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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