Thursday, April 4, 2013

The family: van Thijn became Van Thyn

       (Fourth in a series)
       The moment occurred deep in Dad's interview with the USC Shoah Foundation on his Holocaust experiences. He had talked about family repeatedly, describing the losses and the discoveries, and now he summed it up:
       "So we have built up a family again."
       He said it with as much pleasure and as much pride as anything he talked about in the 2 1/2-hour interview.
       Family was the most important thing to Louis Van Thyn. That was clear.
       And what would one expect? He had lost so much. Not just lost it; had it taken away -- death in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other horrible places.
       He lost -- as I have noted in previous blogs -- two families: His original family (father, mother, two brothers) and his second family (wife, in-law parents), plus his older brother's wife and their baby. Dad was the only Holocaust survivor.
       With his original family, he had a bunch of uncles and aunts -- his parents' siblings -- and thus a bunch of cousins. The great majority also died in the gas chambers. But there were a few survivors.
My Dad, left, with his mother Sara, dad
Nathan, and older brother Hyman.
       But after nearly 3 1/2 years of being controlled and/or imprisoned by the Nazis and his long, winding journey away from his original home (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) and his second home (Antwerp, Belgium), Dad didn't know who was gone and who was alive.
       Hard to imagine his despair.
       But not hard to imagine his joy when he did find those survivors, that indeed some of his aunts and uncles and cousins made it through.
       It's not just Dad's story. It's my mother's, too. She also lost her original family (father, mother, sister) and her first husband, and her sister's husband. It's thousands of Holocaust survivors' stories.
       I intend to write about Mom's Holocaust story and her family. But the current series is about Dad. So in this piece and the next few, I'm writing about his side of the family.
        Some of the material I'm sharing is from Dad's Holocaust interview. Some is from a Van Thyn family genealogy (more on that in a moment), and some is from nine long-sheet handwritten pages done by my mother in 1981.
       Dad's name at birth was Levi Van Thijn. (It feels strange to type that.) From the start, he was called Louis; the people who knew him well called him "Louietje," his Dutch nickname.
       When we immigrated from Holland to America in 1956, to simplify matters, his name was legally changed to Louis Van Thyn.
       From the genealogy done by Marion Fahrenford-Nietfeld and Leo Van Thyn (of Mississauga, Ontario, a Toronto suburb) -- like me an Amsterdam native and son of Holocaust survivors and a distant cousin who found us a dozen years ago -- here is an explanation of the last-name variation:
       It should be noted that “van Thijn” is Dutch and “Van Thyn” is North American. The Dutch letter “ij” becomes “y” in North America and “van” becomes part of the surname, and therefore becomes “Van.” As such “van Thijn” becomes “Van Thyn.” 
       Going back through the generations, Levi (or Levie) was a common name in the Van Thijn family. But I've seen only one Louis. He was a good one.
       The name Nico is common in Europe, especially in Holland, and uncommon in the United States, although we're seeing it more often these days.
Nico Van Thyn:
my cousin, born 1941,
died 1943
       I am not the first Nico Van Thyn in my Dad's family, nor the second. My  grandfather's name was Nathan, but -- as Dad told me -- everyone called him Nico.
      When Hyman, Dad's older brother (by two years) and his wife, Regina Kok, had a child in 1941, they named him Nico.              
       Those two Nico Van Thyns -- my grandfather and my 2-year-old cousin -- died in the gas chambers.
       So did another Nico in our family -- Nico Fierlier, the husband of my mother's older sister Anna (my mother called her Annie). Three months after they married, that Nico -- a tailor -- was sent to Auschwitz.
       So, yes, I like the name Nico because it's unusual here in the U.S., but more because of the family heritage. Wish I could have known the other Nicos.
       Hyman was my Dad's constant companion as they grew up.
       "We were real close," Dad recalled. "Like boys, we were fighting sometimes too, but we were a real close family.
       "We played together. We were members of the same club, a youth organization from the labor parties. When I was 12 and he [Hyman] was 14, we go camping, and we go walking, and every week we came two times together and have dancing, square dancing, and all those kind of things."
       In 1932, they gained -- surprise -- a little brother. His name was Jonas, although the family called him Sjohnny (don't why the "S" was part of it; European, I suppose). 
      As Dad noted in his interview, "I was a good babysitter in that time already."
Sara, my grandmother, and
Jonas, my uncle -- died in 1943
      Hyman had gone to trade school to learn cabinet making and Jonas was only 2 when Dad left home to move to Antwerp and become an apprentice in diamond cutting. So their connection wasn't long-lasting, but Dad was fond of his younger brother.
      Jonas was 10 when, with his mother, he was sent to Auschwitz ... and to the gas chambers. 
      The pain of losing so many relatives, much of the family, was something Dad could accept, or at least reason with, over the years. But the deaths of 2-year-old Nico and 10-year-old Jonas was as painful to him as anything that happened in the Holocaust.
       Near the end of his interview, he answers a question about his religious views and his views on life.
       "I cannot say I'm 100 percent religious," he said. "I believe there is something, I believe there is a God. I still have in the back of my mind what happened in the war, why did that happen?
      "Why was my little brother killed? Why was the baby of my brother killed? They have do nothing in this world. That my father and mother maybe were not good, I can understand ... but they were good. Why did they [the Germans] have to do that?
     "That is something I ask my rabbis a couple of times already, and I never got a straight answer about that from my rabbis before. You know, I still cannot understand that."
     Next: My grandparents, Dad's side





  1. From Betty Cagle Walker (went to school with my sister Elsa): The Van Thyns were one of the finest families in our community and city. I have heard his mother's story many times. This is the first time I have heard his father's story. It is so important that we never forget the sacrifice of so many and the strength of two people to bring the Love they shared into their lives their children and their children's friends. Thank you, Nico, for sharing your story. Your mother always said you and Elsa were her miracles.

  2. From Pat Flenniken: I just saw Elsa in March. She is such an amazing woman and I have such wonderful memories of her family.

  3. From Nancy Nugent: This is an article written by my friend and neighbor as I grew up in Shreveport. I think that more people should be reminded of this and hopefully it will not be repeated in history although I think as I see America today there are honest doubts. Nico, I thank you for publishing these stories.

  4. From Patrick Booras: Enjoyed the history of your name. My last name is actually Tambooras, before my grandfather (Dad's side) came to America prior to 1920. U.S. Customs shortened it to Booras.

  5. From Maxie Hays: Love your family history on your father's side.

  6. From Pamela Summerlin: Indeed, why did they have to do that?

  7. From Joel Bierig: Again, excellent stuff!

  8. From Patricia Bates: Thanks, Nico, for keeping the memories coming.

  9. From Jim Pruett: Yeah. There aren't a lot of "straight answers" on life's toughest questions. Today is the 45th anniversary of MLK Jr's assassination in Memphis. The Commercial Appeal has a special section entitled "Six-01," the time of death on April 4, 1968. You might find it interesting. Those were tough times also, although not to rival your parents' trials.

  10. From Jesse Carrigan: Just a note, Nico, regarding this blog on your name, etc.
    [Because of a family tragedy],I can relate to your Dad and his questioning "why" what happened to his family...and "why was his little brother killed?" At the services for a close family member, the preacher led the congregation in the singing of an old funeral anthem, "Further Along."
    I still sing those words to myself all the time, because it sums it all up for me ... and I believe the words:
    "Further along will know all about it, further along will understand why, cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, we'll understand it, all by and by."
    To this day, I'm not a church goer, but do believe in the same God your Dad did, and like him, still have some questions. But. in truth, that old anthem reassures me every day.

  11. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: I have no words suitable to describe how this article made me feel. I cannot begin to comprehend the magnitude of sorrow your parents endured. Suffice to say, I want to know more about the Holocaust. As a typical southern WASP turned Catholic, I have heard stories about it on television and have read some, but it was always a distant event. Having you write about your own parents going through it has made me realize that I not only want to know more, I need to know more. My children and grandchildren need to know. ... As always, beautifully written and with great affection for your father shining through.