A few weeks ago, after I mentioned that what would have been my father’s 100th birthday was approaching, a friend of mine responded, in a delicate and respectful manner, how he did not understand how the date was relevant. His point, objectively a reasonable one, is that had he been alive it would have been a tremendous milestone, but since he had passed away in 2007 at the age of 87 it had far less relevance. Although it is impossible for me to write about my father with complete objectivity, when I look at what my father did in his lifetime and look at where we are today, particularly as Jewish people, learning about the character and actions of my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen of Blessed Memory has great relevance.
Although it is my mother’s 19 year old face on the cover of Jew Face, when people describe the book as being about my mother, I immediately correct them and say that it is about my parents. In fact, when you begin the book it comes across far more like it is a book about my father than my mother. The reason for that is simple. Everything in my immediate family’s history, everything that is me and my siblings, my nephews, nieces, and great nephews and nieces began on December 18, 1919, the day Nardus Groen was born. The youngest of 5, Nardus was born in Rotterdam, Holland into an Orthodox Jewish household. When economic circumstances made it impossible to continue owning a business unless it was open on Saturday, the Shabbat, the family picked up and moved to Amsterdam. Only 6 at the time, Nardus flourished in what was a vibrant Jewish community. With his photographic memory he would know the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book by heart by the time he reached Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, and the Chumash, the 5 books of Moses by heart at the age of 18. For the record, when I say by heart, I mean in Hebrew. But a huge part of why learning about him is so relevant goes beyond his incredible, God given intellectual abilities. It has much to to do with what was an instinct and ability to recognize and acknowledge danger when it was approaching and when it truly was a matter of life and death.
As a teenager in the late 1930’s, while news of what was happening in Germany was leaking out and German Jews escaped to the Netherlands in the hope of finding safety, Nardus Groen did something young Jewish men in his neighborhood were not accustomed to doing. He joined the National Guard. It was there that he learned how to use a firearm and methods of self defense, fighting and training that would play a larger role in the years to come. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Holland in May of 1940, Nardus immediately and instinctively understood that remaining in his neighborhood and living his normal life as a young Jewish man was no longer possible. Attaching himself to the resistance, throughout the years of the occupation he was part of or directly involved in saving the lives of many, and although he would speak of it modestly, it was evident that he had a part to play in activities against traitors and the occupying forces. He would evade or escape the Nazis 4 different times, either through inexplicable good fortune or brazen heroics, cleverness and determination. Regardless of how it happened, in his later years he never took credit for his survival. Recognizing it was a blessing from God to make it though that time he regularly used the Hebrew phrase, Hakol Talooy B’Mazal, Everything Depends on Fortune.
One of the people he would save was the woman he would end up marrying, my mother Sipora. A Spanish-Portuguese Jewess, Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes could not hide the fact that she was Jewish. While Nardus looked very much like a typical Dutchman, if you looked like Sipora in 1940 Amsterdam, there was no hiding you were Jewish. The turning point in their relationship and future took place on Friday, August 13, 1943 in the NIZ, Nederelandse Israelitische Ziekenhuis, the Dutch Jewish Hospital, when events took place that would keep them together till the day Nardus passed in 2007.
From that fateful day in August, 1943 till the war ended in Holland in 1945, Nardus would help see to it that Sipora would be safe through his courageous acts and contacts in the Dutch resistance that lead them both to some of the most righteous people you could ever expect to meet in your life. I often say that my father saved my mother’s life during the war, and my mother saved my father’s life every day after the war. When the war ended in Europe he would join the Dutch Marines and would be attached to the U.S. Marines till the end of the war.
After the war my father would receive Rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbi of Holland and later in the late 1950’s from one of the most influential and brilliant Jewish scholars of the time, Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, Ohio. He and my mother would raise 5 children who in turn would give them 12 grandchildren, and to date, 11 great grandchildren. Perhaps one of the best stories that tells of his character and wisdom as a Rabbi was related to the crowd by my brother Ruben during a recent event in Florida. The story he spoke of took place many years ago in Arnhem, Holland where my father was the leader of the Jewish community. In this community lived a man who was so distraught from the suffering caused him and his family during the Nazi occupation, that after many years of torment and pain, he took his own life. According to strict traditional Jewish law it is a sin to take one’s own life, and subsequently they are not to be mourned as someone who dies in any other manner. Instead of seeing this as a suicide, my father decreed that the man did not die a self-inflicted death, but was instead one more victim of the Nazi horrors and someone whose death was caused by an illness born out of those horrors. This allowed the man’s family to bury and mourn him in accordance with Jewish custom and law.
Nardus Groen was a man of character, decency and faith. He was a proud Jew, a Jewish scholar, a man of exceptional intelligence and when it mattered most, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, a man of strength and courage. In 1930’s Holland he saw the writing on the wall and had he been alive today his insight would have been of great value to us all. He was a loving husband, father and grandfather. And he was my father. And on this day, I proudly and affectionately remember him with the same love and respect I always heard him give his parents, and I thank him for the many worlds that, together with my mother were put into motion on this day, 100 years ago.