As I write this I am fully cognizant of the fact that there are those among you who know what it is like to be the child of 1 or more special parents. Having just finished sitting Shiva after the loss of my mother, I wish to share with you what made Sipora Groen so special.
Although it is normal for any son to mourn the loss of his mother, I am able to separate how I see my loss intellectually from how I feel in my heart. My personal feelings are not the story here, rather the amazing life lived by a woman so many people are celebrating is what I wish to share with you. It is what will inspire you, amaze you, and just maybe make you a better person.
My mother was born Sipora Catharina Rodrigues-Lopes on January 1, 1922 in Amsterdam, Holland. Born into the Spanish-Portuguese community descending from those who made it to Holland through Portugal after the Inquisition, my mother was proud to be Jewish, culturally connected, yet not raised to be observant. When she was 13 she lost her mother, leaving her to care for her younger brother while her father did his best to cope with the loss of his wife and the mother of his children. Sipora would fall in love at the age of 17, soon before the Nazi invasion of Holland with hopes of a normal and stable life.
Tragically, like so much of European Jewry, my mother’s world was turned upside down as she would lose her fiancé, her father, brother and countless relatives and friends in the Nazi Death Camps. While this was taking place in the first years of the war, she worked as a nurse in the Jewish hospital of Amsterdam, doing what she could to help so many people who would ultimately be taken away and murdered. My mother, a short physically unimposing figure would witness the Nazi raids in horror and anger, once confronting the chief Nazi officer in Amsterdam by shouting at him, “why are you doing this?”, to which he replied, “ask the Rabbis”. The evil she saw was contrary to everything she knew, and regardless of the personal risk, staying quiet at that moment was not an option.
Being Sephardic, my mother had a darker complexion than the average Dutch person, making it next to impossible for her to hide in plain sight. Thankfully, a man who looked like the average fair-headed Dutchman, took a liking to her, and would see to it that through his activities and contacts in the resistance Sipora would move from place to place till she found the place she would stay till the war was over. That man was my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen of Blessed Memory, and that place was the little Dutch village of Lemerlerveld. In Lemerlerveld Sipora would be taken care of by Lubertus and Geeske te Kiefte, who at the ultimate personal risk would shelter and feed her for the final 16 months of the war. Lubertus would build her a special room under the ground of his workplace where on a nightly basis she would walk down into a small damp cold room, with sandbags over the entrance making it impossible to see its existence with the naked eye and unable to get out without the assistance of someone from outside. If anything would happen to the te Kieftes, Sipora would have been buried alive, and she went to bed every night very aware of this fact, a fact that would cause her to have phobias and nightmares for the rest of her life.
My father would visit her from time to time, and with so little to look forward to they found love and comfort in each other, a love and comfort that would lead to what was to my mother, a woman who had lived with no female guidance from the age of 13, an unexpected pregnancy. As Nardus would depart Holland after the defeat of the Nazis as a Dutch Marine attached to the U.S. Marines, Sipora would discover her pregnancy and start her post war years alone, penniless and with child. Upon learning of her condition Nardus would eventually find his way back to Sipora and they would begin their life together, a life where she would summon all the strength she had and build a wonderful life. I often say my father saved my mother during the war and my mother saved my father every day after the war. That is not to say my father was not a strong man. He was very strong. But without Sipora he was lost. She would anchor the home, always making sure the day started off with everyone cared for, and always making sure, regardless of how little money there might have been during some periods of their life, that there was always enough to eat. They would live in different parts of Holland, Surinam, different cities in America, moving countless times, always searching for that normal stable life which they never found in one location, but Nardus and the children always found at home, because of Sipora.
When my father died my mother was 85 years old. Despite being alone at this advanced age and never losing the terrifying memories of what took place in her youth between 1940 and 1945, after mourning the loss of her husband of over 60 years, Sipora reinvented herself and lived a remarkable last 10 years of her life. She would buy a new car, a moment that represented her independence, learn how to read Torah and Haftarot in the synagogue, host parties and countless guests, and speak in high schools, universities and even juvenile detention centers about the devastation she experienced in her early years. It was here where she would reveal to the world what it was that made her so special.
Despite all the horrors she had witnessed, all the evil she had encountered and all the hate she had suffered through, her messages were always messages of love, hope and optimism. Many people see the best in people, but for my mother Sipora Groen, in her later years in life that was not enough. She wanted to help others see the same things she saw. She spread love, joy and beauty, even while speaking of the worst of humanity. How did she do that you ask? As a person she would occasionally say knew her better than anyone else in the world I believe it comes down to a very basic principal she lived by. Living with love makes life worth living, and if you are strong enough no one can take that away from you. In her case no one, not even the worst people humanity had to offer ever did, instead she took her love and spread it around, sometimes to those who saw very little love, almost till the day she died.
What made my mother Sipora Groen so special? The fact that despite all the evil she witnessed and all the sadness she felt in her early years, no one shared love and joy the way that she did, and the multitudes of people who were touched by her and her message feel fortunate and blessed as a result.