Thursday, July 25, 2013

Growing up in Jewish Amsterdam

(Seventh in a series)
       Dad was never destined to go to college, not in the 1920s and 1930s when he grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam.
       Where Louis Van Thyn was headed, as determined by academic standards/potential when children reached sixth grade, was trade school. So was his brother Hyman, older by two years.
       By the mid-1930s -- before the threat of the Germans and World War II grew into the world's nightmare -- Hyman was on his way to learning the cabinet-making trade. Dad was also on that path until the Depression intervened, and he had to go to work at age 14.
       Before that, though, as he recalled in his 1996 testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation, was a happy boyhood in Amsterdam.
        As we've written previously, the Jewish faith, Jewish life, played a big role in Dad's first 15 years or so. So, naturally, did his connection with his older brother. (Not so much with younger brother Jonas, who was born 13 years after my Dad.)  
       "We went to an almost all-Jewish school," Dad told his Holocaust interviewer. "There were maybe two or three non-Jewish children in the class; the rest were all Jewish. We were living in, you could say, a Jewish neighbood. There were some parts, across from our house was a block with only gentiles and they went to a special school over there, a special Christian school in the neighborhood. But there weren't too many [gentiles]. On the Jewish holidays, the schools were closed."
       Most of the neighborhood schools, too, were closed on Saturdays (because of the Jewish sabbath), although that wasn't the case in much of Amsterdam, where schools wee open fo a half-day on Saturdays.
      "We had to do every day a half-hour longer to make up for the Saturdays," Dad pointed out. "Our teachers were mostly not Jewish, though. There were a few Jewish teachers, but mostly not."
       In addition, there was involvement in Jewish youth groups, such as B'yat Israel, which Dad was a member of until age 14; there was Hebrew school; and there was the family's part in Jewish neighborhood groups.
       "I was going to Hebrew school for five or six years," Dad recalled. "After 4 o'clock, we had to be there until 5 or 6 o'clock for Hebrew school. And that was [held] in the public school. ... They called [the teacher] Rabbi DeHondt -- he had a big beard -- and we go every day, and on Sunday morning.
       What did he remember about it? "Not too much. I forgot all my Hebrew from that time," he said, with a laugh.
       Meanwhile, his parents -- while not Orthodox Jews -- observed the Jewish holidays and were involved in Jewish activities.
       They were, as Dad recalled, members of the chevra kadisha -- a special group of volunteers, a so-called "holy society" whose role was to care for the dead, to prepare the bodies for burial in a Jewish cemetery.
       "Everyone was a member of the chevra kadisha," Dad said, "and at Pesach (Passover), you got free matzos for every apartment and every family. That was the only thing we got out of that.
       "Then my mother was a member of a different organization [that received] eggs or groceries at Pesach. ... And you'd see kids with all new clothes, at Purim, at Chanukah, we got the presents, [but] not with Christmas. You didn't get a bunch of presents, like [the kids] do here [in the United States] ... but you'd get clothes maybe, some boys did sometimes."
The young Louis Van Thyn, second from the left
      Here was something else about Dad, and this, too, I've written several times previously: He loved sports, even as a young man. In that way, perhaps, he was different from his older brother, who was a hiker and a biker but not into athletics.
       Dad loved it all -- voetbal (soccer), basketball, track and field, swimming, whatever.
       The young man, second from the left in this picture -- the nerdy, geeky looking one (long before nerd and geek were part of the language) with the glasses and the bony legs -- that's Dad in a soccer uniform.
       Don't know what kind of athlete he was, but I know he was a willing one, and anyone who knew him knows he was not a nerd nor a geek. But athletic-looking then, in the mid-1930s ... no.
       Another significant part of Dad's growing-up experience in those days was the De Vries van Buuren & Co., by then a 100-year-old major textile wholesale firm located right in the heart of my parents' neighborhood. By 1927, it was a complex of buildings near the Rembrandt House.
       Several of Dad's aunt and uncles worked for the company; so did Dad's mother, sewing pants at home and often using Dad to transport them back via his bicycle.
       Soon enough, Dad was working there, delivering the ready-made garments to shopkeepers, hawkers and market traders.
       "We [Hyman and him] went to the regular school until sixth grade, then we went to trade school," Dad recalled. "My brother learned cabinet making, and I learned woodwork, too, in the trade school. But when I was 14, I started working -- it was in the middle of the Depression. We had to start working real young; there was no time to go to school any more."
       Again, the Jewish influence and neighborhood was a factor.
       The De Vries van Buuren was, Dad remembered, "a Jewish company, there were 300 Jewish people working there. There were only four gentiles working, and on Saturday, only the watchmen were there. It was closed on Saturday [the Sabbath], and we worked on Sunday."
       And while anti-Semitism and the German threat were growing in the mid-1930s, Dad and his family felt little of that.
       "There were no problems with the non-Jewish people [at the company]," Dad replied to a question by the interviewer. "They were much older than me, and we had nothing to do with them."
       In addition, "We had many gentile friends, and we never had trouble with those kinds of people. There was no anti-Semitism in Holland, as far as I know, in that time. ... Amsterdam had about a million people and there were something like 55,000 Jews. There were no Reform shuls [synagogues], 15 to 20 strictly Orthodox shuls, and maybe one small liberal temple."
       But times would soon change. By then, Dad was a diamond-cutting apprentice and living in Belgium.
       Next: Leaving home


1 comment:

  1. From Sylvia Pesek: Reading this piece, particularly, one can feel the shadows gathering and sense, more than hear, the low, muffled drumbeat of encroaching horror. Thank you so much for sharing this.