On the evening of January 16, 2014 I arrived in Tilburg. This small city in the southern province of Noord-Brabant in the Netherlands is home to a little over 206,000 people, more than 60% of whom are Roman Catholic. The next largest “religious” group are the atheists who make up about 20% of the population. Other religious groups weigh-in in the single digit percentages and there are not enough Jews to even count for 1% of the population according to the last census. So why was I here?
The Petrus en Pauluskerk (Parish of Peter and Paul Church) was hosting a lecture by Professor Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld entitled “Een Mens is Pas Vergeten als Zijn Naam is Vergeten.” This translates to “A Man is Only Forgotten if His Name is Forgotten.” As the following day was the Day of Judaism and the Stumbling Stones for my great-uncle and his wife were to be dedicated, I naturally came in a day early so I could attend the lecture as well.
When I walked into the small reception room at the church, Arnoud-Jan introduced me to several people who were involved in organizing the evening and the next day. We were shaking hands and starting with the small talk of strangers when Arnoud-Jan smiled broadly and told me to turn around. I was truly amazed with what I saw. It was not at all what I had expected. On the wall behind me was a display of several pictures of my great-uncle and his wife, and each had a page long description about part of their story of living in Tilburg, fleeing from the Nazis and being captured and murdered in German camps.
I quickly checked the time, calculated the time back home and pulled out my phone to call my mother. She would of course be worried. “Heidi? What’s wrong? Why are you calling from Europe. Long distance is so expensive.” I heard all her worries before she said them, and I was able to tell her everything was fine before she could ask. I then asked if she could manage to use FaceTime. She had no idea how, but luckily my 20-year-old technologically adept nephew, Ari, was visiting her, and he quickly set up the connection for us. I shared with them the wall with the beautifully restored pictures of Bobby and Tineke.
Then mom asked “Why Bobby? Why make such a fuss over a simple man who died at age 29? He wasn’t anyone special.” Of course he was special to her, but she meant he wasn’t famous. I couldn’t answer the question right away, but I told her I would find out.
It turns out that Bobby Spier and Tineke Spier-Bendien were the only Jewish family who had lived in the area of the Peter and Paul Parish and died during the war at the hands of the Nazis. They had tried to escape, were betrayed, captured and sent to the infamous prison of Scheveningen. The Parish wanted to honor this family and acknowledge that Jews had lived in their neighborhood and been a part of their history. The history of the Jews and the Holocaust were not just about people in eastern Europe or the big city of Amsterdam. There were people who lived right here, that shopped in the same stores, walked on the same sidewalks and rode their bikes down the same streets and were murdered by the Nazis.
I have told the story of how I met Arnoud-Jan earlier in this blog (see The Reluctant Historian). The point of his lecture was that by creating a sense of place, time and identity for people from the past we create memory for the living. Dr. Bijsterveld said “without a face and story, a stone remains a stone.” Tomorrow we would put the stones in the ground, but tonight we were starting to share the faces and the stories with those who wanted to know more, to remember, and to connect.