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Part II: Early Life in Amsterdam
Figures 2 and 3. The Rodrigues family apartment in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Bonnie Price)
In 1930s, the Rodrigues family was leading a happy life in Amsterdam, where “a small class of very prosperous Jews, mostly of Sephardic background, whose ancestors had immigrated from Spain and Portugal as early as the sixteenth century, held leading positions in the country’s economic and cultural life and stood apart from the great majority of Dutch Jews” (Müller 95). Abraham Rodrigues was a successful textile merchant, married to Lea-Coopman Rodrigues. Carolyn Stewart states,
“I wish there was more about my grandparents I could tell you. I know that they were born in 1900 and 1901 respectively. They didn’t have Henry until 1930 and Elly came eleven months later in 1931. The Rodrigues family lived on Kromme Mijdrecht Street in Amsterdam. I’ve been there and it’s in a very nice section of the city.”
Living in what was a Jewish area in south Amsterdam, the family, including Elly and her brother Henry, would regularly worship in a Portuguese synagogue; in fact, one of Elly’s grandfathers was a rabbi. The stories and experiences of Elly Rodrigues and Anne Frank have many intriguing parallels, as well as crucial differences that will be examined later.
The Rodrigues residence was a ten-minute walk from where the Frank family lived prior to going into hiding. Elly spoke to Carolyn Stewart about being acquainted with Anne, and this is supported in an autobiography written by Barry Spanjaard, an American boy living in the same neighborhood, who was a friend of both girls. In describing the area he writes, “There were several Dutch girls, and we used to play together. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out that one of these girls had been Anne Frank” (Spanjaard “The Emerging American”). Elly studied at the Jewish Lyceum, the school that the sisters Anne and Margot Frank also attended. However, with the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent Nazi occupation of Holland, life became increasingly difficult for Amsterdam’s Jewish population, and as Deborah Dwork points out, the “siege of the Jews began with a legal definition” (8).
The Nazi regime was extremely specific in determining who would be identified as Jewish, and the First Ordinance to the Reich Citizenship Law, dated November 14, 1935, consisted of a number of rather complex statutes:
2. Partly Jewish is anyone who is descended from one or two grandparents who are fully Jewish by race, in so far as he is not to be considered as Jewish under Article 5 Section 2. A grandparent is to be considered as fully Jewish if he belonged to the Jewish religious community.
- Jew is he who is descended from at least three grandparents who are fully Jewish by race. Article 2, paragraph 2, sentence 2 applies.
- Also to be considered a Jew is a partly Jewish national who is descended from two fully Jewish grandparents and a) who belonged to the Jewish religious community, upon adoption of the [Reich Citizenship] Law, or is received into the community thereafter, or b) who was married to a Jewish person upon adoption of the law, or marries one thereafter, or c) who is the offspring of a marriage concluded by a Jew (as defined in paragraph 1) after entry into the force of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor of September 15, 1935, or d) who is the offspring of an extramarital relationship involving a Jew (as defined in paragraph 1) and who is born out of wedlock after July 31, 1936. (qtd. in Dwork 8-9)
These specific prescriptions for identifying Jews within the population led to evertightening restrictions on the everyday lives of the Jewish residents of Amsterdam. As Miep
Gies, one of the helpers of the Frank family, later recalled,
“Some of the anti-Jewish orders were laughable. Jews were no longer allowed to keep pigeons. Others were devastating— Jewish bank deposits and valuables were suddenly frozen from transfer or use” (79-80). Jews had already been “prohibited from staying in hotels, or going to cafés, movie theaters, restaurants, libraries, even public parks” (72).
In addition, Gies points out that “Now Jewish doctors and dentists could not treat non-Jews,” and “Jews were not permitted to bathe in public swimming pools” (73). Despite these degrading edicts, up until June of 1941, “Jewish children had pretty much been unmolested. Now they were forbidden to mix with their nonJewish schoolmates. Now Jewish children had to go to all-Jewish schools and be taught only by Jewish teachers” (80). Elly Rodrigues had been receiving a religious education at the Portuguese synagogue, but once Jews were no longer permitted to attend public school with non-Jewish children, she found herself at the Jewish Lyceum, which closed in 1943.
It is interesting to note the lengths that some immigrant Jewish families went to in order to assimilate into the culture of Holland, such as trying to avoid giving offense by not speaking German in a country that was now so gravely threatened by their neighbor. In her biography of Anne Frank, Melissa Müller notes, “When Otto [Frank’s] cousin Milly Stansfield came to visit in 1938, the family never spoke a word of German on the street even though they spoke a mixture of Dutch and German at home. Milly concluded that Otto had instructed his children to speak Dutch in public so as not to cause offense in the country that they had made their home” (97-98). At the Jewish Lyceum, Anne always spoke fluent Dutch.
Figure 3. Elly’s report card from the Portuguese-Israeli Religious School in Amsterdam, 1941/42. The teacher’s handwritten notation in the lower right corner indicates approval of Elly’s promotion to the 4th grade. (Courtesy of Carolyn Stewart)
Figure 4. Elly Rodrigues at school in Amsterdam. (Courtesy of Carolyn Stewart)
Figure 5. Close-up of Elly Rodrigues as a student, center. (Courtesy of Carolyn Stewart)
Figure 6. Anne Frank in June, 1942. (“Anne Frank Stichting.” Used by permission)
Figure 7. The Merwedeplein during the time the Frank family lived there. Elly Rodrigues and her family lived just a few blocks away. (“Anne Frank Stichting.” Used by permission)
Part III: The Noose Tightens
In June of 1942, conditions became increasingly difficult for Amsterdam’s Jewish population. The Nazis began to implement with ever more ferocity their plans for ridding the entirety of Europe of all its Jews. Tighter and tighter restrictions were put into effect. Jews were forced to surrender all their bicycles (an order which Margot Frank did not comply with), they were not permitted to attend the cinema, they were barred from public parks, and they were required to wear a yellow star so they could easily be distinguished from the rest of the population. The Dutch version of the yellow star was a slight variation on the German one: in Germany, the star had the word Jude emblazoned on it, written in a poorly executed approximation of Hebrew lettering in order to be as degrading as possible. The Dutch stars were imprinted with the Dutch translation: Jood.
Figure 8. Photo of an actual yellow star used in Holland. (“Anne Frank Stichting.” Used by permission)
These stars were provided to the Jewish Council on April 29, 1942, by SS Hauptsturmführer
Ferdinand aus der Fünten. Precisely 569,355 of them were distributed, and he ordered that “all Jews over six years of age … be identified with the Jewish star” (Müller 171). The Jewish Council was given all of three days in which to accomplish this complicated task, and the procedure they were to follow was very specifically spelled out for them:
The star was to be firmly stitched to outer garments, such as overcoats, suit coats, and dresses, and not just anywhere but breast-high on the left side and fully visible. Any
Jew caught in public without a star—and ‘public’ meant not only on streets and squares but also in front yards, in courtyards, or on balconies—would be subject to a heavy fine. (171)
Those who possessed a previously provided identity card emblazoned with a “J” were to receive one of these stars, but they were not provided free of charge. As an added indignity, these stars had to be purchased for 4 cents each, plus the surrender of one coupon from a ration card, “without which clothing could not be purchased” (172).
Many non-Jewish Dutch citizens reacted to this edict with utter disgust, and some also took to wearing these stars themselves, as a show of solidarity and in order to confound the Germans and negate the intended effect. Miep Gies recalled that “many Dutch Christians, deeply rankled by this humiliation of our Jews, also wore yellow stars on their coats.
Many wore yellow flowers, as emblems of solidarity, in their lapels or their hair” (87). Resistance often begins as internal seething that burns for a long time, building up and eventually exploding into direct action. Gies articulates this herself, explaining that the yellow stars were felt to be particularly offensive:
“This edict, somehow so much more enraging than all the others, was bringing our fierce Dutch anger to a boil” (87).
The fact that large numbers of Dutch citizens collaborated with the Nazis should not be forgotten, but these small acts of defiance were early indications of what would become for many personally risky acts of overt resistance to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Holland. This sense of decency and concern for what was happening to their neighbors in their own country would directly lead to the rescue and survival of large numbers of men, women, and children who would most likely have perished in the mass deportations and executions that followed.
In fact, less than one in twenty of the Dutch Jews who were deported returned to the Netherlands (238). Christians wearing a yellow star as a show of solidarity was evidence of the first stirrings of conscience that so many Dutch citizens were experiencing at the time, which, for many, would be manifested in direct action and defiance of the Nazis. Many of these citizens were arrested for their action and were sent to a concentration camp for a term of six weeks as punishment (172).
Part IV: “Well, I’ll See What I Can Do.”
Bert Bochove was a Dutch pharmacist who hid an amazing total of thirty-seven Jews in his own home, above his drugstore in the heart of Amsterdam, right under the noses of the Nazis (“Lizebertus Bochove”). Sensing the increasing danger, the Rodrigues family realized in 1943 that life could not go on for them as usual. Elisabeth confided in her friend Barry and told him about the decision that had been made:
One day as I was walking Ellie home, she told me she was going to tell me a big secret. She said, ‘Barry, what I am about to tell you, you must NEVER repeat to anyone, not even your father and mother, because my life would be in danger.’ I reassured her. She went on, ‘Tonight, around one in the morning, my parents, my brother Henri and I, are going away; we are going into hiding’ . . . It was a very sad goodbye, even for a couple of twelve year-olds, as deep down inside, we both had the feeling we would probably never see each other again. I never stopped thinking about Ellie and would search for her wherever I went.
(Spanjaard “The ‘Moffen’ Get Rolling”)
Like many before them, the Rodrigues family became beneficiaries of Bert’s protection:
The first refugee to come and stay at his house was Henny Juliard; she had been one of his wife’s best friends and came to her in this time of utter despair. Without any sort of argument Bochove saw it as his duty to provide for this woman and took her in. What followed was an influx of peoples and the whole town became flooded with Jewish families seeking a hiding place. This very quickly led to the depletion of food stores and Bochove was forced to roam far to the neighboring farms and beg for any small donations of potatoes or wheat.
(“Bert Bochove’s Story”).
Bert hid the Rodrigues family in the attic above his store, which they shared with another family.
With Bert’s drugstore open for business during the day, they all had to lie perfectly still and not move at all for eight hours—the family members even had to slip bedpans underneath them when it became necessary to answer nature’s call. The families hid here like this for eleven straight months (Stewart). These conditions were, in some ways, more difficult than those experienced by Anne Frank and the other residents of the Secret Annex, which was over Otto
Frank’s warehouse. The small attic over Bert Bochove’s drugstore was extremely confining. With so many people breathing in the tight space over the drugstore, and the oxygen not being recycled for long periods of time, the air became oppressively stale. One can get a sense of the living conditions Elly had to endure by consulting Miep Gies’ description of the Secret Annex:
“When the summer heat became extreme, it was not very nice up in the hiding place” (114). She continues to state that “even under the best of circumstances the place was always a little stuffy” (114). On a few occasions, helpers Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl stayed overnight in the Secret Annex and recalled later that only during these visits were they able to fully appreciate the fear and confinement experienced on a daily basis by their beneficiaries.
Anne Frank actually had a little more space, though certainly not luxurious accommodations, than Elly and her roommates had in Bert’s tiny attic. In the early period of her hiding, Anne even recorded favorable impressions of the living arrangements. “The Annex is an ideal place to hide in,” she wrote. “It may be damp and lopsided, but there’s probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland” (236).
Figure 9. A model of the second of the three floors used as the Secret Annex. The room that Anne Frank shared with the dentist Fritz Pfeffer is on the upper left. (“Anne Frank Stichting.” Used by permission)
Many years later, Bert Bochove spoke about hiding the Rodrigues family:
‘One day in ’42, my brothers called asking me to help a business acquaintance of theirs who was in trouble. Abraham Rodrigues was a salesman for women’s apparel. His family were Portuguese Jews, known as Sephardic. They had been living in Holland for maybe 250 years, but still proudly maintained their Portuguese heritage. Abraham and my father had met by chance on a street car, around 1915, and a business relationship developed between them that continued on with my brothers after our father died. I had never met him.
‘Can you take Rodrigues and his wife and two kids?’ they asked me.
‘Well, I’ll see what I can do.’
I went to the Rodrigues house in Amsterdam to talk it over, and found out that they were ready to go. It was high time too; they really were in danger. There were parents and others in that family that were already caught. Back in Huizen, I arranged with a skipper who had a delivery business, to go the next day and load up all their possessions onto his boat. Meanwhile the Rodrigues family came to my house by train. Two days later the Gestapo came to pick them up, but their house was empty.
Across the street from us was a little grocery store with a big long attic above; you couldn’t see it from the outside. We told those people that we all had to help the Jews. And since they had extra room, and we were happy to pay for it, could they please store the Rodrigues family stuff. They said yes, fine, only the piano they couldn’t have; it was too big to get up the stairs. Well, I had a commercial building with a wide staircase, and a big hallway. It took four strong fellows to get it up, but we were glad to have it. Annie liked to play the piano, and the guests too.
After the Juliards and the Rodrigues family, it was all unknown people coming into my house. There was a network in the underground that brought people to us: I didn’t understand how it worked, and was never interested either. After all, with so many strangers coming into my house, the less I knew the better. Sometimes it wasn’t until years later that I knew their real names; with some, I never learned them.’
(qtd. in Land-Weber)
The choices that Bert and Annie Bochove made, putting themselves in danger in order to help so many strangers whose lives were in jeopardy—many whose names they did not know at the time, and some whose names they would never learn—are truly inspiring. One can search the soul, asking what actions would be taken under similar circumstances. The truth is, this cannot be predicted with certainty until such a situation itself arises. This action was taken by the Bochoves based purely on its being the right thing to do. Despite all her suffering while in hiding, Anne Frank wrote “that people are basically good at heart,” and the heroic deeds performed by Bert and Annie Bochove underscore Anne’s oft-quoted belief in the goodness of humanity (Frank 716). It saddens one to imagine how Anne’s feelings about this might have changed after her eventual arrest and deportation.
Part V: Turning Points
One great fear of those in hiding was the fact that so few people could be trusted. The Nazis offered bounties for information about those in hiding, and the difficult wartime economy made these rewards extremely enticing for many Dutch citizens. Thus, there were informers everywhere. Some of the Franks’ acquaintances were hiding other Jews themselves, and one of these, a grocery store owner named Mr. van Hoeve, was betrayed by an unknown informant. As his wife related later on, “‘Being tight-lipped didn’t help. Someone ratted on us’” (qtd. in Müller 284). In late May 1944, four officers arrested van Hoeve and “the two Jews he was hiding” (284). As Anne Frank noted in the first version of her diary, “We’re going to be hungry, but nothing is worse than being discovered” (Frank 681). With Bochove incredibly busy hiding so many Jews, keeping these efforts a secret for a sustained period of time was bound to be difficult, as they would soon find out.
Elly Rodrigues later stated that “‘the address got hot’” (qtd. in Stewart). Neighbors were turning on one another with greater and greater frequency, often deliberately giving each other away. There was an increasing amount of chatter in the neighborhood about Jews hiding in Bochove’s attic. Elly’s father Abe, the textile merchant, checked his customer list in a desperate search for names of people who might be willing to take his family in. It was at this point that Abe Rodrigues made a momentous decision which proved to be a crucially important move that, despite the many parallels between Elly’s experience and that of Anne Frank, radically distinguishes Elly’s story from Anne’s.
Those in hiding had to make choices and consider their options quite carefully. One of the most common decisions that had to be made was whether to try to keep the family together or to split up. Very often, splitting up was considered to be the wiser course of action to take, as it increased the chances for survival of at least some of the family members. Melissa Müller notes,
“Most families separated, with the parents entrusting their children to the care of organized resistance groups. They drummed new family names into the children’s heads, names that didn’t sound Jewish, and arranged for them to live with people who—at least to the children—were utter strangers” (214).
Otto Frank felt that it was very important that his family remain together, despite the added danger: “Anne [realized] how lucky she was. Her parents were always there for her, spoiling her and cheering her up when she was sad. No matter what happened, [Otto] had assured her repeatedly, the family would always stay together” (Müller 187). This decision no doubt made Anne’s two years spent in hiding more comfortable than they otherwise might have been, but it also could have had unintended consequences. When the eight residents of the Secret Annex were eventually betrayed, all of them, including Otto and Edith Frank, and the sisters Anne and Margot, were arrested at the same time. Tragically, Otto Frank would be the only one of the eight to survive beyond 1945.
According to Hedda Kopf,
“Parents had to choose between keeping their child with them and being deported together, [and] giving the child to strangers with the knowledge that they might never be reunited” (113).
Kopf quotes one Dutch resistance worker as stating, “‘The parents cried tremendously most of the time, which was very depressing. But I think the people who did it had a lot of courage. It took very much courage’” (113). Like so many other Jewish parents, Abraham Rodrigues made the decision to split his family up, although employing this strategy certainly never guaranteed the survival of one’s children. Upon checking his client list, he discovered the name of Margriet Bogaards, an unmarried home economics schoolteacher who lived a great distance away, in the countryside. Abraham telephoned Margriet, explaining to her, “‘We have to flee’” (qtd. in Stewart). Margriet immediately agreed to help without a moment’s hesitation, saying, “‘Give me Elly, I’ll take her. I will make a phone call to my sister, who will take your son’” (qtd. in Stewart). Not yet a teenager, Elly Rodrigues now had to leave her parents and her brother Henry to go live alone, with a complete stranger. The plan was for Elly to leave
Bert’s attic in an ambulance, as such a vehicle was less likely to be searched. When she stepped outdoors for the first time in nearly a year, Elly took in deep breaths of the intoxicating fresh night air. As she departed for Margriet’s modest thatched roof home in Hazerswoude, a rural area of South Holland, Abe’s parting words to his daughter were, “‘Do what you can to survive’” (qtd. in Stewart). Abraham had always provided financial support to his children’s rescuers, but, in December 1943, Abraham and his wife Lea were apprehended. Both of them would soon perish in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp, leaving Henry and Elisabeth penniless orphans.
Figure 10. Abraham and Lea Coopman-Rodrigues at an outdoor cafe in Amsterdam in happier times. (Courtesy of Carolyn Stewart)
Figure 11. Civil Registry card for the Rodrigues family. The card includes Elly’s location in Hazerswoude with an entry dated after the war ended. The notation “VOW” denotes Red Cross confirmation of the deaths of Abraham and Lea at Auschwitz. (Photo credit: Amsterdam City Archives. Used by permission.)
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