My mother’s last breath was a sigh of relief. She was relieved to leave this world that had murdered six millions of her kind, including hundreds of members of her large extended family: the people she loved, the ones she hated; the relatives and friends she liked as well as those she despised. She was also relieved not to have to go through the ever advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a demon that had haunted her even before it touched her.
There were only 36 kilos left of her, a tiny, frail old lady. Still she fought like a lioness when we tried to sedate her; I think she was afraid we were going to prolong her suffering, but we weren’t. My sister Caroline and I had finally convinced the doctors to sedate her because she was suffering from a delirium, something that often happens to people as old and weak as she was when admitted to hospital. I tried to tell her we were only helping her and she wrapped her arms around my neck and broke the silence she had retreated into for one last time as she said: “Mijn kind, mijn kind.” (My child, my child.)
Eventually she was sedated and calmed down. The screaming and flailing stopped. She just lay there, sleeping. My sister and I took turns sitting at her bedside, stroking her hand. The next evening, my sister went home for a short break, she was exhausted. I was alone with my mother. Her breath was already superficial, but there was no sign she would die soon. As I sat there, I spontaneously started to sing the hymn Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe) for her. She always liked my singing and I hoped the familiar voice would be soothing. There was no visible response, but when the last note of the song died out, she exhaled and stopped breathing. No struggle, no fear, she just stopped. It was over for her. I said sheimes for her, the last words every Jew should say before they die: Shema Yisra’el, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad (Hear Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One) and called my sister, who obviously was very distraught she hadn’t been there when our mother died.
I still miss her more than I can say. Our relationship had always been complicated, but I loved her fiercely. So much so that I haven’t been able to write about her since her death on November 24th last year. Last week, though, words all of a sudden flooded my mind and I wrote them down on the back of an envelope. What unblocked me, was the image of a Syrian toddler lying dead on the beach in Turkey. Or rather the thought that flashed through my mind when I saw it: I’m so glad my mother doesn’t have to see this. That she doesn’t have to be ashamed of her adopted country, The Netherlands, for its harsh and unjust policies towards refugees.
After the war was over in 1945, my mother and her parents stayed in The Netherlands. There was nothing to return to: no relatives and a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union. She married the love of her life, a much older German Jew who was an art historian. The marriage was not a happy one: her husband turned out to be gay and neither able nor willing to consummate the marriage. She divorced him in 1951, when her husband announced he wanted to return to Frankfurt, Germany.
Two years later, she met my father, a journalist who’d been involved in the resistance against the Nazis, was betrayed, and had spent years in camps as a political prisoner. He was both physically and mentally broken after the war. The way they met was very romantic: they both were members of a club for artists and intellectuals, and one night, when my mother was sitting at the bar and maybe had had a little too much to drink, she fell backward and was caught by my father. He was in every way the opposite of her first husband: tall and ruggedly handsome, down to earth, straightforward and extremely principled.
They had two children: me and my younger sister Caroline. Both our parents were severely traumatised by the war, and also had very different, often clashing personalities. Little by little their marriage deteriorated, through no fault of either of them. When I was seventeen, they finally separated. I was relieved, but my younger sister was heartbroken.
My mother had arrived in The Netherlands as a refugee in the late 1930s (“Just in time for the party,” as she always joked), destroyed her Polish passport, and remained a displaced person until she married my father and received the Dutch nationality, something that had always filled her with pride, until recently. Despite her advanced age – she was 93 when she died – she was acutely aware of the deteriorating political situation in this country. The inhumane treatment of immigrants and especially refugees by the government and many citizens alike made her cringe. The fact that nothing seemed to have changed since the war, made her despair of humanity.
She had spent almost three years in hiding during the war and used to say she didn’t have the right to complain about it, considering what others, who were deported to concentration camps, went through. But still I gathered from the few words she ever spoke about that period in her life, it hadn’t been a picnic. She was in a relatively safe place in Amsterdam, where she was in hiding with four others in the home of two German ladies. The others were her future first husband, his brother, his mother and a friend of his mother’s. Apart from having to live with so many people in a relatively small space – without the option to go for a walk – the German ladies weren’t very friendly to put it mildly. My mother refused to elaborate: after all, they’d saved her life. To kill time, they played endless games of bridge. After the war, my mother never played another game of cards. But of course there were more serious matters: every now and then there would be a razzia in the neighbourhood and my mother and the other hidden Jews would have to clamber into a space behind a closet and keep still for as long as it lasted. Things always ended well, after all, these ladies were Germans and they greeted the soldiers with “Heil Hitler” to suggest they were Nazis. Still, it must have been very scary there in that dark, cramped space behind the closet.
Before my mother came to Amsterdam, she was in a Jewish boarding school in London, where her parents had sent her. This was the second time her education was interrupted. Before she went to London, my grandparents and their daughter had returned to their native Cracow in Poland. It was early 1934 and living conditions in Berlin – where they had lived since 1923 – had become unbearable as well as dangerous. So they moved back to Cracow, where my mother of course had to go to a Polish school. She already spoke Polish, as they had spend every vacation with her grandparents in their native Poland. But in 1935 the Polish government introduced anti-Jewish boycott laws, which made earning a living next to impossible for my grandfather. He made his way to The Netherlands, as he thought this neutral country would be the safest place to be in the next war he knew would break out soon, and after his arrival had his wife and daughter join him. They travelled by train. It took them a very long time, because my grandfather had judged it prudent to avoid travelling through Germany, so their route went via Switzerland, France and Belgium to Amsterdam. Shortly afterwards, my mother was sent to a Jewish boarding school in London. The only thing she liked about it was being able to visit the British Museum as often as possible in her spare time.
But the ten years she and her parents lived in Berlin had been the most formative of her life: before the Nazis came to power, this city had been a heaven for culture lovers. Her father – an art dealer – took her to museums, the opera and concerts. She was immersed in the world of art and literature and would remain an avid reader and art and music lover for the rest of her life. Life in Berlin was exciting, but it had its downside: German Jews in general despised “Ostjuden” (Jews from Eastern Europe) and they made them feel it. Some girls in her class weren’t allowed to be friends with her, for one thing. The stock market crash of 1929 caused financial insecurity for most people, and her father was no exception. At the same time, the political landscape changed noticeably. Some teachers in her school wore swastika bands all of a sudden; they made Jewish kids feel unwanted, even before the Nazis came to power and they had to sit apart from other pupils in the classroom. Towards the end of 1933 my grandfather discovered that his German, non-Jewish bookkeeper had stolen a significant amount of money from him. When he confronted the man, the bookkeeper threatened him and told him not to go to the police, because he had friends in “the party”, obviously referring to the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. My grandfather decided to move back to Cracow with his family. My mother’s two much older brothers had already left in 1929, when they moved to Chile to build a future for themselves in a place where they hoped they would not be discriminated against.
My mother was born two years before her parents moved to Berlin, in 1921, in The Hague. When the First World War broke out, her father was in London on a business trip. As a citizen of an “enemy country” – the southern part of Poland was Austrian at the time – he had been arrested and put in an internment camp. It’s hard to miss the irony here. After the war, he travelled to The Netherlands and had his wife and children join him. My mother was the fruit of their reunion. Her father, though, soon found out that The Hague really wasn’t the place to be for an art dealer. As Berlin was quickly becoming the cultural centre of Europe, he once again packed his bags and moved to the capital of Germany with his family, hoping to become a successful art dealer, but also because he wanted to be in a place with a vibrant art and culture scene.
I often wondered what it must have been like for my mother to move from one place to another with her parents, forced by the economic and political eb and flow of Europe. On the one hand, it made her a cosmopolitan who spoke many languages fluently. On the other, the reasons they had to move and the treatment they received in most places must have robbed her of any sense of belonging.
Tehi nafsha tseror bitsror hachayim: may her soul be bundled in the bundle of life, and may her memory be for a blessing. Mama, my dear mother, Hadassa bat Mendel Meir, Felicitas Rössler [pronounced Ressler], you will always be a part of me.