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Sunday, May 3, 2015

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Righteous Gentiles and their righteous progeny

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Yair Lootsteen

Several years ago, I used this space to describe the excitement I experienced helping my then-seventh-grade daughter with her school roots assignment.

My dad was born in Holland, and I grew up knowing that he and his nuclear family, and one second cousin, were the only Lootsteens to survive the Holocaust. Through my daughter’s project, I learned the names of almost 100 Lootsteens sent to their deaths by the Nazis. I also discovered one Lootsteen, a woman we previously knew nothing about, who had spent her 70-plus years till then certain she was the only Lootsteen to have survived the war. I can’t describe how special it was when, several months later, my sister, my father and I travelled to the Netherlands to meet our new cousin and her family.

I grew up feeling the Shoah was a uniquely Jewish story, that only we could truly understand the depths of the atrocities and the scope of the numbers. And while the more universal aspects of the genocide did not escape me, it was clear that gentiles could neither properly fathom the enormity of our collective loss nor grasp the individual suffering.

Recently, just days apart, I was privileged to meet two unrelated grandchildren of Righteous Gentiles, each with her and his reasons for exploring their grandparents’ past. These almost chance encounters have left their marks on me, allowing me to better understand that the Holocaust has not only profoundly, personally affected Jews.

Olivia, from Amsterdam, is in her early 30s. She’s been to Israel a couple of times to get to know the country better and to spend time with Israeli friends she met while travelling the world some years ago, one of whom is my wife’s niece. She stayed with us when in Jerusalem, visiting the Old City, the Israel Museum, the Machane Yehuda market, Yad Vashem and other sites.

At Yad Vashem, she decided to delve into her paternal grandfather’s past. She didn’t know him well. He died years ago, and her father doesn’t speak about him much. But she did remember hearing something about him saving Jews during the war. She went to the research department and soon discovered that both her grandparents had helped save several Jews in the small town of Eibergen in eastern Holland. As well, they had both been recognized as Righteous Gentiles, they both had the honour bestowed upon them by Israel’s ambassador to the Netherlands, and they had both even visited Israel a couple of times.

After returning home, Olivia continued her search with family members, eventually finding a photo of her grandparents receiving their honour from the Israeli ambassador. She emailed me about the experience being very special to her.

Not 10 days later I met Richard at my parents’ home in Rishon Lezion. He was visiting them together with Danny, one of my dad’s childhood friends, and with Danny’s wife, Ora. It turns out that Richard was born in Holland and had immigrated with his parents to Australia when he was two, to somewhere not far from Brisbane. In his mid-40s today, he has four kids and works as a journalist.

He’d decided to take an almost three-week vacation to travel all the way to Israel and stay with Danny and Ora in their home in Netanya. Although he’d never met Danny before, he’d heard his grandfather had saved Danny’s life during the war and wanted to get the story down in writing to memorialize it.

Danny and Ora showed Richard quite a bit of Israel. But more than anything else, Richard spent hours sitting patiently with Danny. He learned how Danny, who was less than 10 when his parents and only brother were taken away from Amsterdam, eventually made his way to Richard’s grandparents’ farm in the tiny hamlet of Abbega, in Holland’s northern province of Friesland, living with them until the end of the war. Danny was in touch with the farmer till the latter passed away. He made certain he, too, was recognized as a Righteous Gentile and still keeps in touch with the farmer’s family.

Yad Vashem rightfully memorializes many Righteous Gentiles. It was an honour for me to spend time with the progeny of two such tzadikkim, to understand just a bit about how their grandparents’ heroic acts have affected their lives and how these acts should also impact ours.

May the memory of their deeds be eternal.

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