Tag Archives: NIZ

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

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

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

Thank you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Mom…..Just thank you.

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August 13, 1943

69 years ago today was Friday August 13, 1943.  In Holland this was a time when as a Jew, if you were fortunate enough to still be alive, your life was in constant peril.  If you did not look Jewish you still needed to have a false identity and what was perceived as a benefit or purpose to the Nazi occupiers. The Jewish institutions were being systematically depleted and destroyed with the ultimate goal of total extermination.  The NIZ, the hospital where my mother lived and worked as a nurse, had reached that point where the final raid was upon them.  As a young pretty woman who was clearly Jewish and one who had seen her whole world turned upside down, Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes was on the verge of giving up.  She would find the strength and with the support of Nardus Groen would find her way out of the NIZ.

In many ways their story takes on its greatest significance on this day, August 13, 1943, a day when their connection became strong and their travels began.  The following is the books Prologue and shows the events of this fateful day.

PROLOGUE
The date was Friday, August 13, 1943, and it felt like the worst moment of Sipora’s young life. She knew that the Germans were in the building and getting closer to finding her. She had already been through so much and she knew that the situation was going to get a lot worse before it got better. Her will to live was being taken over by despair. She was not the type of woman who would ever do anything to speed up her own death, but she also did not feel like running or fighting. So she decided that she would just wait on the third floor and when the Nazi soldiers located her,
she would willingly leave with the rest of the patients and hospital staff . At least then she felt as though she could do some good by making the sick and elderly patients a little more comfortable.
Nardus, however, had no intention of allowing this to happen. As had been the case since the beginning of the Nazi invasion of Amsterdam, he instinctively knew that whatever Jews were not murdered instantly would instead suffer greatly through torture, experimentation, rape, or brutal slave labor. Since he found Sipora before the soldiers did, he knew he had to get her out. And to a man like Nardus, it did not matter what Sipora thought of this idea. It was going to happen his way. And that was that.

When Sipora saw Nardus, she had already sunk so deep into
hopelessness she wasn’t even able to feel any sense of relief. And she was determined to let him know. “I am just going to wait here and let them take me too,” she told Nardus.

“They will need a nurse for the trip. If nothing else, I can make
them feel more comfortable.”

Some moments define an individual, and other moments can define a relationship between two individuals. In many ways, what was about to take place would define much of Nardus and Sipora’s relationship. True to his nature, Nardus was not suggesting or asking what would happen next. What he was doing was telling Sipora what would happen next.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said in his straight-to-the-point manner, “since you are going to your death anyway, and that is your plan, I will throw you out the window right now myself. At least then you will die quickly. Either way you will die.”

Sipora was crying now. “What’s the point?” she said. “There’s no hope. My family is gone; your family is gone. They’re even taking sick and old patients from here and transporting them out of the city.”

Knowing that he needed to remain calm and in control, Nardus made it very clear to Sipora what was to happen next.

“Get up and let’s get out of here. We will find a way to survive this. All you have to do is trust me and listen to what I tell you to do.”
Although what she was experiencing felt like hell, Sipora was at least able to move now. What made the difference was that someone else, someone she was growing to trust more and more by the day, was taking control and leading her in what at least felt like a better direction.

Neither Nardus nor Sipora had any idea what was to come next, but it did not matter. The only thing that mattered now was that Nardus would never allow either one of them to just sit and wait to be killed. At this moment, which signified all the drama, horror, and significance of the times they were living through, these two people were thrust together in a way that set the tone for all that was yet to come.


A TASTE OF THE BOOK

With the release of the book “Jew Face: A story of love and heroism in Nazi occupied Holland” scheduled for release on April 13, 2012, I will be putting up photographs daily that pertain to important events and stories from the book.  The book is the story of my parents, Nardus and Sipora Groen mainly during the period  between 1940-1945.   Today’s picture is of the “NIZ” (Nederlandse Israelitsche Ziekenhuis ) which was the main Jewish Hospital in Holland up until the Nazi occupation.  When looking at the photograph, take note on the left side of the building where it says “Zusterhuis”.  This was the nurses quarters and is of significant importance in the book’s Prologue and in future chapters.