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A Promise Fulfilled

Libi Astaire

Decades ago Deworah Maarsen defied all odds and was the youngest child to survive Ravensbruck concentration camp. From the valley of death her family emerged and rebuilt. Today, she’s pouring her energy into brightening the lives of children who live in the shadow of a deadly illness.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In Amsterdam’s small Orthodox community, Deworah Maarsen is a familiar figure. Her husband, Rabbi Eddie Maarsen, was the secretary to former Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam Rav Meir Just for 40 years, and he continues to assist the community’s present chief rabbi in a similar capacity. Deworah (the Dutch pronunciation for Devorah) has also served the community for many years by doing volunteer work for the kehillah’s Social Services Department.

This wife, grandmother, and “schnorrer extraordinaire” has the youthful vigor of someone half her age. But as Mrs. Maarsen revealed during a recent visit to Jerusalem, the secret to her seemingly boundless energy won’t be found in a bottle of vitamins. Instead, what keeps her going is a promise she made in a hospital room many years ago — a tear-filled vow between herself and HaKadosh Baruch Hu.


Those Poor Children

A refined woman, whose upbeat personality is perfectly complemented by the understated elegance characteristic of ladies born on the European continent, few would guess that one of Deworah earliest memories involves a little rag — her only toy — that she clung to during her time in Ravensbruck.

But though the war years are as much a part of a Dutch Jew’s mental landscape as tulips and canals are a part of the Amsterdam scenery, there was Jewish life in the Netherlands before the deportations and Deworah’s family was part of that happier story.

Her mother, Beila, née Zwarenstein, was born in Holland. Her father, Binyamin Zeev (Wilhem) Laufer, was from a small town in Hungary, but came to Rotterdam in the early 1930s. They married and Binyamin Zeev set up shop as a furrier.

When the war came to the Netherlands, the Rotterdam furrier shop was bombed, and Deworah’s parents decided to move to Amsterdam and start again. Because Binyamin Zeev was Hungarian, the Maarsden family, which by then included three girls — Gisela, Margreet, and Deworah — didn’t have to wear the yellow star. But by 1944 the Nazis were tightening their grip on the country.

“The Jews were being taken away and there was no place to hide,” Deworah tells me, explaining that because she was just two years old in 1944 these memories are not her own; they are the stories she heard growing up and which are still retold whenever she and her siblings get together.

“My father had a good friend who was a doctor. One day he told my father, ‘Willy, if you want to survive, drink blood from a cow. You’ll vomit it up, and then I’ll write that you have a stomach ulcer and I will be able to send you to the hospital.’ My father drank it, and went to the hospital.

“I was still a baby and my mother managed to get me smuggled into the same hospital. She knew she was going to be deported the next day, with my two older sisters. This doctor wrote that I had a contagious children’s illness — the Germans were very afraid of contagious illnesses — and I was put into isolation.”

The ruse worked. While Deworah’s mother and two older sisters were taken to the Westerbork Transit Camp with the rest of the Amsterdam kehillah, she and her father remained in the hospital. But her father couldn’t stay there forever; he eventually took Deworah with him and found a place in Amsterdam to live.

“Then one day my father went to SS headquarters, where he shouted, ‘I’m a Hungarian citizen and Hungary is not at war with Germany. Bring back my wife and my two children.’ The next day my mother returned to Amsterdam with my two sisters. But she cried the whole day because the city was empty of Jews. She told my father she wanted to go back to Westerbork. She had no idea the Jews would be sent to a concentration camp.”

On that same day the family received a visit from an underground worker, who told Deworah’s parents he’d found hiding places for the three children. “My mother said, ‘I’ll never give my children to anyone. Where I go, I take my children.’ ” The entire family therefore went to Westerbork, where they remained until the deportations began. Her father was sent to Buchenwald. Deworah, her mother, and her two sisters were sent to Ravensbruck.

Ravensbruck was a concentration camp in northern Germany that was only for women and children. In addition to the “crime” of being Jewish, non-Jewish women were sent there for having the wrong politics (e.g., being a Communist), being “asocial” (e.g., a Gypsy), or for being “work-shy” or a “criminal.” The inmates came from over 30 countries, mostly from Poland and Russia. Only a small percentage came from the Benelux countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Very few of the women — and almost none of the children — survived the brutal conditions.


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