Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Holland’s Heroes

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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

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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.

 


A Rabbi and friend’s tribute to my mother

Please read this beautiful sermon, given by Rabbi Michael Simon, family friend and not only my mother’s Rabbi for the last 10 years of her life but also who she referred to as her “5th son”. This sermon gives a wonderful and moving tribute to my Mom.  Thank you Michael.

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Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Kaveh El Adonai
          Over a breakfast with other rabbis last month the subject of our High Holiday sermons came up.  Well in the course of that conversation, one of the rabbis, whose wife is going through a serious illness herself, asked the following question.
 
            What can you say to your congregants who have either gone through, or are going through, some pain or hardship in their lives this year?  What can you say that can help them deal with their troubles? 
 
            Although there are no easy answers to these questions, at least I had a thought.  Because it is the exact same subject I had already planned on speaking to you about this morning, on Rosh Hashanah.
 
            You see, in thinking about Judaism’s response to these questions and to life in general, I am reminded of the story of a young American who moved to Israel shortly after the State’s establishment.  He applied to have a telephone installed in his home.  Three weeks later, he still had not heard from the phone company, so he took a trip to its office. 
 
            “When did you apply for the phone?” an official asked. 
 
            The American gave the precise date. 
 
            “But that’s only a few weeks ago.”  The official picked up a stack of much older applications, which had still not been filled.
 
            “There are so many people ahead of you,” he said.
 
            “Does that mean I have no hope?” 
 
            The Israeli looked up sternly.  “It is forbidden for a Jew to ever say, ‘I have no hope.’  No chance, maybe. But no hope, Never!”
 
            Now you know why the national anthem of the State of Israel is Hatikvah – the Hope!!
 
            But hope, Tikvah, is only part of our response to life’s difficulties.  We know that man cannot live by hope alone. 
           
            That is why, beginning with the month of Elul, twice each day, in the morning and evening, we add Psalm 27 to our liturgy.  Why Psalm 27? 
 
            Because that is King David’s story of his own struggles against adversity and hardships.  Look at the words David chooses.  “Adonai Ori V’yishee,” “The Lord is my light and my help, Whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the strength of my life, Whom shall I dread?”
 
            And then he concludes with the words, “Lulei Heemanti L’rot b’tuv Adonai;” If I have faith to see God’s goodness.  “Kaveh el Adonai chazak v’yametz libecha v’kaveh el Adonai.”  “Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! And look to the Lord!”  
 
            Faith, Hope, Strength and Courage!  Aren’t these the very qualities we all need to get through life’s ups and downs?  Of course they are!
 
            Before FDR famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” King David, as well as other figures from our literature, our history, and our liturgy, remind us that if we place our trust in God, if we have hope and faith, if we have strength and courage, we can face our greatest trials and obstacles, and we can overcome life’s challenges, without giving in to fear or despair. 
 
            Think about it.  Wasn’t it just last week, wasn’t it this very same message, that helped us get through the potential devastation of Hurricane Irma as it has also done for other disasters we have faced and will unfortunately continue to face?
 
            And you know what else?  If you were to take a moment and really think about it, aren’t some of the most inspiring people throughout history, not just King David, looked up to precisely because they exhibited these very same traits; often under the most trying of circumstances?
 
            Can you perhaps think of some of them as you sit here today?  People who you have admired over the years, not just for their status or their talents, but because of what they faced and overcame to achieve that status?  Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Elie Wiesel, to name a few?  They all had hope and faith.  They all exhibited strength and courage to overcome obstacles and succeed.  
 
            Here’s one example.  In 1986, when the famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency, was finally set free by the Soviet Union, he explained that during his many years of imprisonment in the gulag he had turned to the Book of Psalms, specifically to that final verse of Psalm 27, to help him cope and give him the hope and courage to endure.
 
            Why did Sharansky rely on that line to help him get through?  Because it inspired him to not be meek, timid, or subservient.  “No matter our circumstances,” Sharansky said, “we are reminded that we can look to God for light and for the courage to face whatever comes our way and resolve to overcome those difficulties.”
 
            When Sharansky was finally freed and arrival in Israel, his friends and admirers carried him to the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and to celebrate his freedom.  Even at that moment, onlookers observed that he was still holding tight to his beloved Book of Psalms.
 
            While we might never be able to eliminate life’s difficulties, while we never know when hardship or sorrow or illness comes upon us, we do have the ability to react to it in a more positive way; by relying on our faith in God, our hope for the future, and our own internal courage and strength. 
 
            And it is precisely this message, that needs to resonate and remain with us as we begin this New Year.  Because this message is a quintessentially Jewish one.  Certainly on an individual level, but yes, even on a societal level as well, we must always believe that things can get better and then do our part to make that so.
           
            And we act with that way because Judaism requires us, asks of us, even demands of us, that if we face life’s problems and overcome them, we then repay God by helping others, and by inspiring others through our own actions, to do so as well. 
 
            That is a Jewish life.  That is what Psalm 27 teaches us to do.
 
            You know what else?  You don’t only have to look for a famous person to draw this inspiration from.  That’s because I am sure that each of you sitting here can think of an example from your own lives, someone you know or have known, who inspired you, and who has helped you get through difficult times because of their own faith and hope and courage and strength.
 
            I’ll share one.  This past February, Rabbi Amnon Haramati, a High School teacher of mine, passed away.  Just so you know, the only difference between Rabbi Haramati and God was that God didn’t think that He was Rabbi Haramati.
 
            But if you looked at him during class, every so often you would see him wince.  His eyes would squint ever so slightly.  A sour crease would envelope his lips.  Sometimes he would rub the side of his head with his fingertips.  On the right side, if I remember correctly, was about a one inch square indentation, as if a chisel had been taken to his skull.  There were rumors his skull harbored a metal plate, a souvenir of Israel’s War of Independence.  But he never spoke about it.  We never knew what had happened.
 
            In his short but moving acceptance speech upon receiving the Covenant Award as an outstanding Jewish educator in 1994, he finally told his story. 
 
            One day, in the summer of 1948, as a member of the Israel Defense Forces, he was critically wounded near the walls of the Old City.  He was brought to the monastery which served as the temporary residence of Hadassah Hospital where he was declared dead on arrival and left in the corridor. 
 
            That night a nurse passed by and heard a groan from his bed.  She alerted the doctors who rushed him into the operating room.  They treated his injuries and successfully revived him.  Although he left the operating room breathing on his own he remained in a deep coma.  The diagnosis was that if he even emerged from the coma he would be blind the rest of his life. 
 
            The following night a nurse wanted to read.  So she took a flashlight and chose his bed to sit at because she was sure that she wouldn’t disturb the blind, comatose patient.  However, while she was reading, he uttered the Hebrew word “aish,” meaning fire.  The nurse thought that maybe this meant that there was some vision and so she called the chief of the eye department, who came, examined him, and determined that there was indeed hope for his eyes.  In time, he responded to treatment, came out of the coma, was able to see and eventually left the hospital.
 
            About a year later he was facing a medical board who told him that he was about to be discharged from the Israeli army as a disabled war veteran due to his head wounds.  He was asked by the board what were his plans.  He answered that he would like to continue his academic studies.  The medical team told him don’t even try, you will never succeed.
 
            However he remembered his Talmud teacher who told him a Jew may not despair.   Never say there is no hope.  And he remembered King David who said, hope, look to God.  However just having hope is not easy.  There are always difficulties on the way.  Therefore King David said, be strong, and be courageous.
 
            By having hope and faith and courage and strength himself, Rabbi Haramati continued his studies, became a revered teacher, and gave hope and inspired others.
 
            As I asked, do you know of people in your own lives, including yourselves maybe, that might have a similar story that has inspired you?  I know for certain that many of you do.  Rabbi Haramati is certainly one I knew.  But let me share with you another story of hope and faith and strength and courage. 
 
            It’s the story of a young girl who was born in Amsterdam, Holland.  And no, I’m not talking about Anne Frank.  Her mother died when she was thirteen, leaving her with her father and brother.  But she never despaired.  When the Nazis came to power her father, brother and then fiancé were all taken away; to eventually perish.  She still did not despair nor give up hope or faith. 
 
            She studied to become a nurse.  She stood up to the Nazis when they confronted her in the Jewish hospital.  And she survived the Holocaust thanks to her faith and the heroic efforts of her future husband and a Christian family who hid her. 
 
            When the war was over she found herself pregnant and alone, giving birth and developing a severe illness.  But again, she did not despair.  Through her faith, hope, strength and courage, Sipora Groen rebuilt her life which included five children, 12 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren before passing away this past April at the age of 95.
 
            I want to share with you something that Rabbi David Glanzberg-Kranin said at her funeral because it was the perfect description of what I already knew that I would be speaking about today.  How to live your life without despair, and with the faith, hope, strength and courage to live that life no matter the circumstances. 
 
            He said,
 
            “Here’s the important lesson for all of us.  There are external forces in our lives that are completely out of our control.  You’ve all heard the ancient Jewish teaching: “Stuff happens.” For all of us, stuff will happen that we were not responsible for; there will be circumstances that we did not create.  But in case you had any doubt, here is what Sipora’s life reminds us:
 
            We do have control over how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.  We can choose love instead of hatred; we can choose laughter instead of bitterness; we can choose strength and resilience rather than giving in to despair; we can choose to continue to learn—even in our 90’s—which is the decade that Sipora read Torah and Haftarah for the first time.
 
            We can choose to speak our minds like Sipora would always do telling Americans how prudish we are–and advocating that both marijuana and prostitution ought to be legalized in this country—as it is in Holland.  We can choose to love for every moment we are blessed to live as Sipora’s family will tell you how blessed they were to receive so much of that love.
 
            And we can learn that it is never too late to develop a crush!  Sipora really did have a crush on Bill Clinton and she thinks that secretly, he, too, may have had a crush on her.
 
            And we can learn from Sipora to put your actions into deeds.  Sipora frequently went around telling her story about surviving the War to both children and to adults—in her heavily Dutch-accented English—often for 45 minutes without a pause—and with nary a peep to be heard in the room as she spoke.
 
            And there is one thing that Sipora would do after every such talk: She would give each person present a hug.  In that hug, Sipora would convey something unbelievably profound to people who had often been very wounded by life.
 
            “So have I been wounded,” that hug would convey.  And yet life is worth living—and each of us is worthy of love.  Sipora Groen gave out literally thousands of these holy hugs over the course of her life.
 
            Talk about faith, hope, strength and courage. Sipora delivered it.”
 
            As if those words from Psalm 27, which we recite during these days of introspection and repentance, didn’t inspire us enough, then let Sipora and others like her, be our role models to always inspire us to remain hopeful, to remain strong, to remain faithful, and to remain courageous no matter what comes our way. 
 
            Let us always have faith in both God and our fellow man despite how difficult that faith might be at times.  And let us use Rosh Hashanah to rekindle the hope and faith in those in whom we might have lost faith with this past year.  And yes, that can include either God or our government and other institutions. 
 
            I’m not naïve enough to believe that if you just have hope and faith, all your problems will disappear like magic.  And I’m certainly not naïve enough to believe that if you just have hope and faith, you will suddenly be cured of whatever illness afflicts you.  We know that life doesn’t work that way.
 
            But I will tell you what I do know, what I do believe, and what I am sure about.  That without faith, without hope, without strength, and without courage, we can never, ever, overcome whatever difficulties life throws at us.   
 
            And I also know this, and I can say this, because unfortunately there are a number of you sitting in this room who have dealt with unbearable pain in your lives including the loss of children.  You are indeed here because you have had the faith, hope, strength and courage to see you through your pain and are an inspiration to all of us. 
 
            To ignore or deny the realities of life would be foolish.  But to give up and deny yourselves the tremendous goodness and beauty in this world, in our families, in our communities, and in our houses of worship, and the hope, faith, strength and courage we derive from them, would be equally, if not more, foolish.
 
            My answer to the question asked by those rabbis at breakfast a month ago?  Kaveh el Adonai Chazak V’yametz Libecha V’Kaveh El Adonai.  Even at your lowest moments, never lose faith, never lose hope.  Have the strength and courage to carry on.      
 
             I’ll conclude with perhaps a modern translation of Psalm 27, from the late, great Jerry Lewis,
 
            When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark
            Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
            Walk on, walk on
With hope in your hearts
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
 
            May we all be blessed with a year full of health, happiness, prosperity and peace.  May we all be written into the Book of Life. 
 
            And may we all live our lives with strength and courage, and with hope and faith in God.   Kaveh el Adonai chazak v’yametz libecha v’kaveh el adonai.
 
            Amen 

On International Woman’s Day: A Tribute to the Famous Woman I admire most. My mother

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Today is International Woman’s Day and one of my social media friends posted the question, “Which famous woman do you admire most?”  Although my initial reaction was to say Golda Meir, I chose to change my answer to Sipora Groen.  Sipora Groen is my mother, and although my book about my parents and how they survived the 4 years of Nazi occupation in Holland isn’t the bestseller I naturally hoped it would be, I think enough people know about my mother to classify her as famous.  If that’s not enough, let me tell you why how admirable she is makes up for where you may not consider her famous enough for this discussion.

Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes was born in Amsterdam on January 1, 1922.  Sipora lost her mother when she was a young girl of only 13 and  was left with a large share of the responsibility in raising her younger brother Bram.  Prior to the war Sipora fell in love and got engaged to a young man named Hans.  At the outbreak of the war in Holland she was studying to be a nurse, and when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam and began the process of rounding up the Jews and transporting them to the death camps, Sipora was living in the nurse’s quarters of the Jewish hospital.  Her personal life was turned upside down seemingly forever when not only her father and brother fled Amsterdam to ultimately be captured and murdered by the Nazis, but the love of her life and fiance Hans was taken away to Auschwitz.  Alone and feeling hopeless, all she had was the work she had taking care of the sick patients.  If not for Nardus Groen, my father of blessed memory,  the man she would later spend her life with, she likely would have been transported to her death along with the majority of the patients.  Instead she began a journey with Nardus through the Dutch countryside that took her from place to place, through homes of righteous Dutch people who put the value of life over religious belief or personal danger.  Ultimately she ended up in the home of Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte, the righteous and courageous couple that risked sacrificing everything in order to give her a safe home in the small town of Lemerlerveld for almost a year and a half until the war ended.

As the war ended in Europe, Nardus joined the Dutch Marines to help in the fight against the Japanese, not knowing till later that Sipora was pregnant with his child.  Part of the reason Nardus didn’t know was because originally Sipora didn’t know.  She took a job in a local hospital when upon feeling tired and worn down she was told by the Director of the hospital that she was indeed with child.  She moved back to Amsterdam only to find her home now occupied by the housekeeper who was with the family before the war.  The housekeeper pushed Sipora to leave the house despite her now advanced pregnancy, forcing her to take a very small apartment with very little heat in winter. If not for the help of her father’s childhood friend who gave money for her new home, Sipora might have found herself pregnant and homeless right right after spending 5 years running and hiding from the Nazis and losing so many of the people closest to her.  Just a few months after the birth of her son Marcel, Sipora would contract the lung disease known as pleurisy and would spend months in the hospital away from what felt like the one hope she had in life, her newborn son.

With his love for Sipora and a now a son, Nardus chose to leave the military and return to Holland where he would try to help rebuild the now decimated Jewish community.  He would be ordained as a Rabbi and start the process of building a family with Sipora who was now his wife.

Nardus and Sipora would have 5 children and would move often from place to place.  They ended up in America in the late 1950’s where they would live till 1976.  In 1976 they would move back to Holland where Nardus would take over a synagogue in the town of Arnhem while taking on responsibilities of the Jewish communities in 6 provinces throughout the country.  At the same time Sipora would become Director of the Jewish old age home in Arhem where she would be loved and respected by residents and employees alike.   After years of hard work between the 2 of the them, and setting themselves up for their senior years, Nardus and Sipora would retire, first to the Dutch seaside town of Zandvoort and later to Boynton Beach, Florida.

On June 13 of this year it will be 10 years since my father Nardus Groen passed away.  I’ve learned this about my mother during the time since his death.  This is in many ways my mother Sipora’s 5th life.  The first life, the most innocent and peaceful was the one she lived till the age of 13 when she lost her mother.  The second was the next 5 years, a time of peace in Europe but a time of both love and difficulty for Sipora.   The 3rd, and unquestionably the hardest was the 5 years of the war, a time we can try to comprehend but never fully understand.  The 4th were the relatively normal but still often very difficult years following the war, where she and Nardus worked hard and sacrificed to raise 5 children, experiencing all the trials and tribulations any family would during decades of normal life.  This was the longest of her lives to date as it would last till the death of Nardus over 60 years later.

The 5th life, and in some ways the most remarkable one is the one she is living now.  It is the life she has lived since my father’s death 10 years ago.  On January 1st Sipora Groen turned 95 years old.  This is a woman who reinvented herself upon becoming a widow while simultaneously honoring the memory of the man she still loves today.  She drives, she shops, she host Mahjong games, threw her own 95th birthday party on her own insistence, takes plane and train rides alone, is an active member of her synagogue and even has her own Facebook account. But what is most remarkable is the love of life she displays and the warmth she shows for family and friends, a warmth that can only be credited to a strength of will and character unimaginable to most of us.

In those moments when I would feel unreasonable self-pity I would sometimes ask myself, why can’t I be that guy?  The guy born into money with no worries, or the guy with incredible talent recognized by millions, or that person living the charmed life where very little ever goes wrong.  But not so long ago I realized I am that guy, because I am the son of a 95 year old mother who you just read about and who not only has gone through and achieved everything I wrote about, but has the incredible state of mind to enjoy it and share her joys with those around her.   You want to recognize someone admirable on International Woman’s Day, you need go no further than my mother, Sipora Groen.

 

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