History has a way of coming full circle. When a non-Jewish Dutchman three generations removed from WWII and the Nazi atrocities can make contact with a Jewish man in the United States because the Dutchman’s great grandfather was best friends with the Jewish man’s grandfather, not only does history come full circle, a time that must never be forgotten is brought to the forefront and given an even greater depth and significance in today’s world. This is the story of me and Jelmer van den Berg.
In 1940 Holland had approximately 140,000 Jews and Amsterdam’s population which was in the 800,000 range was 10% Jewish. My father who was born in Rotterdam moved to Amsterdam when he was a child of 6 while my mother was born and raised in Amsterdam. My mother’s father, Marcel Rodrigues-Lopes was a man of sophistication and diversity. His hobbies and talents were many and his circle of friends went beyond the Jewish community. His best friend was a man named Jan van den Berg. When the Nazis decimated Amsterdam, wiping out most of the Jewish community, my grandfather Marcel attempted to flee Holland only to get picked up at the Belgian border with his young son Bram from where the two were transported to Auschwitz and ultimately their death. The only one left in Amsterdam was my mother Sipora.
Sipora was working as a nurse in a Jewish Hospital, living in the nurse’s quarters, and when her father and brother fled Amsterdam, knowing that her fiance and the majority of her friends and family had been transported by the Nazis out of Amsterdam, other than the man who had taken interest in her in the hospital, my father Nardus Groen, Sipora found herself almost entirely alone in the most terrifying and desperate of circumstances. The only place she could go to, and because of the situation in Amsterdam infrequently and sporadically, was the home of Jan and Toos van den Berg.
No matter the danger or time, Sipora was never turned away from the van den Berg home. When she showed up with Nardus as they were preparing to flee the city, Oom (Uncle) Jan and Tanta (Aunt) Toos extended the same welcome to Nardus, feeding them both and giving them a place to rest before their journey. But this was only the beginning of the impact Oom Jan and Tanta Toos would have on the lives of Sipora, Nardus, and a child not yet born.
As the war ended in Holland, Sipora would discover that she was pregnant. The father of the child, Nardus, had joined the Dutch Marines and was in Britain and the U.S. during the pregnancy and subsequent birth. On returning to Amsterdam and beginning a new life she feared might be without a husband and father of her future child, the only people Sipora could count on for any support were Oom Jan and Tanta Toos, who besides once again always welcoming her in their home, helped her with funds to rent her first apartment. But the most significant and critical help they would give Sipora was yet to come.
The birth of Marcel on November 2, 1945 was a saving grace for Sipora. Having seen her entire world torn away from her, the birth of this little baby boy gave her something to live for. She would often say that Marcel did indeed save her life. So when she took ill in February of 1946 with what was originally feared to be tuberculosis and wound up being pleurisy, Sipora would be hospitalized and separated from her baby, something that would feel like a stab in the heart. With Nardus overseas and no one else to turn to, Sipora would leave Marcel with Oom Jan & Tanta Toos till the following September. Despite the sadness of being apart from her newborn son, the one positive was that he was cared for and loved till the time Sipora was able to come home and once again be with her child. Marcel would remember sitting on Oom Jan’s lap while he smoked a cigar and had a drink, knowing when he got older that these people, Oom Jan and Tanta Toos, took care of him as if he was their son at a critical juncture in his life and that of his mother Sipora. Marcel would one day marry and he and his wife Bernice would name their second daughter Jennifer, the “J” in honor of Oom Jan, his Godfather and the man who together with his wonderful wife Toos would honor the memory of his best friend and the man the child they cared for was named after.
Some might call recent events coincidence, and that would be their prerogative, but I personally find the timing of what took place over the last few days to be too remarkable to be random. On April 19th my mother Sipora Groen passed away at the age of 95. The first 30 days of mourning following the burial of a departed loved one begins on the day of the burial, which in the case of my mother was Friday April 21st. This past Sunday morning, on the completion of the morning prayers, the initial 30 day mourning period for my mother came to an end. On Sunday afternoon I was sent the following message on Facebook which I retrieved a few days later:
Hi David, I just listened to your mothers interview i found on youtube. I am a grand grand son of Jan van den Berg and Tante Toos. They lived in Amsterdam during WW2 and supported resistance I know they personally knew Sipora and your father.
This message was sent to me by Jelmer van den Berg, the great grandson of Oom Jan. He went on to tell me about a special picture, the one seen above. This is a picture of the Queen of Holland admiring and pointing at a picture of a little boy painted by an artist named Mondriaan, who has since become so famous that his paintings are on display in a Museum that carries his name. The little boy in the picture is Jelmer’s great grandfather Jan van den Berg. Oom Jan, a man who grew up to be a hero not only to those he helped as a member of the resistance during Nazi occupation but a hero to my family, some 70 plus years ago. The memory of those lost and the honor of those who did what they could to help, lives on with me and my siblings including Marcel and his daughter Jennifer with the “J’ for Jan, but maybe most of all today with Jelmer van den Berg, the great grandson of my grandfather’s best friend.