As I sit here in our apartment in Amsterdam, I am reflecting on what we have experienced. It will not be easy to capture what I am feeling, but I will do my very best to share this extraordinary day with you all. I apologize in advance for the length of this post.
For you to fully understand the intense emotion we have experienced during our last 24 hours in Amsterdam I need to take you back about 2 years ago as Carly was preparing to become a bat mitzvah.
As many of you know, as a part of our b'nai mitzvah program I invite all of our students to participate in the Remember Us Program, wher our students are twinned with a child whose life was taken at the hand of the Nazis before having the chance to be called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah themselves. It is meant to help heighten the meaning of the service for our students, as they learn that their becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is not just about them, but about them helping to solidify Judaism long into the future. It helps our students to realize how lucky they are to be living in a place and at a time where being Jewish is really easy, and where it is really easy to take Judaism for granted. When I give a student the name of a lost child, I always encourage them to try to find living relatives when possible. Most of the time their search is empty, as complete families were wiped out at the hands of the Nazis. Other times all living relatives have lived their natural lives and passed away at an advanced age. For these TAE bar and bat mitzvah students the act of remembering is made even more important when they realize that they are the only person remembering this child, and the responsibility of saying Kaddish on their behalf becomes more apparent. There are a few occasions where a connection is made, and I have been so proud to see these connections strengthen our student's Jewish identity through their interaction with their Remember Us child.
As Carly was preparing for her big day she wanted to participate in this program. She pulled the name of Sophia van Hasselt. Sophia was born on April 20, 1933 in the Netherlands and died at Auschwitz on February 12, 1942 at the age of nine years old. Attached to her file we're some photos, including the one below.
Carly instantly connected to Sophia's spirit and mischievousness seen in her eyes and smile. She seemed to have a certain spunk about her that Carly really related to. We knew who her father and mother was and looked up her profile on the Yad VaShem website in the database for Shoah victims. We learned that her cousin, Sara Kirby, inputted her information into the database. We immediately began a search for Sara. We tried Facebook, no luck. We googled Sara Kirby and got literally thousands of pages to search through. We started on page one and went entry by entry with no luck.
Page two... Same story.
On page three we saw something interesting... There was a link to Sara Kirby through dutchjewery.org. Hmmmmm... Could this be the right Sara? Carly and I sent an email to the president of this organization. When we hit send an excited feeling came over us, and then we waited.
About thirty minutes later, we received an email from the president, saying that indeed this WAS the Sara we were looking for and that he had already forwarded our email to her (she was his assistant!!!) and we would hear from her very soon.
The next morning we were greeted with a long email from Sara, overcome with happiness that Carly was remembering her Fietje (Sophia's nickname). Sara and Sophia were first cousins, and thus began a connection that would impact not just Carly, but all of our lives forever. We learned about how Sara was just a baby during the war, and how her family hid her with another family to avoid her being deported. We learned how this family, so unselfishly took her in and cared for her at great personal risk. Sara sent us pictures of Sophia and her family, all of them killed during the war. We saw photos of the house the van Hasselt family lived in in Waskemeer, in the north of Holland. Here is one of those pictures.
The house is at the right of the picture, and the building to the left of it was a school where Sophia's father served as the head master. We learned that the school was named in his honor, and Carly even made a connection with the head master and the 5th grade class through the exchange of emails. Indeed Sophia succeeded in enhancing Carly's bat mitzvah experience in so many ways, and we consider Sara a part of our family.
As we were planning for our trip to Israel Leasa and I talked about the possibility of going to Amsterdam after the tour ended to go and see where Sophia grew up. I sent a note to Sara and she was so happy to meet us there (she lives in Cambridge) and she connected us with Alledien, the lady whose family now lives in the house Sophia lived in. And so, after lots of planning our meeting was set. We would fly to Amsterdam and rent a car and drive the two hours north to Waskemeer to meet.
It is hard to anticipate a meeting like this. First of all was the logistical issues of driving in a foreign country to a place pretty remote. Secondly, we felt like Sara was part of our family, but how would we spend the day with a stranger, in the home of another family of strangers where the only connection we shared was a family who lived in the house more than 70 years ago? As our trip approached, we became more excited and felt more trepidation as well.
On Sunday, July 5, our family woke up extra early and took the bus and train to the airport where our rental car was waiting for us. After confirming that the GPS we rented would indeed give us direction in English we were on our way. One scary thing was that no one, and I mean NO ONE in Amsterdam has ever heard of Waskemeer. It made us feel like it was not a real place, until we inputted the address of the house into the GPS and it found it. Phew!
The drive through Holland was beautiful with long, green fields along each side of the road, with lots of cows, horses and sheep grazing lazily as we drove past. Because we really had no idea of where we were going, we left lots of extra time so we would not arrive late. In reality we arrived an hour early, which gave us time to explore Waskemeer and the adjacent villages. All of the streets were made with brick and not asphalt, and the homes were beautiful with lush gardens surrounding them. It looked like a really nice place to raise a family. It made us think, if no one in Amsterdam knew of Waskemeer how did the Nazis know? And why would they care about one Jewish family living in this out of the way place?
As the GPS took us to our destination we discovered that we were driving on a street called Meester van Hasselweg. Not only was the school named after Sophia's father, but so was the street in which they used to live. It was stirring to see his name on the sign of the street.
And then we pulled up to Sophia's house. How can I possibly explain how it felt to be here, where this family lived? We were all overcome with emotion. We had stared and studied the photos of the home so many times before and now we were actually standing there. We could see the canal built in front of the house used to deliver milk from the factory that used to be there. We could almost see Sophia and her sister Hermi playing in front of the house. It was a moment of recognition for us that we had reached our destination in our pilgrimage that started two years earlier with the drawing of a name and an email. We were here. And we were more connected to Sophia than we could ever imagine.
We spent a few minutes inside the house with Alledien and her family before Sara arrived (even with driving around we still managed to arrive about 15 minutes early). Alledien and her family welcomed us with open arms and answered all of our many, MANY questions about the house. And then there was a knock at the door and in walked Sara and her husband, Tony. To watch Sara and Carly hugging each other brought tears to our eyes. Here she was hugging the closest thing we can ever get to Sophia in the very house she lived in. We were overcome. We learned about the renovation that Alledien and her family did to the house and how they preserved as much of the original materials as possible. To place my hands on the doors used by Sophia's family, to eat at the table made from the original floor boards from Sophia's house, to walk the original wooden stairs was more meaningful than words could ever express.
Here is a picture of Sara with Carly. The first words out of her mouth was acknowledging how much Carly has grown since her bat mitzvah!
Sara shared with us more about her story, and the fact that her hiding brother just passed away last year. To hear her talk about her hiding family brought me back to our Israel trip and our visit to Yad Vashem. Would Leasa and I have the courage to take in a child and hide them knowing that we were putting our own children at risk should we get caught? Sara shared with us a book she had made (she gave us a copy) that traces the lineage of her family. There were page after page of family trees, showing all of her relatives, both close and distant. Looking through the book at the names was very emotional as we could see when everyone was born and the fact that so many died in 1942, 43 or 44 at one of the death camps. From her father's side of the family Sara was the only survivor. The only one. How many dreams were lost, how many children with so much to live for were not given the chance? The reality of it was overwhelming. It made us feel good to know that Carly, in some small way, was keeping the memory of this family alive.
We took a walk to the school (it is in a new location) that bears the van Hasselt name.
Below is the plaque that dedicates the school to Simon van Hasselt. How moving to see it in person. The head master of the school came in on a Sunday, during the first weekend of summer vacation to open up the school so we could see it. As we toured the school Alledien brought out box after box or archives for us to look through. We were amazed that someone had the foresight to save EVERYTHING to preserve the memory of the school. We found the book of poems Sophia's dad wrote and all of the record of absent children dating back to 1920. It was pouring through history.
We were also really touched to learn that every year on November 5 the school kids mark Simon van Hasselt's birthday with a special program where they all get apples and that there is a special memory day where they gather to read his poems and learn of what happened to the van Hasselt family. We were so moved to learn of these steps to remember a Jewish family, and to acknowledge the impact he had on so many children. One of the most moving parts was when Sara read a letter Simon wrote to the school after he was forced to leave about how it looked like he and his family would be going to a camp where food was scarce. He was asking everyone to send them food if they were able. It was a sobering moment for all of us.
After our tour of the school we went and enjoyed a nice meal with Sara, Tony, Alledien and her family. It was lovely to get to know these dear people who have become so important to us. Our day ended with a two hour drive back to Amsterdam where we couldn't believe the experience we had just had.
We woke up early again this morning so we could tour the Anne Frank House. After learning of Sara and her experiences with her hiding family it was incredible to read and experience Anne Frank's story. Knowing and loving Sara made it all the more powerful, and our connection to Sophia and the fate shared by Anne and Sophia made it overwhelming. If you have not visited the Anne Frank House, you really need to come and experience this. It is an incredible museum, for me the most chilling part was seeing her original diary and walking through the bookcase that served as the entrance to the annex. Anne's soul was still present in this place, just like I felt Sophia in that small town of Waskemeer.
To have these experiences with my daughters was something beyond words. Hayley is the same age Sophia was when she died at Auschwitz. Carly is almost as old as Anne Frank was when her life ended. To see the impact these experiences has had on both of my girls is incredible. How lucky we are to be able to take these steps together.
This is the last entry for this blog. As I complete these last words, I am sad that the journey is over. We have experienced so much over the last two and a half weeks, and we have grown so much from these experiences. As this trip comes to an end I really start to think about the next trip coming up in October. One of our first stops will be Auschwitz, and I wonder if I will feel more connected to Sophia where she died or in the house where she lived. Either way I know I will take these experiences with me as I walk forward with my own journey and continue to deepen my connection to what it means to be Jewish.