Friday, September 5, 2014

End of a life, end of this story

Dad. This was taken during his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation
interview. The way he's smiling, the session must've just ended.
(34th in a series, final chapter)
      Near the end of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute interview my father did on Oct. 9, 1996, he is asked if he has a message for humanity.
      "Oh, that we have peace," he answered. "I pray for that. I still pray a little bit. I pray we have peace, and I hope we see it in our lifetime, maar [but] what's happening in Israel, I don't think I will see it in my lifetime. They're fighting for so many years there already, [even] before Israel."
      Peace remains an elusive goal, so Dad (Louis Van Thyn) would be disappointed in the ongoing Middle East turmoil. But despite so many hardships -- the loss of most of his family of origin, the five years of Nazi Germany's rule of where he lived, three years of work/concentration camp misery -- I believe he was grateful for his journey through life.
      He was especially grateful for the opportunities and assistance he found from 1956 -- when we immigrated to the United States from The Netherlands -- to the end.
      "Life for us after the war was real good," he told the interviewer in 1996. "We were blessed with two children; I had a good job, and made a nice living. We love our life."
      The end came on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008, at about 7:30 in the morning at Willis-Knighton Medical Center South in Shreveport. He had been rushed there the night before after collapsing at home.
      It was a bit of a shock, but not a surprise. His health had declined for several years, especially the last three years after our daughter Rachel got married, and he and my mother traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., for that happy occasion.
     But diabetes had made his life difficult over the past 15 years. The vision in his left eye was all but gone, his (big) heart had weakened, and his kidney functions were very diminished. He was offered  dialysis a year before the end, but -- wisely, we think -- declined.
      He was a month and a half past his 89th birthday.
      For most of his life, especially considering his 2 1/2 years in the concentration/work camps -- some of it in hard labor -- his health was relatively good. He did have a couple of scary blood clots in his legs and three or four very painful episodes with kidney stones. But those were temporary slowdowns.
       He worked until he was 65, and he was still refereeing kids soccer games in his mid-60s, and going to athletic events -- and many other things -- regularly. He (mostly) did what my mother told him to do, puttered around the house and yard, and regularly attended Shriners and Masons functions, and his coffee klatches. When he was 83 and again at 85, he still managed to make trips to Europe.
       Dad loved reading the newspaper daily and books, playing solitaire on the computer (and reading Dutch newspapers), watched a lot of taped television (wrestling, soap operas and soccer games) in his little back room (which was once my bedroom), and working puzzles.
       Near the end, he fell too often -- that was distressing -- but avoided serious injury. But he collapsed at home a couple of times, had to be taken to the hospital after 911 calls, and required too much time as a patient at Willis-Knighton South, where he much preferred to do his regular workouts in the exercise room (more talking than working out, I suspect).
       The final collapse came just four days after our son Jason married Ann in north Fort Worth, a trip my parents couldn't make. Dad had stopped making long driving trips and driving at night for several years, but he was still driving in town some, including taking my mother to her speaking engagements.
       My sister, who had come south for Jason's wedding, was with him when he passed away and had to give us the news by phone. That was tough. We left for Shreveport almost immediately.
       After his death, The Shreveport Times did a nice obit and Jerry Byrd did a wonderful column on "one of my heroes" in the Bossier Press-Tribune.
       Bea and I saw the body, on the day before the funeral -- one of the most difficult five minutes of my life. His lips pursed, his arms battered with large purple bruises from all the IVs, the large number 70726 tattoo on his left forearm more prominent than ever on his very white, thin skin.
       70726. It sticks with you.        
       What also sticks is the great love and respect our family was shown, in so many ways.
        A few hours after we viewed the body, it was prepared in the traditional Jewish manner by the the Chevra Kadisha in Shreveport (from a sacred society, a group of pious men and women who have taken on the obligation of ritually preparing the deceased).
        The funeral service on that Friday, at the Rose-Neath Marshall Street chapel, was well-attended. Most prominent was the presence of Ruth Nierman and Pauline Murov, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. A.A. Gilbert -- who took my family in as part of theirs and gave Dad a job for 28 years. Most touching was that Neal Nierman, Ruth's husband, came out of the hospital to attend ... in a wheelchair. A month later, he too died.
Dad and his first great grandchild Josie, fall, 2007
       Ron Nierman, Neal and Ruth's son, was one of the pallbearers and an eloquent eulogist. Adam Wellen, my sister's oldest child then two days short of 26, gave a nice talk. Rabbi Foster Kowaler did a wonderful job conducting the service and summarizing Dad's life and his place in the community. Least eloquent speaker was me. I thought I could do it without notes, so I stumbled and rambled. But at least it was genuine.
       Ron Nierman and Bill Braunig, the two Gilbert family members then running the business and both close to my Dad, were pallbearers, as were the grandsons -- Jason, Adam and Josh (Wellen) -- and Rachel's husband, Russell Smith.
       Someone else at the funeral: 10-month-old Josephine "Josie" Smith, my parents' first great-grandchild. A few months earlier, Opa Louis -- in this case Great Opa Louis -- got to hold the baby Josie.
       Now there are four great-grandchildren ... and one to come any day. There will be more.
       The burial was at the old Greenwood Cemetery on Stoner Avenue; Dad was delighted to have purchased a plot there through the Masons. In fact, the Masons' burial rites were an aside to the Jewish ceremony; this was a cause of concern for the rabbis and my mother, until Mom checked out the details. I insisted it be included because I knew that's what Dad wanted.
       He is buried in the Masons section, but only about 100 yards from the Jewish section -- about 100 yards from the Gilbert family plots and the great Janice Cahn, who did so much for our family and was one of my mother's guardian angels in Shreveport.
         I still see the mourners shoveling the dirt into my dad's grave after the plain white casket was lowered, especially my kids -- Jay in a black suit and sunglasses to hide the tears, Rachel in a black dress, sobbing. Elsa's boys stayed after the ceremony and did most of the shoveling.
         He is buried a long way from Amsterdam and Antwerp, and especially from his family's ashes at places such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.
         Dad is at peace, with a gravestone he'd like. We go by occasionally just to say hello, and remember.     
         As the Shoah Foundation interview wound down, Dad talked about the other Holocaust survivors in Shreveport and the immediate area, and the interviewer asked whether our parents talked to Elsa and me about the Holocaust.
        "Yes, m'am; yes, m'am," Dad answered. "They know exactly what happened. First, my son didn't want to listen, but lately -- the last 5-10 years -- he started asking me some questions. My daughter, from when she was young, listened.
      "We told them they didn't have any grandparents or uncles or aunts; they knew that. And our grandchildren the same way already, we talk to the grandchildren. ..."
     Yes, we always knew. But when we were kids, we didn't talk all that much about it with our friends or in school. It didn't matter; we were just trying to settle in and live our lives. It was long before our mother became a regular public speaker/educator on the Holocaust and a celebrity of sorts in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana.
      Dad's story was more varied and perhaps more interesting than my mother's. But, as I've written before and said often, he didn't speak English well enough to speak long to an audience or class.
Which is one reason this was a motivation to put his story in print. And maybe it was cathartic for me. Honestly, there were lots of times when I did not treat him with respect; in fact, I was downright ugly (I'll spare you the details).
      Oh, how I regret that now. I regretted it then.
      Because he deserved that respect, what he had been through, what he had seen. He was not a disciplinarian -- he was just too good a guy, too gentle, to be harsh to his first-born, his only son. He was my biggest fan; he bragged on me far more than I deserved, or liked.
      His love of sports, in particular, was so great that he passed it on; it was a natural for me. It gave me an avenue ... and a career. His love of family and of friends and of good times was his greatest trait.
      He was generous, especially with us (his family), but also with various charitable causes. Sometimes his contributions were greater -- especially for Jewish-related campaigns -- but he almost always gave to the organizations that sent mailouts (St. Jude Children's Hospital, Easter Seals, Shriners' Hospital for Children in Shreveport, Disabled American Veterans are just a few examples). It might not be much, but it was something he liked doing.
      Plus, he was an active Shriner and Mason, working in the kitchen or helping set up for activities and helping with the cleanup.
      Yes, he had a sense of entitlement, maybe about some benefits he felt he deserved or a sleight he perceived. Can't say I always agreed with him, but my view is that was understandable he could feel that.
      Did he hold a grudge about the camps? Well, he never warmed to the "new" Germany or to any countries or groups that took violent actions. Again, understandable.
      "I pray we have peace," he said, and that was a genuine wish.
      Everywhere he went, people took to him. They could sense his spirit, his benevolence, his appreciation for life and for the twists his journey had taken. He certainly could not have imagined the road from Amsterdam and The Netherlands to a place called Shreveport in the United States of America.
      So, telling his story, writing about his family and his life and his travails in World War II, in the unimaginable concentration/work camps amid the Nazis' cruelty, is something I owed him.
I think, I hope, he would have been proud. I was proud of him.
      For 63 years after Mechelen and Jawischowitz and Janina and especially Auschwitz-Birkenau, Louis Van Thyn was a survivor. His world view was a positive one -- he could always look on the bright side -- and the life he lived was a beautiful example for his fellow man.
       So his story ended, but not really. Because the family goes on, and he would like that.


  1. From Tim Looney: Thank you for this series, Nico! A very touching tribute to a very special man.

  2. From Doug Bland: You had a great set of parents. I'll always remember their talks.

  3. From Ann Keady (Jason's wife): The original OPA! Great story!

  4. From Ron Newberry: Nico, your Mom and Dad are really special people. Even though I never met them, through your blogs, I feel them inside me and that is going to make me a better person!

  5. From Leo Van Thyn: Thanks for writing this series about your dad. It needed telling.

  6. From Glen Gordon: Nico, again a great blog! I feel so blessed to have been a neighbor to your family. Your Mom and Dad were always so nice to me and I shall always remember their smiles and laughter. I am so glad I got to see them at Dad's 75th birthday. I hope their legacy will live forever.

  7. From Sherry Eaglebarger Patterson: Nico, I follow your Dad's lead in praying for peace. I know if he was here today, he would be so disappointed with the state of the world. Thanks for sharing the story of your amazing father with us.

  8. From Greg Pederson: What a great way to honor your dad, Nico, and after reading your blog it's obvious he was certainly worthy of honor. I'm in awe of everyone who survived the Holocaust and was able to find the strength to carry on living, and that your dad was able to do so while maintaining such a positive outlook is extraordinary.

  9. From Jesse Grubbs: I so enjoyed your latest blog. You, my friend, have so much love and history in your family that you should be extremely proud and blessed with all your family. I know I was not respectful to my dad at all times, but I see that as part of the growing-up process.

  10. From Jim Robinson: NIco, I have really enjoyed reading the almost daily blogs about your family. I am sure you and Elsa both take great pride, as you should, in what your mother and father accomplished in their lifetimes. Thanks for sharing, and Geaux Tigers!

  11. From Glenn Rodgers: Thanks for sharing. My neighbor growing up was a POW of the Germany army. I can't believe the horrible things those people did to the Jewish people and the POWs. The ones that lived to tell about it are about gone but they will never be forgotten as long as I live. May they all have the peace that they could not find in life.

  12. From Lonnie Dunn: Amazing tribute to your dad, Nico. He was a lovable, precious, positive influence on so many people, including me. Thanks for sharing.

  13. From Maxie Hays: Awesome Nico, just awesome. What a story! Your Dad was a wonderful man. You did an incredible job of telling the story. Brought tears to my eyes several times. Thank you for sharing this with us. God bless you and your family.

  14. From Patrick Booras: Great insight into your Dad's life and journey in your written series.

  15. From Chuck Baker: Thanks so much for the series on your dad. Knowing him always gave me feeling of a connection to history.
    Throughout the series I can't count the number of times I cried. I still cannot fathom how your mom and dad (or anyone) survived those horrors and then were able to live productive lives. If I ever had one of those fantasy dinners people talk about, your dad definitely would be on my guest list.

  16. From Abby Bruno (Dad's youngest grandchild): That was a tough one to read. Glad I did, though.

  17. From Casey Baker: Thank you for the love you showed your dad and for telling us all the things we didn't know. Plus, thank you for telling us about you and all the things we didn't know.

  18. From Sandi Atkinson: Your dad would be exceedingly proud of your writing about him, as well as having shared his story. It’s definitely a story that should be told time and time again.
    I never met your parents, but they come to life in your words. It could not have been easy for you being their child, but you realize now just how blessed you were to have been their son.
    The entire story of your father’s life is an amazing story of literally and figuratively rising from the ashes. You did him proud, Nico.

  19. From Ann Bloxom Smith (blog share on Facebook): [Nico's blog was] posted by my sweet friend, Elsa Van Thyn. Their father Louis was a beautiful man who managed to survive the concentration camps of WWII with a wounded but loving heart. He and his wife Rose Van Thyn (also a Holocaust survivor) continue to be inspirations to me and many others even years after their passing.

  20. From Jackie Wellen: I remember him well. Lovely man.

  21. From Maureen Wellen (to Elsa): What a great series -- thanks for posting and to get to know your dad -- and brother -- better. And what a wonderful way to be sure he is remembered.

  22. From Francine Rapaport Nelson: It's great to have the memories.

  23. From Dana Svigel Schuster: Beautiful! I am in tears. Sharing!

  24. From Philip Kopuit: Nico, you can be proud of the work you have done, both the research as well as the writing and publishing your blogs. An amazing story. It taught me a lot about your father and the family history. I'm sure Louitje would have been proud of the work you have done. Thanks.

  25. From Susan Kassman Greenberg: Thanks for sharing. I think your parents were amazing.

  26. From Tom Arceneaux: Thank you, Nico, for the inspiration (and the tears dripping on my keyboard). Your parents were wonderful people and I was honored to number them among my friends.

  27. From Jimmy Russell: Thank you for writing these pieces. They have certainly had an effect on me and they are an inspiration also. Our generation today could not survive such because we have had it so easy and in many ways we have lost our way as to what is truly important in the world.

  28. From John W. Marshall III: I imagine you shed a few tears writing that final episode. Maybe felt similar to reading the last words of a good book. It was very good. And it will always be there for the world to read and know. Great pic of him smiling, to end the series.

  29. From Don Landry: Thanks for writing the series on your dad. It was very educational. It also reminds you about how awful things were. I am glad that I got to know him, even a little.

  30. From Ron Bell: I have really enjoyed reading your blogs about your Dad. It is impossible to fully comprehend what your parents went through in those concentration camps. What a great Dad and what a great heritage you have had. I am truly blessed that our paths crossed.

  31. From Vince Langford: I was crying big tears reading the final chapter of your dad’s life and journey. The paragraph about seeing his number again while they prepared the body -- whoa. That was all terrifically written.
    Thinking of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge: so in January ‘45, maybe weeks apart, there were U.S. soldiers tramping through Belgium, out of ammunition, surrounded by Germans, and your dad in Poland, after the Germans leave, just out there, no support. The soldiers get rescued, the wounded immediately sent home. Your dad still had a long way to go, and a much different homecoming.

  32. Thank you for sharing your parents' amazing story. I feel as though I know them now and I mourn their loss. They are an inspiration of overcoming unimaginable horrors and building a life of love, peace and family. I find their stories especially poignant as I am writing a book about a brother and sister who survive the Holocaust and ironically, he is interned at Jawischowitz and she is a victim of the medical experiments in Block 10. I only discovered your blog while doing a search for Jawischowitz survivor testimonies. Now, after spending the better part of my day reading your father's story, I know and understand more about what it must have been like. I cannot thank you enough for having the courage to share something so terrible with the world. I am happy to say, I will be visiting the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie later this month and I plan on watching the testimony your mother gave as well.