Photo: Author as infant with grandparents
My mother didn’t die when so many others did – and so lived to give birth to me. I write about this now, because it has everything to do with today, even though the cataclysm in which so many perished happened more than 75 years ago. I owe my life, in part, to people who were willing to risk theirs, whose names I will never know.
The story is etched in my bones. I remember its telling and retelling as far back as my early childhood memories. The details are blurred with the passing of time. No one who lived it is still alive. I would not know how to verify the specific facts. So I write this story to the best of my memory, knowing its truth in the deepest and widest sense.
My mother’s family were Dutch Jews with a several century history of calling Holland their home. They were Sephardic Jews, descendants of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. They came from a people who had a well-refined intuition about when it was time to flee and had found the ways to do so.
More Jews from Holland died in the Holocaust than from any other Western European country. An often used estimate is 75%. (Other estimates range as high as 90%.) How did this part of my family manage to survive? And what might be the implications for our times of climate crisis, when we are already living in what is called “The Sixth Extinction” (with dozens of species going extinct every day), when the future of life as we know it may hang in the balance?
My mother’s family considered themselves Dutch first, as did many Dutch Jews. They were only nominally religious, yet proud of their history as Sephardic Jews. My Grandfather was a professional classical musician. He played woodwinds (bassoon, oboe, clarinet) with the Dutch symphony. My grandmother was a visual artist. She was born and raised in Amsterdam, where most of Holland’s Jews lived, in a vibrant neighborhood with a historic theater a half block from her home and the Amsterdam zoo only a block away.
During World War 1, my grandmother’s parents (my great-grandparents) took in a German Jewish orphan called “Ulie”. She was raised as my grandmother’s little sister. When Ulie grew up she returned to Germany. Over time the family stopped hearing from her.
My grandmother married and moved to The Hague, about an hour from Amsterdam by train. My mother and uncle were born there. The family watched nervously the rise of Nazism in Germany, which shares a border with Holland.
One day, as my grandfather told the story, he was returning home from rehearsal when he was approached by a stranger who said he was a friend of Ulie. The stranger then began a conversation about Ulie. Eventually the stranger asked if my grandfather would do a big favor for Ulie, even if it was dangerous. My grandfather replied that Ulie was like a sister to his wife and he would do anything for her.
The stranger then revealed that Ulie, her husband and baby were being smuggled out of Germany and needed a safe place to stay while arrangements were made to get them to England. My grandfather invited them to stay with his family. These surprise guests changed how my grandparents saw the scope of the danger from Germany and this proved to be the salvation of my family.
Most of Europe was unaware of all that was going on in Germany, and mass extermination plans already being laid for the near future. How could they know? Many Jews in neighboring countries believed, not unreasonably, that the safest course of action was to hold tight. Many Jews in Germany believed the best way to survive was to keep a low profile and obey the increasingly onerous laws that restricted and marginalized Jews.
Many Jews (including Anne Frank’s family, who immigrated from Germany) believed Holland would be safe, in part due to its neutrality during World War I and its long tradition of religious tolerance. The situation was far more complex and unclear than hindsight may lead us to believe.
Many Jews did try to emigrate, but this was not easy to do. Most of the world’s countries had strict immigration quotas with complex requirements and long waiting periods. Each applicant competed with thousands of other equally desperate people for too few available openings. Most countries, including the United States, Canada and Great Britain, were unwilling to increase their immigrant quotas, even with this urgent need.
Does this sound like something going on today? (Hint: replace Jewish with Middle Eastern.)
There was always an air of clandestineness in the way my grandparents told this story, things they remained silent about, details they carried to their graves, that I wish I knew. It seemed that there was some kind of illegality about their harboring German Jews (who would not have proper immigration papers) and how they were to be brought into England.
The impression I was given was that there was risk involved for my family. I remember my mother telling me that she was given strict orders not to tell anyone about Ulie and her family. These guests stayed in a room without windows, in the center of the house.
My grandparent’s willingness to take this risk for Ulie and her family gave them connections to what seemed to be an early resistance movement. It also gave them insider knowledge into just how bad things were for Jews in Germany, and how bad they would be if Germany invaded Holland.
As early as 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power, the first concentration camps were established. Initially they were to imprison “enemies of the state” (socialists, communists, homosexuals and others). Mass arrests of Jews did not begin in earnest until 1938. It seems that Ulie and her family were taken in an early raid and somehow escaped, in the process becoming connected with the people who helped her and her family arrive in Holland en route to England (again, likely an early resistance movement). They were in really bad shape when they arrived in my grandparent’s home.
Once in my grandparent’s house, Ulie and her husband shared their experience, and information about what was really going on in Germany – which few people actually knew. From then on, my grandparents began figuring out how to get out of Holland. Their chance connection with an early resistance movement (because my grandmother’s parents took in a German Jewish orphan) gave my grandparents the understanding that they really needed to leave, and some connections that could help them find ways to do so. (Another serendipitous connection allowed them to get into the U.S, even with its restrictive immigration policies – but that story is beyond the scope of this article.)
My grandmother’s parents, (who raised Ulie as a child) did not escape. They were murdered in Hitler’s death camps, along with most of my extended family. Yet, had my great-grandparents not opened their home to this orphan child, my grandparents would not have had an early warning of the necessity to leave, nor the connections to help them do so – and I would not have been born.
We truly cannot envision the ripple effects of our actions and the impact they can have on the future.
“Because we risked ourselves for others, we ourselves were saved,” I remember my grandmother telling me, over and over again, when I was still in elementary school. This message shaped who I am and how I have lived my life.
I tell this story, which is so much a part of me, because of what it has taught me about life and about where humanity stands today. I write to share what I learned, and also to invite you to share what you may learn. It feels risky and vulnerable to share such a personal story so publicly. If I did not feel it was so relevant to our world today, I might not share it in this way.
What does all this have to do with the challenging, perilous and complex times in which we live?
Of course, nothing repeats itself exactly, and things usually turn out somewhat differently that we expect. Yet, we humans seem to look to the way things have been to set a rudder for what we might expect in the future. This tendency can make us resistant to the possibility of rapid and dramatic change. Yet it can also help us learn from times of rapid and dramatic change that came before.
What can this personal story from the past tell us about the times we live in today?
First: Have the courage to consider the worst possible outcome, even though it is not certain that things will turn out this way.
For my grandparents, this meant considering that Germany would invade Holland, even though many people did not believe this would happen. It also meant considering the possibility that the Nazi’s were doing something much worse than sending Jews to Labor Camps (which is what people were told – and was certainly bad enough).
For us today it means considering the worst possible scenarios for climate catastrophe, and for what our government may be up to. The future course of the climate crisis we are facing (along with the interconnected crisis of our civilization) may not be precisely or fully knowable. Yet, given the enormity of the stakes and what we already do know, what happens if we consider a worst-case-scenario as a starting point in determining what is most important for us to become and do.
Are we living within an emergent fascism? How would that look? How will we know? What are we already seeing today? Erosion of civil rights, elimination of privacy protections, militarization of our police forces, increased repression of people of color, rising xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, Islamophobia…. the list goes on. How might things look and feel to people in one of the groups being targeted? How might we know when things go from bad to a new level of beyond worse? How will people of European ancestry know what’s truly happening with marginalized groups? What preparations should we be making now?
How might climate crisis and emergent fascism be interconnected?
Second: Even though it may not be possible to alter the mega-picture of the storm gathering on the horizon, make your best guess about what might happen, what is most necessary to survive, and how much can be saved. Then find your part and get to work!
From my wide reading about the Resistance during World War ll, especially among Jews and those trying to help them, this meant:
~ Get out those you can get out (what happened for my family).
~ Hide and care for those you can’t get out.
~ Resist and slow down the pace of destruction. Support life any way you can. (For the Resistance in World War II Europe, this included armed resistance, which I am specifically not advocating in this article).
My grandparents’ early connection with a group that helped Jews get out of Europe made it possible for my family to escape – and me to be born. I owe my life to foresighted and brave people, whose names I will never know, who were willing to risk their lives (and may have done so) to save others.
When people say, “there’s nothing you can do” about any of the multiple, intertwined crises we are facing today, I often respond that the fact I am alive refutes this assertion – then I tell a two-sentence version of my family’s story.
Small (or not so small) things really do make a difference, often in surprising ways.
Fortunately, a lot of people are already trying to find the best ways to respond, and a lot of forms have already been created. Different people will have different opinions on what is best, and where is the right place for their passion, abilities and energy. How effective any of these diverse things are is yet to be seen.
If what is already being done does not seem to be enough (in one sense, as with the Holocaust, nothing would be enough) then what else can be done that is not yet being done? Be relentless in looking at what seems most valuable to do. If one thing seems ineffective to you, it doesn’t mean everything is ineffective. Join in with something that is already being done that feels meaningful for you – or create something new.
Can we get people through the coming cataclysm? What about polar bears? If not larger mammals what about cats? Rats? Hummingbirds? We live in a time that is being called “The Sixth Extinction”. Any species we can save is precious.
Ultimately, some future person or being, animal or tree, may owe their life to your actions, even though they may never know of your existence or your name (as I do not know the names of all those who risked their lives so I could be born).
To my understanding, habitable planets are rare in our universe, and the evolution of complex life and ecosystems is even more rare. This phase of evolution on our planet is precious. How much can we save for the future?
Third: Recognize that the depth and meaning of your life, your own soul purpose and spark of brilliance is intertwined with the challenges and turmoil of our times.
“The inner seeded story of the individual soul is secretly tied to the great drama of our world,” writes mythologist Michael Meade.
The place where these two join together is where you will find the greatest meaning in your life. Crisis will shape you, change you, bring out things within that you never suspected were there. What you do (or turn away from doing) will shape you. Stretching to be your largest self will change you. Offering of yourself, to others, to the future, will widen your vision and horizon – and deepen your life’s meaning.
Be willing to step into, not turn away from, the crisis of our times. My grandparents, a musician and artist, were lovers of beauty. They were unlikely people to step into acts of questionable legality, then abandon their comfortable lives and multi-century history with their country for the uncertain life of “penniless refugees”. Good thing that they were willing to step into this uncomfortable place – for them, for my mother and for me.
Offering to others, offering to the future, will widen your vision and horizon – and deepen your life’s meaning. Your life may grow and expand in surprising, meaningful, and beautiful ways. There is a great gift to self in offering yourself to others, to the future.
My great-grand parents and grandparents’ willingness to stretch themselves to help others proved to be what saved their lives – both physically and, I believe, morally and spiritually. My grandmothers words to me as a child, “because we risked ourselves for others, we ourselves were saved” hold both literal and metaphorical truth.
I grew up wondering about the people in Europe during World War II. Who were the people that turned away, who refused to look at the terrible things happening to others, sometimes literally right next door to them? And who were the people that did not turn away, who risked their lives for others?
I wonder the same thing today, when I look at the potential for global climate catastrophe, knowing that, like everything else, it will be those who have the least who will feel the impact the most. I wonder that same thing when I see rising tides (in our country and Europe) of anti-immigrant hostility, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. We won’t all do the same thing in the same way, just as those who resisted the Nazis did not all do the same thing. The important thing for each of us is finding the right thing(s) to do – and doing it. It may just save your life – your spirit and soul life, and possibly your physical life as well.
Perhaps it all comes down to what may be the one essential question of our times – How can we be worthy ancestors for our descendants (human and otherwise)?