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The lasting legacy of Bram’s violin

It's a tribute to how connections -- friendship and music and even Facebook -- triumphed over not only the Nazis, but also the destructive effects of time
David Groen, Wim de Haan, and Bram's violin (courtesy)
David Groen, Wim de Haan, and Bram's violin (courtesy)

My mother had a brother named Bram. Bram was killed by the Nazis in 1943. As sad of a fact as that is, six million Jews were killed, and although his life had personal meaning to me and my family, what makes his story more worth talking about now than anyone else’s? It is the fact that other than a great-nephew being named after him, Bram had no legacy, until 76 years after his death, when on July 21, 2019 his legacy was finally established thanks to the incredibly kind act and genuine commitment of his best friend. This is the story of my Uncle Bram Rodrigues and his best friend Johnny de Haan.

My mother was born Sipora Rodrigues-Lopes in Amsterdam, Holland on January 1, 1922. On December 31, 1941, Johnny de Haan came over to her and Bram’s house to play their music, bring in the new year, and celebrate my mother’s birthday. Johnny and Bram played together often in the band they had formed: Johnny playing guitar, Bram playing violin.

Johnny seen left and Bram in the middle

Unfortunately, as joyous as this occasion was intended to be, it was marred by the undercurrent of what was taking place in Holland and much of the rest of Europe. The vicious German war machine, under the command of Adolph Hitler had begun what we now know was the process of the attempted complete annihilation of the Jewish people. Before 75 percent of the Jewish population of Holland would be murdered, the Nazis would terrorize Jews, ban them from public places, destroy or seize their property, and keep children from attending schools. On December 31, 1941, this process was well underway and the mood in the Rodrigues household was nowhere near what it normally would have been, had there not been that underlying feeling of sadness and dread.

Johhny de Haan’s journal entry on January 1, 1942

Having lost their mother seven years earlier, Sipora who was 13 at the time and Bram who was 10, were as close a brother and sister could be. Eight years later in 1943, Sipora was living in the Nederlandse Israelitische Ziekenhuis (NIZ), the Dutch Jewish Hospital. By this time, the transport of Jews out of Amsterdam was in full swing, and although people may not have known the details of what would happen to most of them, they knew they were dealing with a cruel and vicious army that hated the Jews and that whatever was to come next would definitely not be good. This was when my grandfather, Marcel Rodrigues, felt it was time to escape Amsterdam with his children. Sipora, however, chose to stay behind and stay at her job at the NIZ, where she continued to live in the nurses’ quarters. Bram would leave with his father, but before he did, there was something very important he needed to do. He went to his friend Johnny, and asked him to look after his violin until he returned to Amsterdam. Sadly, Bram never made it back to his home, as he was murdered in Auschwitz on September 23, 1943.

Fast forward to the year 2012. Almost within the same week, two events took place that would have great significance on how this story would unfold. The first and more important event was the passing away of Bram’s great friend, Johnny de Haan. The second event was the release of my book “Jew Face,” the book that tells the story of my parents’ experiences in occupied Amsterdam, and how they managed to survive as Jews in a city whose Jewish community was decimated. Soon after the book came out, I wrote a blog post on my then newly created website, Holland’s Heroes, in which I recorded every single name in Jew Face, the importance of which I will get to later. When Johnny died in 2012, he passed the house on to his son Wim, and in a room in that house was his father’s guitar and Bram’s violin.

Wim knew how important this violin was to his father, but also, given no indication that Bram had any living relatives, he did not know what to do with it, now that his father was gone. He had made some inquiries into donating it to museums, but, on its own, the violin did not generate the interest he had hoped, so he was getting prepared to mount it on his wall, together with his father’s guitar.

Now fast-forward to March 20, 2019, when, on my Facebook page, I received the following message.

Dear Mr. Groen,

Might you be the closest living relative to Bram Rodrigues born 15 October 1924 and died in Auschwitz in 1943? Bram was a very close friend to my father.

The email was from Wim de Haan. I immediately knew this was my uncle. I asked him how Wim found me. He told me, originally through Holland’s Heroes and subsequently the Yad Vashem archives. The following day, as I sat at a friend’s house on the holiday of Purim having the festive meal, an email came through from Wim. In the email, he proceeded to tell me the story of how Bram and his father would play in a band together, and so much of the history that he found in his father’s diary, including the somber celebration on New Year’s Eve to celebrate my mother’s birthday. A week earlier Wim, had looked again in his father’s diary. He still had no indication that Bram had any living relatives, but this time he saw the entry in which his father talked about his sadness over the fact that his good friend Bram Rodrigues was no longer allowed to go to school, as the Nazis were now no longer allowing Jewish children to attend. That was the first time Wim saw Bram’s last name, and, with that information, starting with my book and the list of names in Holland’s Heroes, he went down a path that led him to me. He ended his email on March 21st with the following words.

Back to the violin.
I mentioned that I mounted my fathers Gibson against the wall. After reading the diary I felt that those two instruments belonged together. Therefore I intended to mount the violin next to the guitar, but now I ran into you, together with your brothers and sisters the inheritor of the violin.
Well David, this is my story, the story of my father and his good friend Bram

When Wim spoke to me further, it was clear that he wanted nothing in return for this incredible gesture, however, I knew this merited more than just a trip to Holland and a quick handover of the violin. This was something special and I wanted to make sure people knew about this incredible act of character and kindness. Frankly, it was also an opportunity do two very important things: honor Johnny de Haan for the tremendous honor and respect he gave to his friend’s violin, and, more than anything else, establish for Bram something he never had before — a lasting legacy.

On Sunday, July 21, 2019, we honored the two great friends in a ceremony in Huize Frankendal, a 17th century castle in the very same neighborhood where the Rodrigues and de Haan families lived in 1943 when Bram asked his friend to look after his most precious material possession, his violin. The ceremony was attended by 55 people, including Nina Staretz, Minister Counselor at the Israeli Embassy, David Simon, Chairman of Friends of Yad Vashem in Holland, Peggy Frankston of The Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, friends and family from America, Belgium, Israel, and Holland, as well as 12 people representing the te Kiefte family, descendants of Lubertus and Geeske te Kiefte, who had provided a safe haven and a home for my mother for the last 16 months of the war and who, frankly, are the reason my siblings and I are here today.

I would learn also that, in doing this, Wim showed that, when it came to character, the apple did not fall far from the tree. The most important thing for him was to honor his father’s best friend and give a tribute to a great man, his father Johnny de Haan.

David Groen, Wim de Haan, and Bram’s violin (courtesy)

As I sat and had a drink with Wim the other day, it struck me how, 76 years ago, when Bram Rodrigues asked Johnny de Haan to look after his violin, there was no way they could have imagined that on July 21, 2019, that very same violin would be given by Johnny’s son to the children of Bram’s sister Sipora, and that in doing so Bram would finally have that passage to a place where he would always be remembered, and the story of Johnny’s great act of friendship would have an opportunity to reach countless people, getting the honor and respect it deserved.

Until Wim de Haan contacted me, instead of referring to Bram as my uncle, I always referred to him as my mother’s brother. At the ceremony, I read the letter I wanted to send to my Oom Bram which included the following two excerpts:

I have a confession to make. My entire life I referred to you as my mother’s brother, which of course you were to her till the day she died. However, it was not until Wim de Haan contacted me 4 months ago that you came to life and I saw you as my uncle, which is how I refer to you today and will for as long as I am alive.

When Johnny’s son Wim sent me the email telling the story of you and his father and how you asked him to look after your violin, something he did with commitment and purpose even through the tragedy of your death, I knew then that your choice of friends was better than good, it was perfect.

This is the story of Bram Rodrigues, Johnny de Haan and a friendship so strong it would break through the barriers of time, death and tragedy, only to provide later generations with inspiration to move forward and tell the world a story. A story it had not heard before, and one so much more positive than most we hear today. I for one feel very blessed for the role I have been given in telling this story.

About the Author
David Groen is the youngest of 5 children and the author of "Jew Face: A Story of love and heroim in Nazi-occupied Holland"
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