Thursday, June 13, 2013

In touch with my great-grandparents

      (Sixth in a series)
      My grandfather's father, Levi Van Thijn, was a devout Orthodox Jew. He lived by the laws of the religion.
      When, in the last decade of his life, he lived in a Jewish home for older people and it was the weekend or a Jewish holiday, and he wanted to join his family in their old neighborhood, he walked a significant distance. Because Orthodox Jews don't use public transportation, cars or (as then) bicycles on those occasions.
      He was there because gatherings for his extended Van Thijn family in Amsterdam in the 1930s were a big deal. That's how my Dad described it in his USC Shoah Foundation interview as a Holocaust survivor.
      My Dad, also named Levi Van Thijn at birth, was not devout and was not Orthodox.  I wouldn't say he was religious; I would say he was faithful to his heritage. 
      I don't think he knew many of the prayers by heart, whether in Hebrew, or Dutch or English (or his mixture of the two). He knew phrases and he knew the traditions, and he enjoyed the connections with the Jewish community -- in Amsterdam and in Shreveport -- and he liked the participation.
      He was once president of the men's club at his synagogue in Shreveport, and he was involved in many of the activities. He did handy work around Agudath Achim, which was -- if he had preferred -- within easy walking distance from the house.
       My parents didn't follow the kosher dietary laws and they were not regular attendees at Sabbath services, but they didn't miss going to worship on the High Holidays. 
       However, don't mistake this. My mother and father were extremely proud of being Jewish.
       They knew the price that so many had paid as Jews -- for centuries, of course, and specifically during World War II. They knew the price their family had paid, that they had paid.
       They were among the Holocaust survivors -- consider them "lucky," if you will, because they did -- and they knew the horror of losing almost entire families.
        My Dad, and my Mom, perhaps felt they didn't need to be told what it meant to be a Jew; they didn't feel the need to be preached to or to have it defined for him. His grandfather and his parents had set the definition in his mind. 
        "I believe in God," he said late in his Shoah Foundation interview, "but I cannot sit and hear sermons. I cannot sit inside a room and listen to speeches at the organizations where I'm a member. I don't -- how do I say this? -- I don't feel good that I have to listen all the time."
      But his devout grandfather and those family gatherings were some of Dad's fondest memories of his boyhood.
      Near the start of his 1996 interview, Dad was asked about his hometown.
      "Amsterdam is a big town now," he said. "It was big in that time, too. Amsterdam was a nice town to live in, especially for the Jewish people. We were living in a Jewish neighborhood. It wasn't necessary, but my parents wanted that, they wanted to live in a Jewish neighborhood."
        Unlike my sister Elsa and me, my Dad grew up surrounded by family. His father and mother each had six siblings; many of them living in that neighborhood. The nearby clothing company for which his mother worked also employed three of his uncles (one of his mother's brothers and two of her sisters' husbands).
     Jewish holidays particularly were times for family.
     "With Pesach (Passover), we went to seder, with my grandfather," Dad recalled. "My father had all those brothers and sisters, and they were all there. Here (the United States) you'd get a hot meal. There, we'd eat matzos for the meal. I remember that real well.
       "We'd have it at one of my aunt's house, and there'd be children and grandchildren, and it'd be about 40 together. Only matzos and something on the matzos, like cheese or eggs or brown sugar.
      "One year, my mother was a member of a group, and for Pesach, she got 100 eggs. She gave a nickel a week -- someone would come and pick it up at home; there was a special man, he made a living at that. He went through the whole neighborhood every day and picked up some money from the people."
      Dad's grandfather had been a widower for years, and at one time lived with one of his kids. Dad remembered him living in the Jewish retirement home.
      In the early 1940s, when Dad was in the Dutch army, "I remember that I go visit him with a cousin, both of us in military clothes. And he was so proud."
      Our genealogy shows that Levi Van Thyn died Nov. 20, 1942, at age 82. It was a merciful death.
      "It was a couple of weeks before he would've been deported to Auschwitz," my Dad noted. Two weeks later, that whole house was deported to Auschwitz or somewhere. It was a Jewish hospital, and in the back was the old-age home."
     My Dad's paternal grandmother, Levi's wife, died when Dad was young.
     "I remember the funeral, that's the only thing I remember," he said in his interview. "We had to stay on the side because we were Cohens [according to the Jewish Funeral Guide, a Cohen is a descendant of Aaron the High Priest and may not come in contact with any dead body or within a certain distance of a Jewish corpse or grave]. You couldn’t go to the cemetery. They had a special building for us.”
     He never knew his mother's father, who died young, but he knew her mother, Eva.
Eva Aandagt-Van Beem
     "I knew her real well because she stayed with us for a while," Dad said. Six of Eva's children, Sara and her siblings, lived in Amsterdam, but Eva wound up living with the one child in Antwerp.
     "But she came often to Amsterdam," Dad said. "She had a cousin of my mother who was working for the railroad, and she had a free pass and she'd pick her up in Antwerp and took her to Amsterdam all the time."
      When Eva died in the late 1930s, Dad noted, "I took her place in Antwerp" when he went to apprentice for diamond cutting.

     In 1991, when I returned to Holland for the first time in 36 years, one day my Dad took me to a cemetery near Diemen, where we were staying with Dad's closest friend in Holland. It was within walking distance.
      After he searched for a while, Dad found his grandfather's grave -- against a back fence on the right side of a good-sized old Jewish cemetery. He was quite satisfied to remember the location.
      It was a memorable moment for me, a reconnection of sorts.
      There are no graves for all the family we lost in the Holocaust. But the memories -- fleeting as they are -- live on. Those people, many of them devoutly Jewish, are not forgotten. There's still family carrying on.
      Next: Growing up in Jewish Amsterdam


  1. From Leo Van Thyn (cousin): Truly enjoyed this posting. The one at the Hollandse Schouwburg was also really impactful. I guess it is probably because what you learned from your parents is so much the same as what I learned from mine. I think about my parents a lot and miss the many stories they (mostly my mom) told about people in the family and friends. Your stories are enjoyable but also so sad. However, as I remember the past I do try to live in the present and the life I lead with Carol, our children and grandchildren.
    What is so incredibly important -- and I have no doubt you realize it -- is that your readers tend to be non-Jews. It is significant that they read the blogs. There is so much revisionist history out there. Also our parents’ generation is almost gone so it is important that these stories be told. I’m glad you are doing this as I am happy that Sonja (Dubois) does her live presentations. It is indeed important.

  2. From Cynthia Sellman Mendez: Good read! It's so important to know your roots.

  3. From Maxie Hays: Awesome Nico!!! So interesting and humbling.

  4. From Philip Kopuit(cousin): Couhein is the old Dutch Jewish pronunciaton of Cohen, i.e. Jewish Priest. The van Thijns are couhaniem = cohens = jewish priests. The Cohens are supposed to keep their Jewish purity and therefore not allowed to be in the vicinity of the death, unless it's their own parents before the burial. At the Jewish cemeteries there are seperate buildings, next to the main building for the mourners, for the cohens, for they have to stay at the side.
    As Jewish Priests even after passing away, they get a special VIP treatment and are buried at the first three lines from the hedge, which must be the reason why your great-grandfather was buried against a back fence

  5. From Kitty van der Woude (cousin): Thanks for this bit of history. It must have been great to be part of such a large circle of relatives. When I was in the Jewish museum in Amsterdam with your father, we went to the cafe, which was pretty small then and in close contact with the kitchen and counter. He greeted people he knew, telling me about them: a cousin/niece/nephew etc. of so and so and I was so surprised! I had been there a few times, not knowing anyone and he came from the U.S. and knew most of the people there. I think Elsa has that, too: She can tell for any length of time about who is the cousin of who, where they live, the names of the children etc. Amazing! Must be a gift. Keep on writing,

  6. From Liz Sachs Piker: This is so important, Nico. I was so young, but Daddy (Louisiana Tech professor Dr. A.J. "Tony" Sachs) was so emotional about all of his religion -- he was not orthodox, either, but he missed it terribly at times or all of the time for all I know. He was so happy to take us to Monroe that time to the service -- I remember that it was around Thanksgiving for us -- I don't really know what holiday that would have been and we were still a little young to really appreciate it totally, but we knew that it was important to Daddy. I loved the singing and wished that I understood more of what was going on, but it was beautiful and different. I am so glad that he took us and I have that memory of him AND with him. He did not talk a lot about it but just let you feel things, if you know what I mean. Thank you again for meaningful memories that seem to touch us all, Jewish or not.