Tag Archives: Florida

When Past, Present, Milk & Honey collide

Alexandra, Vince, and David

In the latter months of 2012, Alexandra Van Hasselt was searching for family members on the internet. In her efforts she would make contact with Ron Van Hasselt, a distant cousin on her father’s side. In his own research, Ron came across information regarding one of his relatives, David Van Hasselt. He found a book in which David Van Hasselt’s death in the Mauthausen concentration camp was documented. The book he found was the book I authored, Jew Face. David Van Hasselt was the first cousin of my mother Sipora and someone very special to her.

After having contact with Alexandra, Ron would forward her my contact information. Alexandra’s father, Vince, would subsequently contact me via email. Vince’s father was Eddie Van Hasselt, the brother of David and also my mother’s first cousin. As good fortune would have it, Vince, together with his wife Melanie and daughter Alexandra, were living in Florida, less than an hour from my mother, who at the time was 90 years old. They would meet, Vince and I would meet in New York, and little by little the whole family would get to know each other and a special connection would develop between many members of my family, and Vince, Melanie and Alexandra. But of all the relationships, perhaps the most special of the relationships was between my mother and Alexandra. Having grown up in a household with diverse culture, my mother played piano, sang, and had a tremendous love for the arts. Alexandra, a young girl of 15, was already a very talented dancer, with a beautiful singing voice and a growing love for acting. The bond that would develop between these 2 newly acquainted cousins, separated by 85 years, was as unique as any imaginable. They would sing together, have long talks with each other, and form the most unlikely of friendships. In Alexandra, my mother saw her younger self, a young lady filled with talent, joy and promise. In my mother, Alexandra saw a kindred spirit, whose age and experience and love, gave her extra encouragement to pursue her dreams and be someone who my mother could live through vicariously. For Alexandra, although saddened by mother’s passing in 2017, that special relationship would always stay with her.

All of this would be what would make today, October 30, 2022 so special. Today I got to see Alexandra perform in Jerry Herman’s play, Milk and Honey. Based in Israel in the early 1960s, this wonderful production was playing at the Wick Theater in Boca Raton, Florida. As I sat there, next to 2 of my brothers, my sister-in-law, and Vince and Melanie, watching Alexandra perform on stage with her powerful and talented presence, in a play about Israel, the magic of what took place 10 years ago and in subsequent years, came back to me in full force. I felt an almost mystical connection between past and present, made even more palpable by the young character in the play who was 9 months pregnant and due to give birth at any time. Her name, Sipora. After the play when I asked Alexandra how it felt when she learned that there was a character in the play of that name, the same name as my mother, she replied that it was very special and that on this day she had thought about my mother a lot.

I know I am far from alone in feeling that the importance of telling the story of what took place under Nazi-occupation can’t be overstated. But I’ve also felt that in telling the story and opening up this connection with the past, we have the opportunity to witness the continuation of life in its most poignant manner. In 1941, when word of David Van Hasselt’s death would reach Amsterdam, it would fall on my mother, a young woman of just 19, to inform David’s mother, Vince’s grandmother, of the death of her son. Today, more than 80 years later, David’s great niece Alexandra would perform on stage in front of 3 of Sipora’s children, and his nephew Vince, in a story about nothing other than Israel, the Jewish state. With all the trials and tribulations life has to offer, it is hard to find something more indicative of how life goes on, and even thrives, as this connection between past and present.

The play and the performance were beautiful, but perhaps nothing was more beautiful than the lesson learned from all the events surrounding it for me and my family. The lesson that what we do matters, and that who we come from stays with us forever.

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


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.









U.S. Fighter Jets Getting the Job done!

fighter-jets-American-Fighter-Jets-1For all the times myself and others criticize and call on our government to protect us, it is also necessary to recognize the times they do just that.  An unresponsive jet has been escorted by US Fighter Jets into Cuban airspace, at which time the windows of the plane were described as frosted.  The plane reportedly took off from Rochester, NY around 8:30 this morning and had a flight plan taking it to Naples, Florida.  No more details seem to be available at this time.

I want to take this opportunity to publicly state that between this incident and the one taking place within the past week when a plane was unresponsive near Washington, D.C., all signs indicate the military is prepared and keeping a close eye on potential threats.  We’ve heard the words and in the past week we’ve seen the actions.  Thank you to the military and the U.S. government for getting it done.  Please keep up the good work.  We all need you.



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Congressional Tribute to Nardus Groen

[Congressional Record Volume 153, Number 112 
(Friday, July 13, 2007)]
[Extensions of Remarks]
[Page E1512]
From the Congressional Record Online through the 
Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]

                     TRIBUTE TO 
                 RABBI NARDUS GROEN


                            HON. JOE SESTAK

                            of pennsylvania

                    in the house of representatives

                        Thursday, July 12, 2007

  Mr. SESTAK. Madam Speaker, I rise today to recognize and honor the 
life of a husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, brother, 
son, veteran, and community leader--Rabbi Nardus Groen, who passed away 
on Wednesday, June 13 after living a full life of community service.
  Rabbi Nardus Groen was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on 
December 18, 1919 and grew to become a hero and a family man. As a 
member of the Dutch Underground during World War II, Rabbi Groen was 
captured by German soldiers multiple times and heroically managed to 
escape each time. One particular act of heroism occurred in 1940 when 
Groen was guarding a Jewish hospital in the Netherlands during its 
evacuation. Although the patients had escaped, Groen was protecting a 
group of Jewish nurses as the Nazis approached. Selflessly, he slipped 
on a Red Cross arm band and escorted the nurses into a room. When the 
Nazis asked who was in the room, Groen explained that he was caring for 
patients with Scarlet Fever. Fearing the illness, the Nazis spared the 
Jewish nurses, including Groen's future wife, the former Sipora 
  After World War II, Rabbi Nardus Groen served at Camp Lejeune, North 
Carolina under the American Marine Corps. Following his stint with the 
Marines, Groen worked as a psychologist at a Jewish orphanage for 
Holocaust survivors. He helped countless youths cope with one of the 
greatest tragedies in human history. Two years later, he began to serve 
as a rabbi at the oldest congregation in the Western Hemisphere in 
Surinam. Groen led a mixed Sephardic Ashkenazic congregation in Surinam 
until 1952 when he served as a rabbi in Einhoven, the Netherlands. He 
became one of the foremost leaders of his community, uniting two 
different cultures in one synagogue.
  Nardus Groen moved to Lansdale, PA as a renowned rabbi in 1963 where 
he served as Beth Israel Synagogue's rabbi for 13 years. He provided 
guidance and spiritual leadership to Beth Israel's community, helping 
his community grow to the vibrant Jewish center it is today. Groen 
moved back to Europe and retired in 1986 as the chief rabbi for the 
eastern six provinces of the Netherlands. He lived what he preached and 
will be remembered across the Netherlands.
  After his retirement, Rabbi Groen and his loving wife Sipora lived in 
the Netherlands and Delray Beach, Florida after his retirement before 
permanently settling in Florida in 2005. Rabbi Groen spent his last 
years as a loving father to Marcel Groen, Leo Groen, Ruben Groen, David 
Groen, and Debra Groen; a loving brother to Meyers Groen and Sophia 
Groen; a loving grandfather and great grandfather to twelve 
grandchildren and six great grandchildren; and a loving husband to 
Sipora Groen.
  Madam Speaker, I ask you to join me in honoring and remembering Rabbi 
Nardus Groen. Through his hard work, Rabbi Groen has spread hope across 
three continents and will be remembered as a strong leader, a caring 
mentor, and a true mensch.