For a Dutch Jewish Family Nearly Wiped Out in the Holocaust, an Unusual Reunion

An immigrant to Israel from North Carolina got relatives of his Dutch-born wife to meet online and learn about their Jewish family that has been in the Netherlands for centuries

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Clockwise from top left: Joop de Graaf (Rivka's father), right, and his brother Theo; Emanuel Eljon and his mother Rosette Eljon-Fruitman; and Emanuel Levie Fruitman and Rebecca Blom.
Clockwise from top left: Joop de Graaf (Rivka's father), right, and his brother Theo; Emanuel Eljon and his mother Rosette Eljon-Fruitman; and Emanuel Levie Fruitman and Rebecca Blom.Credit: Courtesy of Steve Klein
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It was a strange sort of family reunion. For starters, most of the relatives had never met or known of each other beforehand. And when they had, at least in one case, they hadn’t known that they were relatives.

There were 30 of them, ranging in age from 19 to 93, who gathered on Zoom this week to get acquainted and share their stories. They checked in from Israel, the Netherlands, the United States and Britain. Their common bond: They were all descendants of a Dutch Jewish family that was largely wiped out during the Holocaust.

The man who brought them together wasn’t a member of the clan; he wasn’t even Dutch – his wife was. In a certain sense, this was his gift to her – a gift nearly 20 years in the making.

“My wife grew up knowing very little about her Jewish roots,” says Steven Klein, the American-born husband of Rivka de Graaf who organized and facilitated this unusual reunion. “This was my way of helping her reclaim her Jewish roots,” adds Klein, a senior editor at Haaretz English Edition and an adjunct lecturer at Tel Aviv University in conflict resolution and mediation.

The timing of the reunion was no coincidence, as Klein noted in his introductory remarks at the virtual event held Sunday night. He specifically chose to hold it this week in between two important anniversaries in Shoah history: the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, where the implementation of the so-called Final Solution was planned, and the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“A lot of attention is focused this week on those who died,” Klein says. “I wanted to take this opportunity to also tell the stories of those who survived.”

The Zoom reunion featuring members of the clan meeting, some for the first time.Credit: Alexander Jones

Filling in the gaps

Klein met his wife at summer camp in the United States more than 30 years ago, and they have been together ever since, making aliyah and raising two children in the central Israeli city of Modi’in.

He grew up in what he describes as “a totally Jewish home” in North Carolina and was well versed in his family history – his maternal grandparents were born in what would later become the State of Israel, a great source of pride.

His wife, on the other hand, knew virtually nothing about her family history. Rivka grew up in a rural town in the Netherlands where hers was the only Jewish family that kept kosher and the nearest synagogue with regular Shabbat services was a 45-minute drive away. Her paternal grandmother, who was Jewish but married to a non-Jew (and thus survived, Klein believes), lost nearly all her immediate family during the Holocaust.

“I grew up in a family where there was a feeling that life started with us because we knew little to nothing about our past,” says 51-year-old Rivka, who runs a private practice in homeopathy.

Having caught the “genealogy bug,” as he terms it, Klein resolved to learn more about his wife’s Jewish ancestors and thereby fill in the missing gaps in her family history.

He began by scouring the archives in Leiden, a city near The Hague where Rivka’s grandmother was raised.

Emanuel Levie Fruitman (1848-1915) and Rebecca Blom (1854-1923), two of the families whose descendants attended the Zoom gathering on Sunday.Credit: Courtesy of Steve Klein

“First I found out who her great-grandparents were, then her great-great grandparents, and then her great-great-great grandparents,” Klein recounts. “From there, I started going through archives in Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam, and was eventually able to trace her entire Jewish family seven generations back, to the end of the 18th century.”

All told, Klein has identified 3,736 blood relatives of Rivka’s grandmother, representing eight branches of her family.

He also discovered that nearly 600 of Rivka’s grandmother’s blood relatives, many of whom she probably never knew, were murdered during the Holocaust. When his children would travel to Poland with their high school classes for their history unit on the Shoah, as is common in Israel, Klein would equip them with these lists to make the experience more personal.

Last fall, Rivka approached her husband with an idea: Instead of focusing on the dead, why don’t we start focusing on the living? In other words, why don’t we start seeking out living relatives?

With the help of various genealogy websites, Google and Facebook, Klein put his detective skills to work. Of the nearly 400 living relatives of his wife he has discovered, he has reached out to or been in contact with nearly 70, most of whom were invited to the reunion.

One of his most interesting “finds,” he says, was an 83-year-old man by the name of Oetomo Notohadinegoro (Klein has given up trying to pronounce it and prefers spelling it out). This distant cousin of his wife is a descendant of Indonesian nobility.

Emanuel Eljon and his mother Rosette Eljon-Fruitman on the day Rivka's grandparents, Rebecca van Gelder and Leendert de Graaf, got married in The Hague, May 9, 1940. Nazi Germany invaded the next day.Credit: Family album

A familiar face

Opening Sunday night’s event – which he titled “A Dutch Jewish Odyssey: 200 Years of Flourishing, 5 Years of Surviving and 75 Years of Rebuilding” – Klein was clearly moved as he greeted members of his wife’s far-flung family.

“This is an opportunity to connect you to people you might not have known are part of your family, but it’s also an opportunity to be part of a much greater human connection,” he told them.

Klein proceeded to share some of his key findings, along with biographies of prominent family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. Before posing for a group photo and splitting up for more intimate conversations in virtual breakout rooms, Klein told his wife’s newly discovered relatives about his “big idea,” as he put it. “I’d love to create a special e-book for each branch of the family – a sort of collaborative project.”

Joop de Graaf (Rivka's father), right, and his brother Theo on a farm in Slikkendam while the family was in hiding during the summer of 1944.Credit: Family album

Among the participants at this online family reunion was Rivka’s father, Joop de Graaf. He was rather surprised to see a familiar face in the virtual meeting room – and it wasn’t a member of his immediate family.

“It turned out to be a woman he knew from the Dutch Jewish community,” his son-in-law says. “He never knew that they were related.”

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