Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My mother's first cousin: One of my heroes

Maurits Kopuit
    I am not the first journalist in our family, and for sure I am not close to being the best journalist in our family.
    Maurits Kopuit has that distinction, and I am proud that I knew him.
    He left us too soon, but one of the great pleasures of my life is that I spent time with him -- when I was a child in Amsterdam and again on my first trip back to The Netherlands (after 36 years) in 1991.
     He was an accomplished, well-read, well-traveled, studied newspaper man; I consider him brilliant in many ways. And he was one of the funniest, most adventurous people I've been around.
      Maurits' story is a success story -- from Holocaust survivor to chief editor (hoofdredacteur, in Dutch) of the Nieuw Israelitisch Weekblad (New Israelite Weekly) for 21 years (1971-92). He was the driving force of a newspaper considered the main voice for the Jewish community in The Netherlands. 
     This blog often has been about heroes or friends I've had, people who made a difference for me, and Maurits certainly was one of those people.
     He was my mother's first cousin -- her favorite cousin, nine years younger -- and after the Holocaust wiped out much of the family, he was her closest remaining relative, one of only a few. 
My mother, Rose Van Thyn (left), and Maurits: They
 were first cousins, they were close, and so much alike.
      (That makes him, best I can tell, my first cousin once removed, or my cousin-uncle. His children -- Heleen, who lives with her family in Antwerp, Belgium, and Philip, who lives with his family in Jerusalem, Israel -- are second cousins to me and my younger sister Elsa.)
      My mother truly loved Maurits all his life; he was always her favorite cousin, when she had 35 of them. They were much alike: loved to talk and tell stories,  loved to laugh, zany and mischievous at times, didn't mind arguing, they were outspoken, and didn't suffer fools (are these family traits?). But they were serious, too; concerned about the people around them and the world; kind and compassionate.
       Maurits survived the Holocaust in a different way than my mother and father. He was spared the horror of the concentration camps because his father and mother had the foresight and the connections to be hidden away on a farm in South Holland for most of three years. The Nazis never found them.
      They thankfully were never discovered, nor betrayed by the people who helped hide them -- "righteous gentiles," if you will. But even in the happy outcome, there was tragedy.
      Because during their hiding period, Maurits' father died of heart disease in 1944. Philip Kopuit -- my mother's uncle, my grandmother's brother -- was only 39. (They buried him on that farm near Voorschoten; after the war, they moved his remains to the largest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands, at Muiderberg, some 25 minutes east of Amsterdam).
      We lost Maurits on Feb. 10, 1992, also of heart disease at age 62. It was some six months after we (Dad and I) spent some memorable time with Maurits and his wife Henny in Amsterdam. So glad that happened.
       He had a great heart figuratively, but literally it was a troubled one. He died -- shockingly, but perhaps not surprisingly -- during open-heart surgery.
       My parents, on learning the news, quickly made arrangements (bereavement fares) to return to The Netherlands to be with the Kopuit family and friends. He meant that much to my mother, who after a previous visit to Amsterdam said she would not return because it was not the city and country she had known growing up.
        So they were there when Maurits was buried next to his parents in Muiderberg.
        They were there, too, 37 years earlier when Maurits and Henny married in a very formal, very traditional Jewish ceremony. Elsa, 4 then, was the cute flower girl; I was 8 and barely visible in a large crowd of men in the synagogue.
        We have some film and many of the photos from that wedding -- my mother sang during the party and program afterward -- and I do remember it. Two months later, we left The Netherlands on a boat headed to the United States.
         Maurits was a frequent presence in my childhood because his mother (Helena, or Tante Lena as we knew her) lived two houses to our right in old-west  Amsterdam. Her second husband, a tall, bald-headed man with a wooden leg, Jan de Vries, owned our tiny, cramped two-story house -- my first house, 17 Jan Hanzenstraat.
         (On the day we arrived in Shreveport -- Jan. 12, 1956 -- Tante Lena died of leukemia. She was 49, still relatively young. I look at pictures of her and she reminds me of ... Rose Van Thyn.)
         I can't say that Maurits was a journalism role model for me. He was still early in his career when we lived in Holland, and the only newspaper pages I looked at and read -- barely -- were sports pages; yes, even at ages 7 and 8.
         Besides, Maurits wrote about the real world -- politics and social matters. What he dealt with mattered much more than fun and games.
         Preparing for this piece, I reviewed six articles -- in Dutch -- written about Maurits in the days after his death. My mother had saved them.
        The articles appeared in his New Israeli Weekly; two were memorial columns; the others were news stories, including a recap of his life, career and personality.
       My Dutch reading education ended in the middle of third grade, so I am an elementary Dutch reader. I retyped the articles in Dutch, then used Internet services to translate. But just as I can't figure out many of the more complex Dutch words and sentences, neither can the Internet translations. Context and meaning are often lost.
        So as I use this material, I am doing the best I can. But I can tell you this: Maurits Kopuit was a wonderful journalist and person, and he left quite a legacy.
       Here are some headlines: "Driven journalist"  ... "Kopuit fought for editorial freedom" ... "Journalist Mau Kopuit was widely appreciated and respected."
       (Part II -- a driving force)


  1. From Philip Kopuit: Thanks so much. Very impressive. Waiting for part 2. If you need any further details let me know. Thanks once more.

  2. From Elsa Van Thyn: My hero, too! He was the most special man and is missed so much.

  3. From Heleen Kopuit Borgenicht: Thanks. I tell everybody that you and Elsa are my (first) cousins because we that feeling we were brought up.

  4. From Nan Vanderwal Anderson: As always, I enjoy readying your blog..........Thanks for sharing these stories and about the amazing people behind them.