History, Herstory, Ourstory: Asser Levy in New Amsterdam
by Leo Hershkowitz
Who were the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (New York)? The answer, repeated endlessly and deeply embedded in history, is that twenty-three individuals, “big and little” having been forced to leave Brazil after the Portuguese conquest in 1654,found their way to the Dutch settlement and so “established” the first Jewish presence in the area. These “founders” were Sephardim, of a proud heritage. However, the story needs a good deal of revision.
In late summer, 1654 two ships sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor. One, the Peartree (Peereboom) arrived from Amsterdam on or about August 22. Among those who disembarked were Jacob Barsimon and probably two other Jews, Asser Levy and Solomon Pieterson. All three were members of the prosperous and tolerant Dutch Republic. They were also Ashkenazim, and the first Jews to set foot in the Dutch settlement. With them begins the history of the Jewish community in New York.
March 3: Judikje Themans-Simons
A Dutch Jewish gymnast who shared a gold team medal for combined exercises as part of her country’s gymnastics team at the 1928 Olympics, Judikje Themans-Simons was gassed with her husband and two young children at the Sobibor concentration camp on this date in 1943. The couple ran an orphanage that housed 83 children in the city of Utrecht. Warned of Nazi intentions and offered a hiding place by friends, they refused to abandon those children, most of whom ended up murdered as well. Themans-Simons (who did not actually compete in 1928), was one of six Jews on the 1928 team, all of whom are inductees as a group into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame: Estella Agsteribbe, Helena Nordheim, Anna Polak, Elka de Levie, Judikje Simons, and their coach, Gerrit Kleerekoper. De Levie was the only one to survive the war; the others were murdered at Sobibor and Auschwitz — as was Mozes Jacobs, a Jewish member of the Dutch men’s gymnastics team (also coached by Kleerekoper).
“Ben Bril was the youngest boxer ever in the Olympics . . . 15 in Amsterdam in 1928. A 12-time Dutch champion, he boycotted the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. . . He and his wife were incarcerated at Bergen-Belsen during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands; both survived. . . . Attila Petschauer, a Hungarian fencer, won three Olympic medals during the Summer Games of 1928 and 1932. During the Holocaust he was deported to a Nazi labor camp in Ukraine, where he was recognized by a Nazi officer who had been an equestrian competitor on Hungary’s ’28 Olympic team. The two had been friends, but in the camp, the officer ordered guards to taunt Petschauer. In midwinter, he was forced to climb a tree naked and crow like a rooster. The guards sprayed him with water. He died from exposure on January 20, 1943.” —Steve Lipman, Jewish Week
August 1: Anne’s Last Entry
Anne Frank made her last entry into “Kitty,” her diary, on this date in 1944, after two years in hiding. “I’m what a romantic film is to a profound thinker,” she complained, “— a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten: not bad, but not particularly good either. . . . My lighter, more superficial side will always steal a march on the deeper side and therefore always win. You can’t imagine how often I’ve tried to push away this Anne, which is only half of what is known as Anne — to beat her down, hide her. But it doesn’t work, and I know why. I’m afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side, a better and finer side. I’m afraid they’ll mock me, think I’m ridiculous and sentimental and not take me seriously. I’m used to not being taken seriously, but only the ‘lighthearted’ Anne is used to it and can put up with it; the ‘deeper’ Anne is too weak.” Therefore, she continued, her “deeper” self “is never seen in company,” but would be fully present, she concluded moodily, “if only there were no other people in the world.” Three days later, she and her family were discovered in their “secret attic.” Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen in March, 1945.
“I have a reputation for being a boy-chaser, a flirt, a smart aleck and a reader of romances. The happy-go-lucky Anne laughs, gives a flippant reply, shrugs her shoulders and pretends she couldn’t care less. The quiet Anne reacts in just the opposite way.” —Anne Frank, August 1, 1944
Watch the only film footage of Anne, looking out a window before the war:
March 9: Refusing to Follow Orders
Twelve Dutch police officers refused to participate in the round-up of Jews in Grootegast, Holland on this date in 1943. After hours of pressure they remained steadfast and were disarmed and arrested for incarceration in the Vugt concentration camp in the southern Netherlands. One of them escaped before arrest, however: Henk Drogt, 23, joined a Dutch resistance group that helped to rescue downed Allied pilots and to help Jews in hiding. Caught in August, Drogt was executed in the Oranjehotel prison in Scheveningen on April 14, 1944. After the war, Drogt was posthumously decorated by President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Dutch government. He and his fellow refusing officers were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1988. Of more than 22,000 people so recognized, nearly 5,000 lived in Holland.
“Dear all, I have to tell you the worst – today I and my friends got the death sentence. It is terrible that we have to part from all those who are dear to us in this way…I always had hope that I could be with you for one more time, but the Lord wanted differently…” —Henk Drogt
Immigrants, Then and Now
Lessons of a 350-Year Heritage
by Linda Gritz
A country is torn apart by war. A boatload of refugees flees to another land, sparking a debate about whether the refugees should be allowed to stay. Sound familiar? Well, this particular event happened 350 years ago, and the “boat people” were Jews.
The first group of Jews who arrived in the American colonies in September, 1654 were illegal aliens, refugees from Recife, a prosperous center for sugar production in Brazil. Recife had been under the control of the Dutch after they wrested the town from Portuguese rule in 1630.
Jews had come to the New World even earlier.