By Jennifer Groen
Since COVID-19 befell us, I, like so many, have been sheltering in place. I am home with my three children, my husband, a yard, a full refrigerator, a dog. I have stacks of books and websites with watchlists. I feel like one of the lucky ones. Every day, I pray for continued health for myself and my family. I give thanks to the medical professionals and workforce that keeps us alive and I think of my grandmother often.
My Oma was born in 1922 and raised in Amsterdam. She remembered a mostly happy, privileged childhood, despite her mother dying when she was 13. As life became more restricted, she stayed in Amsterdam instead of fleeing with her father and brother, who were later captured and killed in Auschwitz. Eventually, thanks to my grandfather, she found a place to hide in East Holland and was kept by a righteous family who had never met a Jew before. They built her a safe room underground.
She lived with these strangers, who became family, for 16 months. Her fear wasn’t getting or spreading a virus. It was being caught by the Nazis and putting this new family and herself at risk. There was no news from the outside world. She had no idea of when or if she would be freed. There was no technology, no Wi-Fi or distractions. Her only visitor was my grandfather, who would risk the journey to check on her. This was their love story, which lasted over 50 years — until my Opa died on June 13, 2007 — and led to the birth of my father in November 1945.
If you knew my grandmother at all, you knew an optimist, a romantic, a liberal. She believed in love. She never complained. She kept busy and fit. She survived. She even thrived. But she never forgot or took her freedom for granted. She would stand up during Magid at our seders and invite us to remember with her. With her strong Dutch accent and her voice cracking with emotion, she reminded us that the story of the Exodus wasn’t just something that happened in Egypt thousands of years ago. Amalek had returned in her lifetime. She had gone from bondage to freedom.
Remembering Oma gives me strength and perspective. I feel so proud of her. I miss her. And I honor her. She asked us not to take our freedom for granted. Stay alert. Stay grateful. Stay connected. Appreciate life. Appreciate love. Have hope.
Jennifer Groen is the director of strategy and enrollment at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.