By Louise Lawrence-Israëls
Just after the war started in the Netherlands in 1940, my parents moved to a house on a quiet tree-lined street in the town of Haarlem, about 15 miles to the west of Amsterdam. Life was as normal as you could expect under the circumstances: wartime, occupation, the persecution of Jews.
A large Jewish family lived across the street from us. The father was the president of the Jewish community in Haarlem. The family consisted of the parents, their seven adult children, and one set of grandparents. The house was nicknamed “The House with Elastic Walls.” On Shabbat, they sometimes had 20 people staying over, and even more people for Shabbat dinner. Our family was always invited, and we became very good friends.
When I was born in 1942, one of their daughters, Selma, often walked across the street to give my mom a hand whenever needed. One day, when I was about five months old, Selma was standing with me in her arms, looking out of the window facing her house. She saw a truck stop in front of her house and watched her whole family get rounded up, pushed on to the truck, and driven away. One of her brothers later escaped. From that time on, Selma stayed with my family. My family and Selma went into hiding soon after that horrible incident.
Selma took care of me, taught me how to walk and talk, and made the most beautiful doll as a present for my second birthday. From our days in hiding, I always remember her sweet smiling face and all the attention she gave me.
After we were liberated in 1945, Selma found out that her whole family, except the brother who had escaped, had been murdered in Auschwitz. Selma got married and adopted a brother and sister, two Jewish war orphans. Selma and her husband decided not to have children of their own so that they could give all of their attention to those children who had suffered such great losses.
I spent most of my summers with Selma and her family and loved it. My parents had decided not to talk about the war. They did not want to burden their children. I always had a lot of questions but I saved them until it was summer again because Selma was always willing to answer and explain. I realized much later how careful she was with her answers, in order not to step on my parents’ toes.
Selma dreamed for many years of making aliya to Israel. After her husband passed away, she did just that at the age of 82. Before she left Holland, I visited her with my whole family to say good-bye. My husband and daughters had met Selma, but we now had two sons-in-law and a granddaughter, Miriam—the same name as Selma’s mother. It was so important for me that my family know Selma and my special feelings for her.
Selma loved living in Israel and she was very close to her son and his children, who had moved there a few years before. My husband and I visited her every other year and it was always like we had seen her just the day before. We spoke often on the telephone and shared our lives in that way. In the independent living apartment building where she lived, she was a ray of sunshine for the other elderly people.
Selma passed away in 2003, but her warmth and love will always stay with me. I was so lucky to have had her friendship, and I consider her my best friend.
©2006, Louise Lawrence-Israëls. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.