Mrs. R likes to read The Jerusalem Post. The 93-year-old Netanya resident regularly receives the Friday paper, but a few weeks ago she was surprised by a particular article.
It spoke of a research team in Holland that was looking for original residents of Scheveningen, a subdistrict of The Hague. In 1920, Mrs. R had indeed been a resident there, born to Jewish parents.
Together with her three older brothers and two sisters, she had spent her childhood years in this resort area with its beautiful houses and a beach at the end of the street. Her father was, like many other Jews from this neighborhood, active in the diamond industry and traveled to Amsterdam every day.
Based on the article, she contacted researchers Wim Willems and Hanneke Verbeek. Her timing was excellent, since as an assistant researcher on the project, I happened to be heading to Israel for a holiday. Mrs. R said she had many memories from her childhood, as well as documents and pictures to share. On instructions from Willems and Verbeek, I set off to meet Mrs. R and interview her.
The history of Jewish Scheveningen is a conundrum. What once was a vibrant and well-established community was wiped out during the Holocaust.
While most research on Dutch Jewry is focused on the time immediately before and after World War II, the Scheveningen project instead wanted to focus on prewar Jewish community life.
For example, 66 Jewish families lived on Harstenhoekweg Street during the prewar decades. In the sometimes sunny but pleasant seaside town, Jewish Scheveningen during this particular time period is described as a neighborhood with strong family ties and happy memories, as can be attested to by witnesses and their descendants the world over.
Willems, the historian who first broached the idea for the research, explained in the Post article that there remain many missing links as to how such a thriving community was first established. Stories, testimonies, memories, letters and photographs are needed to recreate the family lives of these Jewish former residents of Scheveningen.
“Assimilation and mixed marriages were not uncommon in The Hague and Scheveningen in the early 20th century,” Willems said. “The Jews were like everybody else, but then they were set apart and later deported. People forgot they had lived together before 1942. I want people to realize that there was a sense of togetherness before the war.”
Upon my arrival, I called Mrs. R and was pleasantly surprised to speak a few words in Dutch with her. It was amazing that even now, at the age of 93, having left the Netherlands more than 70 years ago, she remembered the first language she had learned to speak. She looked forward to sharing her life story with me, and invited me to her home.
A vibrant, beautiful woman opened the door and welcomed me in; straightaway, she invited me to sit down and we began to talk, letting her memories come to life.
As with any encounter, the first few moments were filled with general chitchat and sharing of practical information, but very soon the conversation led to more personal and specific recollections.
An image of a happy childhood came to life.
Mrs. R had been a Jewish girl who grew up in a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish environment. Never had she experienced any anti-Semitic behavior from her neighbors. Although she was one of the few Jewish children in her elementary school class, she never felt like an outcast. On Friday afternoons, the school concierge would ring the “Jewish bell,” which informed all Jewish pupils the time had come for them to leave school earlier than others, in order to be home on time for Shabbat. Yes, in a way she was set apart by this ritual, she said, but it was an act of mutual respect, nothing less.
Saturday afternoons she spent with the Zionist youth movement, as did her brothers and sisters; on other days she would play with her Christian friends as well.
Mrs. R also proved to have an intact collection of photographs, stored among old boxes and suitcases under the protection of a heavy blanket. The scene appeared to have been left untouched for a long time. I opened the suitcase; the rusted zipper didn’t provide easy access, but the uncovered pictures made the effort worthwhile.
Mrs. R had pictures from her childhood years in Holland and later, from time she spent in the US and Canada.
Of course, there was no archival order to be found in the suitcase. Pictures from all periods of time were placed together as one big source of information on her life.
But every picture we looked at together sparked memories. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say, and luckily, a picture indeed invokes 1,000 interesting words to be spoken. And as a result of our article in the Post this past June, her words were listened to.
The writer is a research assistant working on a book of Jewish family stories on Scheveningen’s Harstenhoekweg Street, to be published in spring 2016. Information on the project can be found on www.joodsscheveningen.nl or Twitter @eenjoodsestraat.