Sunday, May 6, 2012

Its All Relative

Rotterdam is where my grandfather is from. Its where he met my grandmother, the most beautiful woman in Rotterdam. Its where they worked in a department store together, he as a decorator, and she at the cosmetics counter. Its where he told her, the day he met her, that he would marry her. Its where she laughed at him when he said this. Its where, six months later, he proved himself right.

I have learned a lot about my family history today, my first time to Rotterdam. Before today, I had never met any of my relatives on my grandfather's side. I spent the day with my grandfather's second cousin (his first cousin's daughter... is that a second cousin?) and her daughters and their kids... there were a lot of generations represented. Tomorrow I'm going to meet my great aunt... or great second cousin... I don't understand these things. She is the only living relative, other than my grandfather, who knew my great grandmother, Eva Boekbinder. Eva died in the war. My grandfather says she was a very unhappy woman, but I can't help but see her as stoic, and a hero. One of the many stories my grandfather has told me, that sticks in my mind, is one of his mother when he was in concentration camp with her and his little brother. Eva used to bring them food, Bobby (my Opa) and Tommy, and tell them she had found it or snuck it from somewhere. What my Opa later realized was that it was her food all along and she lied because she knew they wouldn't eat it if they knew she was starving herself. You see why she is a hero in my mind.

When I was younger, the war didn't seem like an unusually tragic thing to me. In concept sure, but it had been something I heard about for as long as I could remember and never felt very emotional for me. As I get older, I find it harder to read about, or watch movies based on the Holocaust. Even just being in Rotterdam and noticing that there is almost no old architecture because of the bombing is really difficult. Just now on the phone, my Opa asked if I'd visited City Hall. I asked if was still standing, and he said "Thank God, because I was sitting on the steps when they started bombing."

My cousins here are related through my grandfather's cousin, Bob. Both he and my grandfather were called Barend, but went by Bob and Bobby. My grandfather by Bobby because he was smaller, as he explains it. They were very close as kids. They ended up in Bergen Belsen together. Today I heard a story that I had not heard before. Apparently Bob never talked about the war, because it was too difficult for him, but there is one story that he did tell, and it was one of Bobby. My grandfather's family had all died and Bob was all he had left. Bob had typhus and dysentery and was covered in flees and weighed 83 pounds (as a fully grown man) and was ready to die. He wanted to die. My Opa begged him to live. He said that he needed him because he was all he had left. He gave him the little food he was rationed and got into bed with him to warm his body. Bob and Bobby were two of very few in our family who survived the war, and Bob credits my grandfather for saving his life. It makes sense that my Opa never told me this story. He only tells stories of the clever ways he found to get extra food or the people who helped him survive, or the amazing people he met in the camp who used to be doctors or scientists or great artists. He told me once that he traded a diamond ring for a piece of brown bread. He has many stories like that, and he is very good at telling them.

When I heard this story, I couldn't hold back the tears that had been building all day. I felt a little silly crying in front of these people I had just met... these, suddenly very close, distant relatives.

One conversation that I had today was with my cousin, Chiara. Neither of us are Jewish, technically. Neither of us were raised in the Jewish faith. In fact, both of us were told by our grandfathers never to tell anyone that we were Jewish. My grandfather told me this when I was in sixth grade. He said it quite seriously, I was almost scared of him in that moment. I saw that fear in my cousin today... Bob's daughter Bess. The people who were old enough, during the war, to remember what happened, are almost all gone. My grandfather will be 91 this year and his cousin Bob died some years ago. For Bob, those memories died with him. This fear of who we are, though, lives on through the generations.

My mother is not Jewish, and neither is my grandmother, and so I am not Jewish. Technically speaking... this is true. I don't know any of the traditions and I didn't attend my first passover until this year. I've never rested on sabbath or lit a menorah. I've never worried about eating kosher or memorizing hebrew prayers. But when I hear these stories of my family, it feels very close. It feels closer than what I did for my thirteenth birthday or any Christmas I've ever celebrated.


  1. This is beautiful, Zoe. Cherish your family and your heritage. You are a wonderful songwriter and musician. Smile. You give so much to this world. They must be proud of you.

  2. I feel honored that you are sharing this with us. These are not easy things to talk about. Thank you.

  3. I echo your sentiments about feeling distant from the tragedies of Europe. Every other week at religion school saw me learning about some slaughter and it's hard not to become desensitized.

  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us !

  5. Thanks for sharing, Zoe. Sounds like you're decended from some very brave people.

  6. My father Bob told me this story:
    Your grandparents met at the Bijenkorf in Rotterdam.
    After the war the Bijenkorf invented jobs for people who suffered in the camps.
    So your grandfather Bobby become a decorator.
    Your grandmother Henny was the most beautiful girl working in the beauty department of the Bijenkorf, and your gandfather fell immediately in love with her and told her when they met " I'm going to marry you"
    She laughed, but they did marry within 6 months!
    And your grandfather is after 66 years still very happy with his beautifull wife.
    Wish them and you lobe, health and happiness.

  7. Glad to hear you've learned more about your family, and the remarkable history they both horrifically struggled, and loved through. Your retelling had me in tears, though, by the end.

    - Be Well

  8. My Nan's older sister's, parents, great aunties and uncles lived through WWII. They were Jewish. I can relate to your 6th grade self being almost scared of your grandfather telling you to not tell anyone that he is Jewish, my Nan has told me that frequently since i was about 7 or 8. I didn't understand why she was so serious about it until we studied the Holocaust in depth a few years ago at school.
    I can also relate to your emotions and "close" feelings when hearing stories of your family during the Holocaust despite not being Jewish, as when my Nan tells me stories of how she grew up in a family labelled as "alien" for being Jewish, not being able to get well-paying and reasonable jobs, it brings me to tears. It feels as though I was a part of it, because my family were a part of it. even though my mother didn't even exist back then.

    Thank you for sharing this. Your Opa is brave.