By Rita Rubin
To use an overworked real estate term, the house at 77 Prof. Dondersstraat, a tree-lined thoroughfare in the Dutch city of Tilburg, had “good bones.”
Built in 1927, the spacious home was designed in the “Hague Style,” a restrained interpretation of Art Deco characterized by strong lines. It had oak and mahogany parquet floors and oak shutters. Its leaded glass windows resembled the work of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian in the 1920s—geometric designs composed of straight vertical and horizontal lines with only a few spots of color. The dining room opened onto a terrace and garden.
But the house was more than 70 years old and in disrepair when historian Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld and his spouse, anesthesiologist Hans Harbers, bought it in 2000. As they prepared to update their home, the couple obtained a copy of the original building plans from the municipality of Tilburg. Bijsterveld couldn’t help but notice the name of the original owner in one corner: M.H. Polak.
For Bijsterveld, the name was the starting point of a quest. He knew that Polak was one of the most common Jewish family names in the Netherlands. He wondered what had been the fate of the Jews who had eaten in his dining room and enjoyed a view of the garden from his terrace? Did they perish in the Holocaust, as did more than two-thirds of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands in 1940? If the house had been seized by the Nazis, had the Polak family been fully compensated after the war?
As a historian born and raised in the Netherlands, he had to find out. His research culminated in the publication last December of the aptly titled book “House of Memories: Uncovering the Past of a Dutch Jewish Family.” He might have added a subtitle—“and the Present”—as he has also reached out to surviving family members and their descendants.
“What’s unusual is that this man wrote a book,” says Judith Gerson, a Holocaust scholar at Rutgers University. “There are many published memoirs of the Holocaust that are family histories. But the fact that the author is able to place the story in the house and use the house as a vehicle to tell the story, that strikes me as exceptional.”
Explains Bijsterveld, 55: “The history of the Dutch Jews has been part of my upbringing. My grandparents spoke a lot about their war experience.” His late mother talked about a kindergarten classmate in her convent-run school—a Jewish girl who, to evade the Nazis, assumed a new name and identity. “This is not just the Anne Frank story. It’s wider.”
Bijsterveld is a medievalist, not a Holocaust scholar, so he turned to his colleagues for help in tracking down information about the family. One, Jan Bader, was writing a book about the history of Jewish cemeteries in the region. It turns out that Bader had studied the life of Alfred Polak, a Zionist in Tilburg who was the brother of Max Henri “Hans” Polak, the man whose name Bijsterveld had noticed on the house plans. The men were partners in a leather hides company.
Bader told him that the Polak families had escaped to New York in 1940 and suggested he talk with Ernst Elzas, one of the few Jews still living in Tilburg after the war, which he survived by going into hiding.
It turned out that Elzas had gone to school with Bertram Polak, the popular only son and eldest child of Hans Polak and his wife Bertha. From Elzas, Bijsterveld learned that Bertram had been killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. He was 24. He had been separated from his family because of his military service, and, when he returned home in May 1940, he found a vacant house. He tried to escape with three friends, but they were all betrayed and murdered.
Bijsterveld met Elzas in 2003. He found more information about Bertram in the central database of Shoah victims at Yad Vashem, but his attempts to locate and connect with surviving family members were unsuccessful. In 2005, he put aside his search.
His interest was rekindled in 2010—the year Elzas died—when the first “stumbling stones” were laid in Tilburg. The bronze stumbling stones, embedded in front of homes formerly occupied by Jews, serve as individual memorials to Holocaust victims.
“When I embarked on my search for the Polak family... I feared that not much would be left in the sense of living memories and material documents and objects,” 70 years after the Polaks had left the Netherlands, he writes in the prologue of his book. “What and who could be left to know who these people had been, what had happened to them, and how their lives had been before, during, and after the Holocaust?”
Medievalist Meets Genealogist
Enter Steve Jaron, 38, who lives in his native Pittsburgh. He became interested in family history at age 13 on his first trip to Israel, where he met relatives of his maternal grandmother, Judith Rothstein-Polak. An assignment for a college class to make a family tree led him to explore his ancestry.
In September 2010, he noticed that someone named Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld had recently posted information on an online profile of Bertram Polak, his grandmother’s first cousin. The profile was part of a website called the Joods (Jewish) Monument, maintained by Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, which includes the Jewish Historical Museum and the National Holocaust Museum.
The Joods Monument is a digital tribute to the more than 104,000 Dutch Jews who were persecuted and died during the Holocaust.
Jaron wondered whether this Bijsterveld fellow might be a long-lost relative. They exchanged emails, and the genealogist introduced the historian to the rest of his family. That included his grandmother Judith and her two older sisters, Adah Cohn-Polak and Edith Spitz-Polak, who had made aliyah after fleeing the Netherlands with their parents, Alfred and Fien. The sisters had lived with their parents two doors down from Bertram’s family and immigrated to Israel. “I was very close to my uncle’s family,” recalls Judith, a sharp 93-year-old widow who lives in Pittsburgh. “They were like sisters and a brother. We were in and out of each other’s houses.”
Jaron also put Bijsterveld in touch with his great aunt Constance “Connie” Victor-Polak, Bertram’s half-sister, the only child of Hans Polak and his second wife, Charlotte Elias, more than 20 years his junior. Connie, who now lives in Philadelphia, was born in New York in 1941, when her father was 53.
“From very early on, I knew that they had escaped. I knew there had to be relatives somewhere,” Bijsterveld says of Bertram’s family. “It was only after Steve Jaron contacted me that I found out there were so many relatives. It was very overwhelming. As a medievalist, you never experience the people you research. From the very first moment, they allowed me to ask everything. “
Of course, as Judith’s sister Adah told him, “We first checked you out on the Internet.”
Bertram’s relatives were full of questions. “Sometimes it’s easier if an outsider starts to do the research,” Bijsterveld says. “I’m really grateful to this family. They allowed me to do that, and they shared anything they knew.”
Connie Victor-Polak calls Bijsterveld “a blessing.” “This is his field, history, so he knows how to research. We’ve been very fortunate in that the cousins who lived through this all have very sharp minds with great memories of details.”
Hans died at age 54 in 1942, when Connie was only a year old. “My supposition is that he died of a broken heart. Obviously, father must have been very close to Bertram. He was the prince of the family. My father apparently sent [Bertram] money and a ticket for a ship from London to America, and that ticket was returned.” That must have been when her father’s worst fears about his son were realized, she said. Connie’s mother never remarried. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.
No one talked about Bertram when Connie was growing up. She didn’t learn about him until she was a teenager and one of her sisters mentioned him. He would have been more than 20 years older than she was. The next-born, Connie’s sister Florentine, was three years younger than Bertram, and their twin sisters, Louise and Leonie, were two years younger than Florentine. Louise and Leonie died of heart disease at age 45 and 32, respectively.
Beri Kravitz, the youngest of Judith’s three daughters, was always surprised by her mother’s and aunts’ lack of bitterness about their war experiences. “She would talk more about, oh, this is what it was like in school, or this is how we celebrated the holidays. Kind of the fond memories. A little bit melancholy, but never bitter. I don’t understand how they could be like that.”
But then the 52-year-old Kravitz, a mother of four who lives in suburban Washington, D.C., answers her own question. “The story that we always grew up with, the narrative of our family, is we were so fortunate. We have this huge family in Israel. We really survived this largely intact.”
After the war, ownership of the houses of the late Hans Polak and his brother, Alfred Polak, was rapidly restored to their families. Both houses had been rented out to help solve the severe housing shortage. In 1947, Alfred and his wife, Fien, moved back into their home at 73 Prof. Dondersstraat. They remained there until Alfred’s death in 1956, at 72, after which Fien joined Adah and Edith and their families in Israel.
A Mezuzah and a Stumbling Stone
As soon as he realized that a Jewish family had built his home, Bijsterveld bought a mezuzah to attach near the front door. Given that the family’s name was Polak, he selected a replica of a 19th-century Polish mezuzah from New York’s Jewish Museum. “There is no scroll in it, to symbolize that the Jewish identity was no longer there,” Bijsterveld says.
A mezuzah wasn’t enough, though. Even before he found Bertram’s family, he began investigating what it would take to get a stumbling stone installed in the brick sidewalk in front of his house to memorialize the young man.
Stumbling stones, or “Stolpersteine,” were conceived by a non-Jewish German artist named Gunter Demnig to honor anyone, Jewish or not, who was persecuted or murdered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The name of the mini-monuments reportedly refers to an anti-Semitic German saying that predates the Holocaust. When a non-Jew stumbled on a protruding stone, he or she would say, “a Jew was probably buried here.”
Each 4-inch-square stone bears a brass plate with the heading “Here Lived” and an individual’s name; birth year; date of arrest, if applicable; the name of the camp in which they were detained; the year in which they were deported to a concentration camp; and the date of their murder. The stones are usually placed in the sidewalk in front of the last place the individual lived by choice. More than 60,000 stumbling stones have been laid in more than 1,800 places in 21 countries.
Florentine Piel-Polak, the oldest of Hans Polak’s daughters, died eight days before the April 2011 ceremony marking the installation of Bertram’s stumbling stone in front of 77 Prof. Dondersstraat. Florentine was nearly 90 and suffered from Alzheimer’s, so she did not know about the Dutch historian who worked so hard to help preserve the memory of her older brother.
Bertram’s stumbling stone was laid by his nephew, Alfred “Fred” Piel, Florentine’s only child, assisted by two of his Aunt Connie’s grandchildren. The ceremony marked the first time the 62-year-old Fred, an internist in Springfield, Mass., had ever met his mother’s cousins or any of their children or grandchildren. And before that trip to Tilburg, he had met Judith only once, when he was a child.
“Both my wife and I were just totally entranced with these three women,” Fred recalls, noting that he felt “an instant connection” with them and their families, as he did with Bijsterveld and Harbers, his spouse. Bijsterveld’s research into the Polak family, leading up to the stumbling stone ceremony for Bertram, was documented in a 2012 short Dutch film called “Here Was Bertram,” which can be viewed on YouTube.
Florentine had fallen out of touch with her cousins after marrying Fred’s father, Kurt Piel, a non-Jewish native of Germany who immigrated to the United States in 1929 and worked as a barkeeper. “Although she always identified as a Jew culturally, she stopped identifying as a Jew religiously,” says Fred, who was baptized as a baby and confirmed in the Congregational Church when he was 13. While Florentine was their only Jewish grandparent, two of Fred’s three sons have taken Birthright trips to Israel.
Fred’s father served in the U.S. Army during the war, while his paternal grandfather was a German soldier. “In some ways, I’m obsessed by the war in Europe. Half of my family was doing these horrible things to the other half of my family. It was always very much in my mind that I had this uncle who
As the years pass, fewer remember the flesh-and-blood Bertram, the young man who preferred sports to books and named his dog “Tarzan.” His cousin Edith suffered a stroke in December 2015 and died two days later. Adah’s husband, Alfred Cohn, had survived the Monowitz concentration camp; he died last November at 95.
To make sure that Polak descendants will be able to read about their ancestors, Bijsterveld wrote “House of Memories” in English, although he plans to write an abridged version in Dutch.
The original English version is more than 600 heavily footnoted pages long and filled with photos. “At some point, you really have to say stop, and I reached that point about a year and a half ago,” Bijsterveld says. “This will be the book that will end up on all the relatives’ bookshelves. This has to include everything.”
By Jen Lovy
In 1978, Carol Moss wrote to her daughter Marsha Moss Linehan right after a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She described the beauty of the land, the strength of the Israeli people and the powerful connection she felt to the country. She concluded the note with: “My dream is for you to one day see the land of Israel.”
Linehan, who lives in San Diego, speculated that her mother knew she was dying when she penned the note. She passed away the following year. Linehan held on to the letter and clung to her mother’s dream for 35 years. Then, for her 60th birthday, she planned a trip to Israel.
“I was able to fulfill the dream on the most meaningful trip I’ve ever taken,” said Linehan. In 2013, she and her husband, Bob, went on a highly subsidized trip for travelers 55 and older who had never been to Israel. Like many older adults, Linehan had several reasons she’d never gone. Safety, distance and expense topped that list.
Last year, in its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, the American Jewish Committee found that 51 percent of U.S. adults ages 30 to 49 had never been to Israel. The statistics were the same for those 65 and older. Fifty-seven percent of adults 50 to 64 said they had never been there. For those in the 18 to 29 age range, 48 percent reported not visiting Israel.
Yet, trip organizers hear from many who would like to go. This seems to be especially true among those with children who have been to Israel with organizations like Birthright Israel. Since 1999, Birthright has brought more than 500,000 travelers the ages 18 to 26 to Israel—at no cost to the participant.
While Birthright is the largest organization of its kind, there are other free or heavily subsidized travel opportunities for those in their late teens, 20s and even for travelers in their early 30s. For those in their mid-30s and beyond, opportunities are scarce. Yet, in recent years, organizations have emerged with the resources and desire to take a wider age range of adults on subsidized trips.
Funding for these subsidized trips comes from individual donors and foundations that see value in sending older adults to Israel.
After the Honeymoon
“It’s a very significant investment, and donors may be less willing to invest in older people, where the return on investment might be over a shorter time span,” said Michael Wise, co-founder of Honeymoon Israel, a relatively new organization that brings couples to Israel.
“Maybe there is the feeling that it’s too late for adults and that our young adults are the ones making major choices,” said Lori Palatnik, founding director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP), an organization that has brought more than 10,000 mothers to Israel since 2009. “I think they have forgotten that older people are still making choices about where we put our time and resources. Don’t write us off. We still hold the purse strings and influence choices.”
Palatnik feels that her organization “hit the bull’s eye” by targeting mothers of children 18 and younger. “If you can inspire the mother, she will inspire the whole family and that’s a tremendous investment in the Jewish family and the Jewish community.”
Naomi Derner, a divorced mother of two from Portland, said Judaism was clearly missing from her family. Aside from knowing they were Jewish, her children, ages 10 and 12, had almost no involvement with religion. When the last of her grandparents (all Holocaust survivors) died, she realized she needed to change that.
Shortly after embarking on her spiritual journey, Derner learned about JWRP and applied for the trip through Portland Kollel, the local sponsoring organization. Each participating city has at least one sponsoring organization that selects and brings members from its community as well as contributes 15 percent of the cost for each participant.
Since returning last December, Derner and her children make a point of having a Shabbat dinner, often with friends she met on the trip, and they have become more involved in the Portland Jewish community.
Derner said the subsidy—$3,000 per participant—was a factor in her decision to go. “A lot of us with school-age kids don’t have that kind of disposable cash, and what a trip like this would have cost could very easily be a vacation budget for an entire family,” she said.
“Taking away the financial burden gives a woman the incentive she needs to leave her children and take time off from work [for the eight-day trip]. We needed to take away any objection they’d have to going,” says Palatnik. “Financially, some of these women can afford the trip but they wouldn’t have otherwise prioritized going to Israel.”
Too Old for Birthright
The JWRP and Honeymoon Israel are the two largest organizations bringing visitors who are too old for Birthright (and programs like it) to Israel. While JWRP participants are responsible for airfare and a $99 registration fee, Honeymoon Israel costs a couple $1,800 and includes the flight.
A number of local Jewish Federations are taking groups to Israel by reaching out to young and emerging leaders, business professionals and, in some cases, intermarried couples. These trips generally target those typically in their late 20s and 30s who are beyond Birthright.
Israel Next Dor, another Federation program, is a young leadership program of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Federation, and Israel 360 is a program serving the Philadelphia community. Both offer intensive Israel experiences for those of 27 to 35 (although Philadelphia’s has taken individuals as old as 40). The trips cost participants approximately $360, includes airfare, and they must attend several pre- and post-trip meetings.
“As a Jewish community, we worry about our future and we need the commitment of professional volunteers. Visiting Israel helps inspire people to become more connected to the community,” said Aaron Gorodzinsky, director of outreach and community relations for the Lehigh Valley Federation. “In the post-Birthright world we live in, most people between the ages of 27 and 35 have been to Israel but are hungry and curious to go back again.”
“We’ve learned that Birthright is wonderful, amazing and can be a life-changing experience, but it’s not going to solve all our problems,” said Wise, who is based in Buffalo. He co-founded Honeymoon Israel as a way to welcome interfaith couples into Judaism by targeting those who haven’t necessarily discussed the role religion will play in their family.
Jennifer Shaeffer Fraiman, 35, isn’t Jewish. Her husband Joe, 38, is and has, what his wife describes as, a “pretty deep connection to Israel.” Fraiman said almost everything she knew about Israel came from him. When they returned from their Honeymoon Israel experience in February, Fraiman felt more informed about Israeli culture and politics and a deeper connection to Judaism. “Before, Israel was his,” she said. “Now it’s mine, too, and that has united us.”
In 2014, Honeymoon Israel got the financial push it needed when the Boston-based One8 Foundation (formerly the Jacobson Family Foundation) provided more than $1 million in seed money.
While JWRP is heavily funded by private donors and foundations, it has received support from the Israeli government. During its first year, the JWRP sent three groups of 100 women each to Israel and, with each passing year, increased its numbers. The Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs noticed and offered to provide substantial funding if the JWRP could double its numbers and also bring groups from Eastern Europe. The JWRP met those goals, and $5.1 million (22 percent of its budget) now comes from the Israeli government.
Not all subsidized trips for older adults succeed. For example, Stacy Wasserman of Thousand Oaks, Calif., took $500,000 she inherited from her father and created L’Dor V’Dor (From Generation to Generation), a nonprofit organization designed to give those 55 and older their first Israel experience.
From 2011 and 2016, Wasserman took seven groups to Israel, with more than 300 participants. But her efforts to find support among individual donors and foundations proved unsuccessful. When funding ran out, she ended the program.
During its short existence, L’Dor V’Dor participants, including Marsha Moss Linehan, spent 12 days visiting popular sites, such as Masada, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Knesset. Travelers were asked to cover the cost of their airfare. L’Dor V’Dor paid the rest.
“There is a whole generation of people out there who never had the opportunity, because there was no Birthright. Now they have children and grandchildren who have been there,” Wasserman added. “Giving them the opportunity to go allows them the chance to connect with the younger generations though Israel.”
While the trips’ goals can vary, their format and purpose are similar. Groups travel from the same city so they can participate in pre and post-trip meetings, develop cohesion and return inspired to become more involved in their communities and forge a stronger connection to Israel and Judaism.
Honeymoon Israel, for those ages 25 to 40, reaches out to couples with at least one Jewish partner trying to figure out what role religion is going to play in their lives, how they plan to raise a family and who they are as a family, according to Wise.
One of the goals of Honeymoon Israel is to change the Israeli perception on intermarriage. “We’re trying to show others that intermarriage isn’t the end of the Jewish people,” said Wise. “We have to stop defining intermarriage as a problem and face it as a reality of what America is about and say to the Jewish world intermarriage does not equal assimilation.”
The JWRP, on the other hand, targets women because of the strong effect mothers have on their families. Over half the women who travel to Israel with JWRP had never been there before. The other half, jokes Palatnik, went when they were 17 and talked about how “cute the soldiers were. When they go back as mothers, they have a whole different mindset.”
If the mothers envied their children’s opportunities in Israel, the husbands felt the same about their wives. Four years ago the JWRP sent its first men’s trip. Since then, more than 3,000 dads have had a JWRP Israel experience. Unlike the women, who get a $3,000 subsidy, the men receive $1,850. The trips also boost the Israeli economy.
Last year, the JWRP alone spent $8.3 million on expenses such as hotels, buses, food and tour operators. “That’s not counting the economic impact created by the families who go back to Israel with their children, those who celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah there or the 12 families who made aliyah after a JWRP experience,” said Palatnik.
“Any time you bring people to Israel there is going to be a positive economic impact,” said Jill Daly, director of the Midwest Region of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. “Travelers who are older generally have more disposable income than those in college or just out of school.”