sadness you feel today, that you sometimes replace with numbness, will not endure.  There will come a time when you will look back and know that what you did meant the world to us.  To those who got sick, and to those who stayed healthy.  And you once again will move on to live, love and enjoy your lives as you so deserve to do.

Lastly, I don’t think that the words of gratitude and encouragement I share with my friend yesterday make the difference in her abilities to move forward in her very difficult task, but I do know it helped a little. When I thanked my friend on a thread for all that he does as a nurse, I am not even sure he had the time to even read it, but I know if he does it can only help.  All of us can only try to understand the challenges and difficulties facing those who are working so hard under these terrible conditions.  Of course by now we should all know that we need to do our part in helping to not spread the virus.  But what I encourage everyone to do is to take the time to give words of gratitude, support and encouragement to all of those in hospitals on the front line of what many are referring to as a war.  Like anyone else going through trying times, the support they get will be critical in keeping them going. Take the time to offer that much needed help to those who are giving all of their time to help us.

So today I am thanking those who I refer to as Earth’s Angels, our nurses.  Thank you for all that you do and may you be blessed with all the strength and health you need to get us through this and to a time when life can return to normal, and when you can enjoy the time you cherish with those you love and all that makes you happy in life.

With thanks,

David Groen

 

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Holland’s Heroes

Flag-Pins-Israel-Netherlands

In the 7 years since I started the website Holland’s Heroes this will be the first time I have chosen to use the name of the website as a title for a post.  Why now?  It’s because in light of recent events it has become clear to me that I am in a family that has had the benefit of the actions of some remarkable and righteous Dutch people. People who clearly are Holland’s Heroes.

Although time and the world’s natural order of things has caused the number of Holocaust survivors to steadily diminish, in many cases, even if the survivors are no longer here, there are still the families remaining of these survivors.  Many of these families only exist today because of the righteous and heroic actions of people that endangered themselves and the lives of their families in order to save those they descended from.  It’s been my experience that anyone who  knows of a hero or family that did something to help save the life, offer support or preserve the memory of someone in their family  feels tremendously blessed and grateful that these heroes were there for their ancestors in the worst of times.  So imagine how blessed I feel to be able to tell you of 3 families that had such an impact on my family.

Ranking the actions of great people is something that would potentially diminish how special their actions were, so I’ve determined that the most fair order in which to mention these people is in the order in which I learned of them in my lifetime.

Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte

te Kieftes_00008A

Since the time I began telling the story of my parents’ survival of the Holocaust I’ve also been telling the story of the te Kieftes.  That’s also because since the time I was old enough to know anything about my family I knew about the people we lovingly refer to as Oom Bertus and Tante Geesje.  In Nazi-occupied Holland, going from contact to contact established through the resistance, my father would ultimately help my mother find the place she would spend the last 16 months of the war.  Here she would be treated like a member of the family while more importantly she would be protected from the Nazis.  Oom Bertus, a builder, would build her a special secret room under his workplace where she would sleep, hidden from Nazi soldiers in the event of a surprise raid.  Other than one man, the entire town of Lemerlerveld would be on board with the te Kieftes in making sure this young, very Jewish looking woman would remain safe.  The one man in question would have it made very clear by Bertus and other active members of the resistance what would happen to him should something happen to their Jewish guest.  Post war the relationship between our families has been like family, and I can say without  pause that even without the actions of Bertus and Geeske this family is as special a group of people as any I have ever known.

Jan Van den Berg

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The best friend of my grandfather Marcel Rodrigues, Jan Van den Berg had more opportunities to prove this friendship than most would ever expect.  The depth of his friendship went beyond his relationship with my grandfather, as he would be there for his friend’s daughter, my mother Sipora, any time it was needed.  As my mother was preparing to escape Amsterdam with my father, an escape as dangerous as any one could ever imagine, their one and only welcomed stop was in the Van den Berg home.  This was because this was the last true safe place they could rest and get some nourishment before their trip.  As time would bare out, Oom Jan as we knew him, would not only never say no to his best friend’s daughter, he would go above and beyond in ways one should never forget.  When the war ended and Sipora would return to Amsterdam, had it not been for the emotional and practical assistance of the Van den Berg’s, she might not have survived the post-war travails.  Returning to Amsterdam pregnant where she would later give birth to her oldest son Marcel, Sipora would take ill only months into her young child’s life.  Suspected of contracting Tuberculosis, later to be confirmed as Pleurisy, Sipora would be put into quarantine.  Unable to care for her child, Oom Jan and Tante Toos would care for Marcel while Sipora was in quarantine.  He would be cared for as one of their own.  My brother Marcel and sister-in-law Bernice would name their oldest daughter Jennifer, the “J” being in honor of Oom Jan.  On July 21st of this year I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting their great grandson Jelmer and his family on my trip to Holland.

Johnny de Haan

Group

Besides being something incredibly special for my family, recent events are also a lesson for anyone whose family survived the Holocaust.  Not everyone and not everything has been revealed or discovered.  We tend to think that all the stories have been told and that there is very little new and important information we can share with the world.  Besides being factually inaccurate, in today’s global climate it has become even more important to continue to share these important stories.  Naturally I tell this story with personal bias, but I can also tell you that in sharing it with people of all ages and all walks of life, I have found that the one word most often used when responding to the story, is “Wow”.

With the Nazis occupying and controlling Amsterdam, in the summer of 1943 my grandfather Marcel Rodrigues and my uncle Bram Rodrigues chose to make an attempt to escape to Switzerland.  Before they left Bram went to his close friend and band mate Johnny de Haan to ask him to look after his violin till he returned home.  As was the case with 6 million European Jews, my Oom Bram never returned.  However, Johnny de Haan safeguarded the violin till his death 7 years ago. When he passed away his son Wim, understanding the importance the violin always had to his father,  continued what his father had started.  Until a recent examination of his father’s diary and subsequently finding more information online because of the book Jew Face, Wim, who till now thought Bram left no living relatives, would find me.  Upon making this discovery he contact me and we would set up the July 21st event in which he gave the violin to me and my siblings.  The rest as they say, is history.

But is’t not JUST history.  It’s present day as well.  Wim gave value to the violin, a desire to return it to the family of his father’s friend, and a warmth and friendship that has drawn a connection to the friendship taken away from 2 young men 76 years ago.  Wim’s mother, an unsung hero in this story, and someone I had the honor to meet, would dust off the violin on a regular basis.  All of this is why I say this is more than the actions of one good man.  It is a family that helped keep the memory alive and is directly responsible for creating the legacy for one of the 6 million murdered souls of the Holocaust.  That soul belongs to my uncle, Bram Rodrigues.

We live in a day and age where negativity sells, so if the positive nature of this post doesn’t appeal to you that is you personal choice.  But I urge you all to realize that in telling these stories we not only help keep the story alive, but maybe we bring more stories such as these to the surface.  We must not only never forget, but we must always continue to remind the rest of the world.

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Why this is my most important Tisha B’Av

 

benchdg2

This year, starting on the evening of August 10th till the evening of August 11th, the Jewish people commemorate the day known as Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av.  It is the day that commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and as it is universally recognized as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, it is also a day in which the Jewish people remember the greatest tragedies in our history.  Specifically for those of us in this generation, the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.  For me personally, in many ways this is my most important Tisha B’Av.

When I wrote the book Jew Face, telling about my parent’s experiences in Holland during the Nazi-occupation, one of the most remarkable aspects of writing it was that I felt as though I went back into time and was with my parents as young adults.  This experience, for lack of a better term, was an incredibly “cool” experience and to be honest one I loved experiencing.  But as is the case with so much in life there is a flip side.  In my recent trip to Amsterdam that same, I guess I will call it sensation, returned for the first time since writing the book.  Except this time it was not as pleasant.  Walking through Amsterdam, specifically the former Jewish neighborhoods, I felt the horror that took place between 1940 and 1945.  Standing in front of what was once the “NIZ”, the Dutch Jewish Hospital,  I could almost sense the Nazi trucks approaching, the soldiers storming the building, and knew that I was within meters of the place where my mother shouted to the chief Nazi administrator, ” why are you doing this?”, to which he replied, “ask the Rabbis”.  I walked on the street that was likely my father’s favorite street on any given Shabbat and could feel what was once an incredible presence of Judaism.  I walked through the streets of Amsterdam at times feeling what I could only describe as the presence of ghosts in what to me was in some ways a graveyard of what was once a thriving Jewish community.

I recognize that I can not know how much of this experience was real and how much of it was just something I felt from within, but since it was more an experience than an overall state of mind I don’t feel it matters one way or another.  What does matter however, as I get close to the commemoration of the saddest day of the Jewish year, that I felt the greatest sadness I have ever felt as a Jew for the plight of my people.  Intellectually I have understood the importance of Tisha B’Av for much of my life.  Emotionally however, I have never understood as I do today, and go into it with an understanding that makes this my most important Tisha B’Av.  A Tisha B’Av in which I have a better emotional understanding of the pain and suffering this day honors and remembers, and the hope that that same pain and suffering is not only never something the Jewish people ever experience again, but that the evil that causes it is never given the power to do that anywhere again or to anyone again on this earth.

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The Jewish Window of Amsterdam

Window

The Jewish Window of Amsterdam (street name has been distorted intentionally)

As I wrote this I realized this story is filled with so many of the attributes I believe exist in so much of today’s world, be it Jewish or not.  The 2 most prevalent in what you are about to read are on 2 different sides of the emotional spectrum. The first one is sadness, the second one is hope.  Spoiler alert and good news for those who prefer to feel optimism and inspiration from what they read.  I conclude with hope.

It should be noted as I start this piece that in my recent trip to Holland I spent all but one day in Amsterdam and only prayed in one synagogue, a warm and welcoming one in the Amsterdam suburb of Amstelveen.  So although I believe in the information I am sharing, I acknowledge that it is indeed based mostly on my opinion and on a relatively small sample of experience.  That being said, my feelings are feelings I feel strongly about and are also based on the truth of what Dutch Judaism once was.

It is also important that I mention that in all my interactions with anyone Jewish during my 6 days in Holland I found people to be friendly and agreeable.  Also, although I have heard a lot about European anti-Semitism and do not question the accuracy of the reports, I personally was exposed to no specific evidence of it during my trip. So although it is possible that infighting is still a thing in Dutch Jewry and it is certainly possible or even likely that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Holland as it is in so many parts of Europe, it would be disingenuous on my part to claim a negative experience where one doesn’t exist.

So then from a Jewish standpoint, what was it that pained me most about my recent trip to Holland? It had to do with how little of  Dutch Jewry was left and my perception of what so much of Judaism in Holland has become.  It’s become a tourist attraction.

Part of this is no surprise to anyone reading this piece.  After all, ask anyone about what they know about Amsterdam and they will undoubtedly mention Anne Frank’s house, the Portuguese Synagogue, or both.  Two places that hold different meaning to me than they do to so many others,  be they Jewish or not.  Although I appreciate the attention Anne Frank’s house brings to the history of the Jews in Holland and Europe, and I believe in anything that teaches the world the horrors of Nazi-occupation, having had a mother who hid during those years and survived to tell her story,  Anne Frank’s house is not so much for people like me as it is for people with no personal connection to the history.

The Portuguese Synagogue, a thing of beauty, was the synagogue my mother belonged to as a child.  In my recent visit to the place Dutch refer to as the “Esnoga”, more than half of my time was spent looking through the records to find membership cards of people I descend from.  When I walked into the main sanctuary I felt a connection, knowing that many years back there were many people related to me that called this place home, regardless of how regularly they attended.  As beautiful of a place as it is, and as many pictures as I took,  it was so much more to me than a mere tourist attraction.

The day after the event in which Wim de Haan gave the violin his father protected for my Uncle Bram to me and my siblings, I went on my own private tour of Amsterdam. On the canal ride we passed what the tour operator referred to as the old Jewish section.  When I went back to what was previously the Dutch Jewish Hospital (NIZ) and the Jewish Invalid Hospital (The Joodse Invalide), despite the powerful connections I felt, these institutions were brought down to very little more than a few plaques.

On the way back to the immediate area near the Portuguese Synagogue I found a bank of a canal that had a memorial of 200 residents of the immediate area. The memorial was known as the “Shadow Wall”, plaques put into the ground near the banks of the canal.

When I stood in front of the Esnoga, to the left was an entrance to a side street with a banner that read “the Jewish Quarter” where a Jewish Museum now stands. If  you cross to the right you find yourself on the Rappenburgerstraat, the street my father spoke of often and always represented the heart of my father’s Jewish life and the center of so much of Amsterdam’s Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish world.  I walked up and down the street, a street once filled with synagogues and Jewish schools, only to find another plaque and some buildings with some Hebrew writing.

In conversations I had with non-Jews while in Holland, I found them to be gracious, kind  and compassionate about what once was while also in many instances detached as anyone would be towards something so far removed from their reality.  In my contact with  Jewish people during my trip, as I indicated earlier I found them to be warm and pleasant, including my time praying in the synagogue in Amstelveen.  In my contact with both parties I came to the conclusion that neither the Jewish people in Amsterdam nor the non-Jewish Dutch citizens of Holland are responsible for what Dutch Jewry has become.  That being said, the reality as I saw it was that it is now more a tourist attraction than it is a thriving community.  As I walked through parts of a city that sometimes felt to me like a Jewish graveyard, a city at the very core of my roots, I felt an immense sadness.

But then I saw the window.  Having concluded the final part of my tour of Jewish Amsterdam I began to walk towards Amsterdam’s Central Station.  Walking past the market, numerous shops, bars and restaurants, I came to a corner with a souvenir store, where in the window above this little store I saw the most organic symbol of Judaism I had seen not only in all of Amsterdam, but anywhere in a long time.  The symbol  I would come to see as the faint heartbeat of what once was a city in which 1 in every 10 people were Jews.   In that window I saw a Menorah, 2 Sabbath candle holders, and a spice box used for the Havdalah ceremony on the conclusion of the Sabbath.  Although not something anyone would pay to see, for me personally it was one of the most fascinating images of my entire trip.

The fact that my perception of Judaism in Holland had dwindled down to not much more than a tourist attraction is not meant as an indictment of Dutch Jews or non-Jews, rather another reminder of the evil precision in which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party destroyed a civilization in Europe. That being said, that one small window in the center of Amsterdam felt to me like a flame that was never extinguished and a the hope that Judaism might one day thrive again in Amsterdam.

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

Ancestry_00007A

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.