This article is the first in a two-part series.
My mother didn’t die when so many others did – and that means she lived to give birth to me.
I write about this now, because it has everything to do with today, even though the cataclysm in which so many perished happened more than 75 years ago. I owe my life, in part, to people who were willing to risk theirs, whose names I will never know.
The story is etched in my bones. I remember its telling and retelling as far back as my early childhood memories. The details are blurred with the passing of time. No one who lived it is still alive. I would not know how to verify the specific facts. So I write this story to the best of my memory, knowing its truth in the deepest and widest sense.
My mother’s family were Dutch Jews with a several century history of calling Holland their home. They were Sephardic Jews, descendants of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. They came from a people who had a well-refined intuition about when it was time to flee and had found the ways to do so.
More Jews from Holland died in the Holocaust than from any other Western European country. An often used estimate is 75%. Other estimates range as high as 90%.
How did this part of my family manage to survive? And what might be the implications for our times of climate crisis, when we are already living in what is called “The Sixth Extinction” (with dozens of species going extinct every day), when the future of life as we know it may hang in the balance?
My mother’s family considered themselves Dutch first, as did many Dutch Jews. They were only nominally religious, yet proud of their history as Sephardic Jews. My Grandfather was a professional classical musician. He played woodwinds (bassoon, oboe, clarinet) with the Dutch symphony. My grandmother was a visual artist. She was born and raised in Amsterdam, where most of Holland’s Jews lived, in a vibrant neighborhood with a historic theater a half block from her home and the Amsterdam zoo only a block away.
During World War I, my grandmother’s parents (my great-grandparents) took in a German Jewish orphan called “Ulie.” She was raised as my grandmother’s little sister. When Ulie grew up she returned to Germany. Over time the family stopped hearing from her.
My grandmother married and moved to The Hague, about an hour from Amsterdam by train. My mother and uncle were born there. The family watched nervously the rise of Nazism in Germany, which shares a border with Holland.
One day, as my grandfather told the story, he was returning home from rehearsal when he was approached by a stranger who said he was a friend of Ulie. The stranger then began a conversation about Ulie. Eventually the stranger asked if my grandfather would do a big favor for Ulie, even if it was dangerous. My grandfather replied that Ulie was like a sister to his wife and he would do anything for her.
The stranger then revealed that Ulie, her husband and baby were being smuggled out of Germany and needed a safe place to stay while arrangements were made to get them to England. My grandfather invited them to stay with his family. These surprise guests changed how my grandparents saw the scope of the danger from Germany and this proved to be the salvation of my family.
Most of Europe was unaware of all that was going on in Germany, and mass extermination plans already being laid for the near future. How could they? Many Jews in neighboring countries believed, not unreasonably, that the safest course of action was to hold tight. Many Jews in Germany believed the best way to survive was to keep a low profile and obey the increasingly onerous laws that restricted and marginalized Jews.
Many Jews (including Anne Frank’s family, who immigrated from Germany) believed Holland would be safe, in part due to its neutrality during World War I and its long tradition of religious tolerance. The situation was far more complex and unclear than hindsight may lead us to believe.
Many Jews did try to emigrate, but this was not easy to do. Most of the world’s countries had strict immigration quotas with complex requirements and long waiting periods. Each applicant competed with thousands of other equally desperate people for too few available openings. Most countries, including the United States, Canada and Great Britain, were unwilling to increase their immigrant quotas, even with this urgent need.
Does this sound like something going on today? (Hint: replace “Jewish” with “Middle Eastern.”)
There was always an air of clandestineness in the way my grandparents told this story, things they remained silent about, details they carried to their graves, that I wish I knew. It seemed that there was some kind of illegality about their harboring German Jews (who would not have proper immigration papers) and how they were to be brought into England.
The impression I was given was that there was risk involved for my family. I remember my mother telling me that she was given strict orders not to tell anyone about Ulie and her family. These guests stayed in a room without windows, in the center of the house.
My grandparents’ willingness to take this risk for Ulie and her family gave them connections to what seemed to be an early resistance movement. It also gave them insider knowledge into just how bad things were for Jews in Germany, and how bad they would be if Germany invaded Holland.
As early as 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, the first concentration camps were established. Initially they were to imprison “enemies of the state” (socialists, communists, homosexuals and others). Mass arrests of Jews did not begin in earnest until 1938. It seems that Ulie and her family were taken in an early raid and somehow escaped, in the process becoming connected with the people who helped her and her family arrive in Holland en route to England (again, likely an early resistance movement). They were in really bad shape when they arrived in my grandparents’ home.
Once in my grandparents’ house, Ulie and her husband shared their experience, and information about what was really going on in Germany – which few people actually knew. From then on, my grandparents began figuring out how to get out of Holland. Their chance connection with an early resistance movement (because my grandmother’s parents took in a German Jewish orphan) gave my grandparents the understanding that they really needed to leave, and some connections that could help them find ways to do so. Another serendipitous connection allowed them to get into the U.S, even with it’s restrictive immigration policies – but that story is beyond the scope of this article.
My grandmother’s parents, (who raised Ulie as a child) did not escape. They were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, along with most of my extended family. Yet, had my great-grandparents not opened their home to this orphan child, my grandparents would not have had an early warning of the necessity to leave, nor the connections to help them do so – and I would not have been born.
We truly cannot envision the ripple effects of our actions and the impact they can have on the future.
“Because we risked ourselves for others, we ourselves we saved,” I remember my grandmother telling me, over and over again, when I was still in elementary school. This message shaped who I am and how I have lived my life.
I tell this story, which is so much a part of me, for what it has taught me about life, and about where humanity stands today. I write to share what I learned, and also to invite you to share what you may learn. It feels risky and vulnerable to share such a personal story so publicly. If I did not feel it was so relevant to our world today, I might not share it in this way.
What does all this have to do with the challenging, perilous and complex times in which we live?
In Part 2 of this series, I share my ideas on this. (Hint: it has something to do with, “because we risked our lives for others, we ourselves were saved” and the ripple effect our actions can have, often in surprising and unexpected ways.) But there’s more…
Meanwhile, I invite you to share your ideas about the connections between this story and where we stand today. Be in touch and let me know.
— Dianne Monroe, Transition Voice