My parents came from large families. I do not know the exact number of their siblings, but each had at least six. There was only one known survivor of the Holocaust among my mother’s brothers and sisters—her oldest brother, my uncle Adolf or Abraham. He managed to leave Germany and get to Bolivia with his wife, my aunt Helen, and their son, Norbert, my only cousin who survived the Holocaust, who sadly is now deceased. And I do not know of any survivors among my father’s brothers and sisters.
My mother occasionally spoke about her oldest sister, Fanny or Feige, who, like Adolf, had left their hometown of Rymanow, Poland, and moved to Berlin, where she married Jonas Zehngut. Until I gave it to Emma Zehngut, a niece of Jonas and Fanny living in Los Angeles, we had a set of silverware engraved with “JZ” that had been entrusted to my mother when Fanny and Jonas felt threatened in Germany. There is an adorable photo of their son, my cousin Yossie, arm in arm with cousin Norbert. They were the apple of my mother’s eye when she too left Rymanow and joined Adolf and Fanny in Berlin before marrying my father in The Hague. Sadly, Fanny, Jonas, and Yossie, like my grandparents and virtually all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, were deported and killed.
When my mother and I immigrated to the United States in 1958, we were surprised by a phone call from my mother’s aunt, Ciocia Feige. She and her son and three daughters had miraculously survived by fleeing Rymanow to Siberia. Aunt Feige told my mother that my mother’s youngest brother, Jacob —whom I knew from a photograph that had especially caught my attention because it pictured him, like I dreamt of doing, riding a horse bareback—had crossed the San River, which adjoins Rymanow, and joined the Soviet Army. Another rumor was that another brother of my mother, Aaron, had made his way to South Africa. But all attempts to verify these rumors were never to any avail. My mother rarely spoke about her other brothers and sisters. I only know them from inscriptions on the back of small photos—Heina, Ruth, and Bunia—that they gave her as a remembrance when she left home.
Then there was my father’s younger brother, my Uncle Emil, he with the confident, carefree, and almost defiant smile in the pictures in my mother’s box of family photographs, so unlike the always serious, almost worried look of my father in his photos. I was flattered when people many, many years later would say that I looked like Uncle Emil. He, like my parents, had left his hometown, Kanczuga, Poland, and gone to Berlin, and then, shortly after Kristallnacht, had joined our family in the Netherlands. Uncle Emil, my mother said, brought an unending array of girlfriends to dinner. But as we looked at a photo taken in a park where my mother sits between Uncle Emil holding my sister Leah and my father holding my sister Eva, she would shake her head and laugh and say that he was not the type to ever find a suitable mate and marry. I would differ with her because there was also a picture of Ellie, his last girlfriend, a pretty, confident-looking young woman with wavy hair and darkish complexion, brown eyes, and a small beauty mark on her right cheek. Anyone, I thought, who earned a place in my mother’s box of photos, must have been very special.
Emil, my mother told me, loved his nieces, my sisters, Eva and Leah, and when I was born 18 months into the Nazi occupation of Holland, doted on me as well. He is there next to Ellie and along with my father and my sisters and friends of the family in a photo taken at my bris or circumcision ceremony, one of the last such milestones in a Jewish life able to be celebrated in the Netherlands during the Nazi era. The silver teething ring and the napkin ring bearing my name that accompanied me when I was placed in hiding with the Madna family were gifts from Uncle Emil. They and the photographs of my circumcision ceremony that my mother kept on her body through 12 concentration camps are now in the collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I have often wondered what happened to Uncle Emil. I remember that his name came up in many conversations in Rijnsburg, Netherlands, the town near Leiden where my mother and I spent many weekends with her close friends, perhaps her closest friends in Holland, Truus and Piet Ravensbergen. I never asked my mother why they had become such close friends, but I believe that Uncle Emil may well have been the link. Oom Piet was born in Rijnsburg and had lived there all his life. But his wife, Tante Truus, was born in Hungary and had come to Holland as an orphan and had been adopted by two people who became known to me as Tante Cor and Oom Jan. My mother and I regularly accompanied Tante Truus and Oom Piet to Sunday church services. And afterward, we always visited Tante Cor and Oom Jan. Tante Cor was a devout lay preacher and led her own church service at home. She always wore an ankle-length black dress that made her look even taller than she was and combed her grey hair into a tight bun. Almost always when I greeted her, Tante Cor would take my hands, look at me with her grey eyes through her black metal-rimmed glasses and nod and softly say, “net als Emiel,” “just like Emil,” words that gave me, then seven or eight, an inexplicable warm feeling.
Emil, I can only surmise, may have been hiding from the Nazis in Rijnsburg, perhaps on Tante Cor and Oom Jan’s farm devoted to the cultivation of flowers. Rijnsburg was also the home, I learned recently, of a prominent Dutch resistance fighter, Marinus Post. He, along with an amazing 25 residents of Rijnsburg, were honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. They sheltered Jewish men, women, and children out of their deeply held Christian belief that they were obligated to protect God’s Chosen People from the Nazi hordes. Likewise, after the war, Rijnsburg must have felt like a refuge for my mother, a peaceful place in the midst of fields of tulips and hyacinths, far removed from the noisy, unsavory neighborhood in The Hague where we lived behind her store, a place of empathy and understanding that restored her faith in the human family, and a place with people whom she trusted to care for me because they had sheltered my uncle Emil.
I remember tears welling up in Tante Cor’s eyes whenever Emil’s name came up in a conversation. It was always “arme Emiel,” “poor Emil.” He had been “gepakt,” she would say. Gepakt, Dutch for discovered, caught, taken, arrested, is a word that was part of my earliest childhood vocabulary—“gepakt,” just like my sisters and parents. I was lucky, Tante Cor and others always added, that my mother “was terug gekomen,” “had come back.” And I understood, even without being told, that my father and sisters and Uncle Emil “waren niet treruggekomen,” “did not come back.” We learned of the fate of my sisters through letters provided by the Netherlands Red Cross. The letters certified that they had “died” in Auschwitz, February 11, 1944, with a disclaimer in the form of a red stamp stating, “precise time of death unavailable and administratively determined.” My mother was also able to obtain similar documents about the fate of my father, including a death certificate issued by the municipality of Ebensee, site of the concentration camp where he succumbed two months after liberation by the 80th Division of the US Army. But nothing about Uncle Emil.
It wasn’t until about 60 years later when, through a search of documents from the Arolsen Archives, formerly the International Tracing Service archive (ITS), at the Museum, that I found Uncle Emil’s name along with those of my sisters on page 137 of a typewritten list of deportees from the Westerbork transit camp in Holland to Auschwitz and other concentration camps and killing centers. Among the ITS documents, I also found the elaborate Auschwitz registration of my father and even a slip of paper bearing his prisoner number specifying that he warranted a “premium” payment to the SS from the I. G. Farben synthetic rubber factory where he was enslaved. But nothing like it for Uncle Emil.
Uncle Emil was young and healthy, and like my father and mother, should have been “selected” and registered on arrival in Auschwitz for forced labor, not immediate death. When I broached this assumption with one of the ITS researchers, he suggested that Emil, like so many others he was familiar with, had in all likelihood tried to protect his nieces, my sisters, Eva and Leah, and refused to let go of them and therefore had gone with them to the gas chamber immediately on arrival in Auschwitz.
I had always taken what may seem like a strange and small measure of comfort from the fact that my sisters had not gone to their deaths alone, but in a crowd of perhaps a thousand people. But now there may be some real comfort in knowing my uncle Emil remained there with them. And next year when I say Kaddish on the anniversary of my sisters’ deaths, I will also remember my uncle Emil. Like the heroism of the Indonesian Dutch Madna family and their Muslim nanny, Mima Saïna, who rescued me from the Nazis, and like the heroism of the 25 citizens of Rijnsburg honored by Yad Vashem, Uncle Emil’s action brings to mind the motto of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “What You Do Matters,” and the ensuing challenge, “What Will I Do?”
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