Tag Archives: Sipora Groen

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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And 79 years later…

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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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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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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 5: Sipora Groen

20170318_211713 (1)Sipora Katarina Rodrigues-Lopes Groen is the last installment in 5 Passages to Bram and is about Bram’s older sister who in many ways has grown larger in stature since her passing.  Part of that is due to her children who have taken solace and joy in telling her story,  while part may be something far less easy to explain and significantly more spiritual.

Born on January 1, 1922, Sipora, my mother, had what might be looked at as a few different lives.  Part of that story can be told in looking at her name. Although never a large percentage of the Jewish population in Holland, the Sephardic community was a very strong and a significant part of Judaism in Holland since the influx of Spanish-Portuguese Jews. In fact to this day, when speaking about Dutch Jewry, many of the worlds Jews speak of the “Esnoga”, The beautiful Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.

With all the names I mentioned to start this piece, the simplicity with which my mother felt comfortable living her life can almost be seen by the fact that in her early years she was Sipora Rodrigues, and her later years she was Sipora Groen.  But to clarify, simplicity is often a sign of depth that reflects the character of a person focused on things far more important than what people call you.  This was the case with my mother.

I make no apologies for the bias in this piece, partially because of the words I have heard spoken about my mother during and after her life on earth.  She was the oldest of 2 children, her brother Bram born when she was approaching 3 years of age.  She was very close to Bram, a closeness that only got stronger when they lost their mother when Sipora was 13 and Bram was 10.  Despite the pain of being without a mother at such an early age, this very powerful loss was a pivotal event in her life, shattering her innocence early and helping her to acquire a strength that saw her through the rest of her life, a life that saw loss and devastation most of us could not fathom.

Engaged to Hans de Jong before the war, she would survive the war losing her fiance, her father, her brother and countless friends and relatives to the murderous Nazi war machine.  She would however come out with what in many ways was a new and redefined family.  The te Kieftes who hid her for 16 months would be like family for the rest of their lives,  as would their descendants for the rest of hers, and the man who would take it on himself to see to her safety, Nardus Groen, my father, would become her husband for over 6 decades till his passing in 2012.

Besides being a loyal wife and nurturing mother, Sipora was also a person of deep character and kindness.  She would care for people living through their last days and give a caring ear for people who needed someone to listen to them and share a lifetime worth of experience.  She  would redefine herself after Nardus died in a way most people would never have been able to, finding new ways to enjoy life, sharing her story with audiences in schools, synagogues and even prisons.  But what may very well have made her more special than anything else was the pure joy she had in being alive, a joy she shared with others in an inspirational manner.

My brother Marcel who has met presidents and movie stars referred to our mother as a rock star. She truly was a wonderful person to be around and had a character as strong and kind as anyone you will ever meet.  Since her passing on April 19th, 2017 it has remained important for me to honor her memory and legacy.  She is number 5 in this series because, well, for those of you who don’t yet know, you will certainly know next week, when I tell you the story of how I have been blessed to honor her memory and the memory of her lost brother in a way I could have never imagined.

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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 2: Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte

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Jewish teachings say that the very existence of our world rests on the righteousness of 36 individuals. It is believed that these 36 are hidden, inasmuch as there is no public declaration by them or any public organization or group mentioning who these people may be.  All we know is that the belief is that without them the world loses its very foundation of decency and kindness.  Although these are teachings no one can ever prove, as I got older and acquired a greater understanding, I had all the proof I needed in the people I referred to as Oom Bertus & Tante Geisje.

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In the waning months of the year 1944, Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte were the parents of a 7 year old boy and expecting parents of what would turn out to be their first of 2 daughters.  They lived a quiet life in the Dutch countryside.  Although the war was hard on the entire country, had they chosen not to be involved in the consequences of the Nazi occupation, they could have lived a risk free life without concern of any retribution.  But the te Keiftes were not wired that way.  Bertus’s activities in the resistance lead to the fateful day when a short, pretty, dark-haired and dark complexioned woman showed up at their door soaking wet in the middle of the night.   Bertus took one look at this woman and his heart melted with compassion. Geeske immediately saw to her well-being, providing her with dry clothing and a warm meal   For the next 16 months the woman would live with them in Lemerlerved, sleeping every night in a room Bertus built under his workplace so that she would not be detected had the Nazis showed up unexpectedly to do a random search.  For the 16 months that the woman stayed with the te Keiftes she was fed, cared for and treated like a member of the family.  The one man in town known for being sympathetic to the Nazi cause was warned of the consequences should any harm come to the woman.

Those 16 months would be the foundation of a friendship so special it would go beyond the woman, Bertus and Geeske.  It would carry on for generations, making 2 entirely different families see each other as one family, no matter the distance, time or religious belief.  The woman they hid and whose life they saved was my mother Sipora Groen, born Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes.  The relationship was so strong that to this day descendants on both sides refer to each other as family.  I loved going to visit them as a kid, enjoying it so much that I miss them till today and truly believe that if not for Oom Bertus and Tante Geisje, I would not be here to share this story.

I remember Lubertus & Geeske te Kiefte with love and honor always.

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5 Passages to Bram: Passage 3: Nardus Groen

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This installment of 5 Passages to Bram is the brief story of my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, of Blessed Memory.  The week picked to tell his story is not a random choice, as 2 days ago was his Yahrtzeit, the Jewish calendar day that commemorates his passing away 12 years ago at the age of 87.

Born December 18, 1919 in Rotterdam Holland, Nardus was one of 5 children. Of his 4  siblings, 2 brothers and 2 sisters, only his sister Elizabeth did not make it out of the war.When he was 6 years old his parents moved the family to Amsterdam where he thrived in the Jewish community.  Blessed with a photographic memory, Nardus would acquire immense Jewish knowledge at a very young age, learning much of the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book and the Chumash, the 5 books of Moses by heart before the age of 18. He loved being active in the Jewish community and gravitated to every opportunity to learn more and more at a young age.

But there was another side to my father. A side that was able to face reality no matter how harsh.  It was this character trait that allowed him to see the truth about the events unfolding in Europe long before most other people did.  This caused him to join the Dutch National Guard, something unheard of in his community, and caused him to join the resistance as soon as the Nazis occupied Holland.

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Although this would serve him well as a contributing factor in not only surviving the 5 years of occupation and brutality, but to save my mother Sipora, he would often say when speaking of his and other’s survival the Hebrew phrase, Hakohl Talooy B’Mazal, Everything depends on Fortune.

He would remarkably escape the Hollandse Schouwberg, the Dutch concert hall set up as a midway point for Jews and “troublemakers” scheduled for transportation to Auschwitz, and would find a way to sneak out of the Labor Camp known as Kamp Erika soon after digging what was earmarked as his own grave.  At the conclusion of the war in Europe he would join the Dutch Marines, as seen in the picture above.

Following the war he would receive Rabbinical ordination from what was left of the Dutch Rabbinate and would eventually be appointed Chief Rabbi in Surinam, Dutch Guiana.  After moving with the family to Cincinnati, Ohio in the mid 50’s he would study with the then head of Agudah for North America, Rabbi Eliezer Silver from whom he would receive his second Rabbinical ordination. He and his wife Sipora would go on to have 5 children, 12 grandchildren, and a still growing number of great grandchildren.

I was fortunate in life to have my 2 greatest heroes be the people I referred to as Mom and Dad.  My Dad would pass away on June 13, 2007 at the age of 87. May his memory be blessed.

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On Mom’s Birthday

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As I wish everyone a Happy New Year, I also must acknowledge that today January 1 would have been my mother’s 96th birthday.  A little over a year ago when we discussed with her how to celebrate her 95th birthday she made it very clear that what she wanted was a party at home and a party that she would organize and plan.  Details of the party aside, it should be deemed a success because she was very happy with the outcome and had a wonderful time.  This is important, together with the picture I chose for this piece, because it magnifies the true way to remember her on her first birthday not together with us on this earth.

Being happy isn’t always easy.  Being happy takes work.  You can throw caution to the wind, make very little effort to make your life more fulfilling and pleasing, but the only way you truly stand a chance at being happy is to want it passionately and make the efforts needed to increase the likelihood.  This was a lesson I learned from my mother, a woman who experienced hardships that would have broken most of us.  I learned this not as much from the words she spoke as much as the actions she took.  This, maybe more than anything would be how she would want to be remembered today.

I know from conversations I have had, that my mother’s spiritual impact since she has passed has not only been significant for me but it has been significant for many.  Her death was relevant to us all, but her existence for us now is not about death, it’s about a living soul, a soul that has outlived the body and is still very much with us.  Is this a reflection of her true pursuit of happiness and fulfillment, or is it the other way around.  Was my mother’s powerful spirit, at its roots, what drove her to work to a better and happier life?

I am not sure that question can ever be answered, but I do know this.  On this January 1st, even as we miss her tremendously, if we haven’t done so already we should all lift up our glasses and celebrate and smile when thinking about her, not cry or mourn.  She gave us a lot of reason to do so and would have wanted nothing less.

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