A woman’s father proves that it is never too late to honor someone’s good deeds, especially when it involves something as elemental as saving a life during the Holocaust.
Jews around the world recently celebrated Chanukah, commemorating the survival of their religion in the face of oppression. This holiday is linked to the recitation of Hallel, psalms of thanksgiving that are recited at times of special joy. Typical of the verses from Psalms that we recite is: “You have saved my soul from death, my eye from tears and my foot from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
In December, on the eighth day of Chanukah, I attended a ceremony that gave a modern perspective on the challenges that have faced the Jewish people and the sweetness that can come from celebrating our survival.
In recent years, my father, Alexander Vega, who, as a 5-year-old Dutch Jewish child, went into hiding during World War II, began to search for the family that had saved his life during the Holocaust. The van Heukeloms, a Christian family from Arnhem, had taken him in. They did so despite living on the same street as a German army outpost. After the war, after the Vega family had been reunited, contact with his foster family had dwindled and then stopped altogether.
My parents settled in Wilmington, Del. Over the years, this lost connection troubled my father. A few years ago, he began to call every von Heukelom he could find in the Dutch phone book, one after the other, until he reached Theo van Heukelom. Despite the nearly 70 years that had passed, Theo instantly remembered my father. “Oh, my little brother in the war!” he exclaimed. The two arranged to meet in Holland with their spouses, and were reacquainted.
After this reunion, my mother encouraged my father to contact Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and research center, in order to honor the van Heukelom family by having their name added to its list of “Righteous Among the Nations.” The list preserves the names of non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination. Yad Vashem, in conjunction with the Israeli embassy in The Hague, organized the ceremony at which the designation was officially awarded.
The ceremony took place in the gemeentehuis — town hall — of Oudekerk aan de Amstel, the small town outside of Amsterdam where my father grew up. This town is the site of the historic cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, which has been in use since the early 17th century. My grandparents, Louis and Stella Vega, lived there with their three children. Among other responsibilities, Louis was the administrator of the cemetery. The family managed to cling to a semblance of normality during the early years of the Nazi occupation of Holland, and lived openly as Jews during that time. All of this came to an end in 1944, when my father’s parents decided that the five Vegas should go into hiding. Each of the three children was sent to a different Christian home through the help of an underground organization and was treated as a part of that new family. My father was supposedly a cousin to the van Heukeloms and called the parents his “uncle” and “aunt.” My father was reunited with his parents, his brother and his sister after the war and they returned to their house in Oudekerk, which remained intact.
The ceremony honoring the van Heukeloms took place amidst the hall’s Christmas finery, augmented by a chanukiah at the podium. It was attended by many people from my father’s past — schoolmates, family members and relatives of the people who had risked their lives during the war in the various activities needed to spirit the Vegas to safety. These included the relatives of the bus driver who transported him during the war to his new home, the wife of the church janitor and other neighbors who helped to take care of the Vega house while the family was in hiding. My father’s brother and sister also attended, as well as his three children and four of his 10 grandchildren who live in Israel.
Although the “aunt” and “uncle” who looked after him during the war have long since passed, Theo van Heukelom, his ‘brother’ from that time, received a medal and certificate from Yad Vashem.
The ceremony included speeches from the mayor of Oudekerk, who spoke about the history of the town and the relationship the Vega family had with their neighbors, representatives of the State of Israel, my father, who paid tribute to the van Heukeloms and the honoree himself, who spoke of the importance of kindness with the hope that it brings peace “all over the world.”
This week we will begin reading the book of Exodus as our weekly Torah portion. The parasha of Shemot, which includes Pharaoh’s decree that every Jewish newborn boy should be killed, evokes the threat of physical annihilation that faced the Jews during the Holocaust and throughout their history. Yet the story centers on the survival of one of those baby boys, Moses, through the actions of Pharaoh’s own daughter. Her kindness led her to risk defying her father’s decree to take Moses into her own home as a son. The child she saved would go on to liberate the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and serve as the basis for the survival of Jewish civilization.
The Holocaust was the German effort to bring an end to Jewish history. Just as in the biblical story, however, righteous gentiles risked their own lives to save Jews. Persecution and its effects are still with us today, but our memory of the Holocaust should make clear to us that even the efforts of a relatively few people can have far-reaching effects. Treating others, who are different than we are, like our own “little brothers” will hopefully give others the ability to “walk before the Lord on the land of the living.”