A tombstone for Berny

After 62 years, Ellis Lehman decided to open a love letter from the grave.

By MARIA HJORT
January 21, 2008 23:13
A tombstone for Berny

Berny Spier 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

'Memories of the time when you were not with me." This is how 18-year-old Ellis Lehman (her maiden name was Paraira) started her diary on July 23, 1942. Three days earlier she had separated from the one she thought would be her first and only love - Berny Spier, also 18 and from the same town as Ellis, the Dutch seaport of Scheveningen, a few miles from The Hague. They had met only six months earlier at a dance for Jewish teenagers. Ellis had worn a blue dress - her favorite color - and she had managed to tame her brown curly hair for the occasion. And even though parents were sitting in the next room supposedly chaperoning, someone had dared to turn off the lights for the mood to be a bit more romantic, and she had danced with Berny all evening, feeling so safe in his strong arms even though a war was going on right outside. Later he had kissed her. "This was the first time a boy kissed me," Ellis remembers. "It was clear to us from the very beginning that we wanted to get married and have children. But we only had six months together - six very intense months," says Ellis, today 84 and living in a Jerusalem retirement home. Sitting in her warm living room surrounded by family pictures and drawings by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Ellis takes me on a journey to the past - a past that she repressed for 62 years and only let herself rediscover a few months ago. "Berny was a teenager, but he behaved like a 25-year-old. He knew what he wanted: to go to Palestine and live on a kibbutz. I didn't even know what Palestine was," she laughs, and recalls how angry she was at her boyfriend for wanting to leave their homeland. Her family was more Dutch than the Dutch queen, as she puts it. They had been living in Holland since the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and Jews had a good life there - until World War II. "I had a lovely life in Holland. I knew we were Jews because my grandfather wore a kippa, but I never knew what anti-Semitism was until I was seven. A little girl in my class had a beautiful red umbrella - back then all umbrellas were black and big, but hers was red and tiny. I wanted so much to be her friend so I could hold her umbrella. So one rainy day I asked her: 'Tuti, do you want to be my friend?' and she answered: 'I can't be your friend because my parents say you killed Jesus.' "I was in shock. I had no idea who this Jesus was. No one in my class was called Jesus." Later that day, Ellis's mother explained to her. "That's the only time I encountered anti-Semitism." But with the war this changed, and Berny knew that Jews could not continue their good life in Europe: "On the outside it looks like we are free, but we are not," Ellis remembers him quoting from a Zionist book. The couple were together constantly from the day they met. The Jewish children were by then not permitted to go to school, so together Berny and Ellis, who were in their last year of studies, volunteered to be with the younger children. Berny taught them sports and Ellis played the piano and sang with them. "Berny and I were much in love and always together - except during the night," Ellis smiles, adding that she never got to know Berny's parents very well. They found the passionate relationship foolish. "In my family it was different. We didn't think like that. My parents were artists and more free." Ellis describes a happy relationship, rapidly matured by the circumstances around them. The couple spent many hours taking long walks (their bikes had been confiscated by the Nazis), going to the beach and talking, especially about Berny's relationship with his father. "He was very unhappy with his father. They didn't understand each other. His parents were good people, but old-fashioned and not very open, and he was an only child. "Our house was very democratic; we would talk about problems and my parents, me and Bob [her younger brother] always took turns doing dishes and those things. Only when we went into hiding, Bob and I weren't asked whether we wanted to go." Good-bye On a sunny day in July 1942, Ellis and her family went into hiding. Her father had been working for a cigar company, first drawing cigar ads and later working as a salesman, driving around the country to offer the many tobacco stores a load of the famous Ritmeester cigars made from Dutch tobacco. The owner of the company, Mr. Van Schuppen, had already helped smuggle many Jewish children into Holland from Germany, and let his workers pick them up and transport them in the company's cars. But Holland had become a dangerous place for all Jews by now, and Ellis's father, David Paraira, had already received letters from the Nazis demanding that the family go to the east and work. Paraira therefore turned to Van Schuppen for help to take his family to Switzerland, but the neutral country didn't want to take in any more Jews. Instead, Van Schuppen offered to pay five guilders per family member per day to anyone willing to risk hiding the Jewish family (this was the equivalent to three monthly salaries; many Dutch people turned in their Jewish countrymen for 12 guilders) plus cigars to trade for food. "Daddy didn't let us know what would happen. He just said: 'Tomorrow we are leaving and you can only bring your schoolbag.' After we had packed, my non-Jewish uncle took our bags with him on his bike so it wouldn't look suspicious when we left the house." When Ellis realized that time was running out, she insisted on phoning Berny. "I can't go away without telling him," young Ellis sobbed. "Nobody must know," her father had answered, but in the end he gave in and let his teenage daughter phone her love. Berny came as soon as he heard, and stayed the whole night . "It was a very unusual night," Ellis recollects. "We cried together and cited Shakespeare. Sometimes my father checked on us, to make sure we weren't doing anything forbidden." The memories make Ellis smile despite the fact that this surely was one of the most difficult nights of her life. In their last hours together the couple promised each other to write a diary while they were apart. That way, when they would finally be reunited, they could read each other's diaries and know what the other person had gone through. In the morning they went for a walk. Ellis begged Berny to also go into hiding as soon as possible. And then the time came for the young lovers to part. "He didn't want to say good-bye, and pretended everything was normal. I didn't want to cry when he walked away because I knew that if he turned around and saw me he would also start crying," remembers Ellis. She was the last one to leave the home as the family fled. "We had a little cat called Winnie. I put her outside and closed the door quickly so she wouldn't try to get back in. I remember feeling angry with her for not even trying. "My father always called me his little butterfly; I was so light and never sad. But when I closed the door behind me it felt like the ground under my feet disappeared, and that I could never return. I felt so tired, as if I was 80." Separation "July 20, 1942: The birthday of my father. A big disaster happened. The girl I love so much had to go away. At 1 o'clock I said good-bye and I didn't cry because she told me not to." This is how Berny Spier starts his diary. In the meantime, Ellis found herself on a train headed for the German border, waiting for an unknown person to show up and give her a new identity card and further directions. In the middle of all the uncertainty, her thoughts went to Berny. "I wasn't sure that I would ever see him again, and imagined all the terrible things that could happen to him," Ellis recalls. Soon after, she was no longer 18-year-old Ellis Cohen Paraira, but a 25-year-old Dutch nurse with blonde hair and an unusual name, Wijnanda Dirkje Luchtigheid. For the first three months, Ellis and her family lived in a summerhouse close to Arnhem. "We lived like we were on holiday. It was a good time and a lovely place. We were afraid to be caught, but it was the best way of hiding; we were still free," says Ellis. The summerhouse belonged to two lady friends in Arnhem. They told the locals that Ellis and her family were friends of theirs, so the family could even go to the local hotel to buy hot meals. But autumn came and it became too cold and too suspicious for the family to stay in the wooden summerhouse any longer. The family had to separate. Ellis and her mother went to Utrecht and stayed with the Kooistras - a Christian couple with three children, the husband active in the underground. "We sat in the back room behind the kitchen - me, my mother, a 50-year-old Jewish man and a student who had refused to sign a form committing his solidarity with the Nazis." Ellis remembers that the student was enthralled by her, and when she got frightened as the Nazis searched the house or a car passed by outside, he would hold her hand. "I didn't want to betray Berny, but I liked it when he held my hand," Ellis says. The Kooistra children couldn't know that there was someone hiding in the house, so the refugees had to be quiet and whisper most of the time. "The worst thing was the uncertainty and fear. We heard cars passing by outside and thought maybe we had been betrayed. I was never bored, but you go crazy when you are not allowed to go outside," she says. The many hours sitting in the back room gave Ellis plenty of opportunities to write in her diary to Berny, who was still very much on her mind. "I wish I didn't have to be away from you, Berny. I long so much - I'm a wound of open longing." "My diary was one long, silly love letter. Every day I wrote that I longed for him and that I was going crazy without him. I wrote that if he died I would have nothing to live for." After one year of being separated from her father and brother, Ellis and her mother went to stay with them in their hiding place- a remote house in the countryside by the foot of the Grebbeberg mountain, where they could sit in the front room during the day and had their own room to sleep in at night, unlike in the Kooistra house, where they had sat on kitchen chairs all night, every night. But in September 1944, the British airborne troops tried to capture that part of Holland and the area became a war zone. So together with the Crum family that owned the house, they had to flee. Ellis and her family returned to the Kooistras' and stayed there until the end of the war. "Now we were nine Jews hiding with the family in the small house. We thought it would only be for a few days; part of Holland was already free, and the Allied army was approaching." With her whole family now hiding in the house, they dug a place to hide under the floor of the back room. Every time a car stopped outside the house, the nine Jews together with Mr. Kooistra would step into the hole. Mrs. Kooistra would close it behind them and they would sit there on the water pipes with pounding hearts until the danger had passed. Seven times the Nazis entered the house looking for Mr. Kooistra, who they knew was cooperating with the Allies, picking up weapons that they air-dropped on a nearby field. A few times the Nazis thrust their bayonets through the thin wooden floor, but miraculously no one ever got hurt. To help the long hours pass when sitting in hiding, Mr. Kooistra would give his nine Jewish guests an assignment every day. "He was so religious that he knew the whole Bible. He would give us a passage to read and told us to discuss the deeper meaning. He never told us to read the Christian Bible, but was angry with us for not knowing our own Bible," Ellis smiles, repeating time and time again how much she owes those strangers who were willing to risk their own and their children's lives for someone they had never seen before. "The winter of 1944 was terrible. Christians died of hunger. The only thing you could buy was sugar beets. We would shred them, boil them and eat them as a sweet porridge. We could eat as much as we wanted, but afterward we would have diarrhea for a whole week." Every evening for three months in a row the Jewish refugees had been sitting in the front room with the Kooistras discussing the Bible after the children had gone to bed. "Then one evening he told us not to come to the front room. 'It's Christmas, and I would like to pray with my wife alone - are you angry with me?'" Ellis remembers him asking. "They felt they had to ask our permission to be together on Christmas! That made me feel terrible - like a leech," says Ellis, her eyes suddenly wet. "So we were all sitting with sad faces in the back room listening to them singing and walking around. Suddenly the door opened and Mrs. Kooistra was standing there looking like the Madonna [she was pregnant]. Love for us was streaming out of her eyes as she said: 'My treasures, we have a surprise for you.'" The nine dumbstruck guests entered the living room and saw a beautifully set table with a little plate and spoon for each one, and in the middle a big cake decorated with a seven-branched menora encircled by a Christmas wreath, which lit up the room together with a small Christmas tree. "We hadn't eaten bread for a whole week and there was a real cake! That evening I wrote in my diary: 'This cake was not made of flour and margarine; it was made of love.' I can still taste the cake on my tongue, and get moved every time I tell the story." Ellis pauses, for a moment, and then resumes by telling me that Mr. Kooistra then played Handel's Judas Maccabaeus on the family organ. "I didn't know it then, but later when I worked as a music teacher I always played it for the children. I was never able to sing the words, though, because I was too moved. That evening was one of the biggest things that happened in my life." Liberation and frustration "Less than half a year later we were free." Ellis and her family moved to Amsterdam in May 1945, but she hadn't forgotten Berny. Every Tuesday she hitchhiked to Scheveningen and waited for him at the square where they had kissed for the first time. She would stand there from 4 p.m. until 5 - something they had agreed to do before saying good-bye three years earlier. "Berny had told me: 'Don't stand there for more than an hour; if I'm alive I will be there already at 2.' "I felt such an ache standing there watching everybody passing me by." After three months during which Ellis took the 60-kilometer trip every Tuesday, everybody had returned to Scheveningen and there was still no word from Berny. "When I understood that he wouldn't come back, I remembered that I had written in my diary that this would also mean the end of my life. But now I said to myself: I haven't spent three years in hiding in vain - I want to have the children that Berny couldn't have." In August Ellis met her future husband: Elmi Lehman was a lance corporal in the Jewish Brigade sent from Palestine to fight in Italy. He was later stationed near Amsterdam, where the brigade was directed to find Jewish survivors and encourage aliya. "He was very handsome, and from the moment I saw him, I knew I wanted to marry him," says Ellis and smiles at Elmi, now 87, sitting in the living room with us trying to fix the mouse for Ellis's computer. They decided to get married in December 1945. "I don't remember a thing about that wedding because on that day I got Berny's diary. It was like his voice came to me from the grave." One of the people who had been hiding Berny mailed Ellis the diary, but since she was no longer living at the same address in Scheveningen the book had been a long time reaching her. "I thought it was a wedding present from friends of my parents, but when I opened it and saw Berny's handwriting..." Ellis was in shock, and had read only a few lines, seeing how he again and again expressed his undying love for her, when she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. She had waited for him at the square for only three months, and now she was already getting married to someone else. "I put it deep into the trunk that I was packing to travel with Elmi to Antwerp, and I didn't save the address from where it had been sent. I felt horrible - as if I had betrayed Berny." A tombstone for Berny Sixty-two years passed. Ellis and her husband moved to Palestine in 1946 and started a family: Two daughters and two sons. Later came 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Ellis never mentioned Berny to her family and she didn't cry. Her husband knew about the diary and eventually even read it himself, but Ellis refused. "I think she felt ashamed somehow," explains Elmi, adding that he even encouraged her to read the diary and hand it over to Yad Vashem because of its historical value. In 1989 Ellis went to Yad Vashem. Not to give it the diary, but to look for Berny's name in the lists of people who had died in the Holocaust. She found him on a transport list from the Dutch camp Westerbork to Auschwitz in January 8, 1944. His fate is unconfirmed. "Most probably they gassed him the day he arrived because he couldn't work anymore," is Ellis's guess, but she doesn't know anything about the last two years of his life. She has yet to track down someone who was with him in the camp. In February 2007, Ellis asked her daughter Shulamit to sit with her while she finally read the diary. In light of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial, Ellis felt that now was the right time. "Berny and his whole family were killed. He doesn't have a grave or a gravestone. I felt that telling the story is the only way I can give him the gravestone he never had. Nobody remembers him but me," says Ellis. With this in mind she finally decided to open the diary that had been sent to her from the grave on her wedding day. "I have never cried as much as I did during the first two months Shulamit and I sat together and read the diary." The two women decided to read the last page first so they would know what to expect. Here they learned that Berny had been hiding in several different places. His father had spent all the family's money to pay a man for hiding them, but after two weeks they were thrown out on the street and had to go from place to place, totally depending on the mercy of strangers. On November 6 Berny finally gave up and wrote the last page of his diary before turning himself over to the unknown. "If these are the last sentences I write to you, my Ellishe, then know that my love is impossible to express in words. My hope is that someday I will have the happiness to make you my wife." The diary is a unique description of the destiny of the Jews in Scheveningen; Berny includes many details about what was going on, but at the same time his whole diary is a love letter to Ellis, time and time again confirming that he was dedicated only to her. What made the biggest impression on Ellis was the foreword: "When it will be permitted for us to be together again, my only wish is to make her my wife. If this cannot be, I have to give my life in these terrible days. My hope is to prove that during the time she wasn't here, my every thought and deed was for her. If I am the one who stays alive, then for sure this diary will join me in death." "When I read this I felt guilty for not marrying him, but I couldn't," says Ellis, and smiles with a hint of sorrow in her eyes. "It's like Romeo and Juliet." Ellis has been happily married to Elmi for 62 years, but she can't deny that she might have left him for Berny, had he turned up that day instead of his diary. "But I will never know if I would have been as happy with Berny as I am with Elmi. For me, he is the perfect man now. "I think about Berny with tenderness, but I'm not in love with him anymore. I hope he found someone to love in Auschwitz." Ellis is now working on retyping the two Dutch diaries. Together with her daughter she is also making a Hebrew translation. The rest of her time she tries to volunteer where she can. She especially enjoys playing the harmonica for the residents of Beit Moses where she lives. "I feel that I must pay back to others the love that I received from people who were willing to give their lives to hide me. That is so big a debt. You can never live up to that." "I sometimes dream about Berny, but in my dreams he and Elmi are the same person."


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