Quiet is the only sound to be heard in this old neighborhood. Until a distant bird starts to chirp. Softly. Ah, and there’s the ever-present squawk of a seagull. Demanding attention. Irritating. No different than that scolding squirrel in your own backyard. Tossing the husk of an acorn at your head. Speaking out in the silence.
The brick house sits placidly on the south side of the street. The address is large and clear on the outside — Brugsestraat 74. Scheveningen is the town. Just a poor fishing village back in the day. Herring was how people made their living. Small attached apartments still line block after block. But here is this lovely home in this lovely neighborhood off the market street of Stevinstraat. A dream home tucked out of harms way. Safe and secure.
January 17th, 1942. The search of the brick house by the Nazi SS must have been particularly chaotic. The day was cold, below freezing. Although not rainy, which is rare. In all that sunshine, maybe a dozen thugs came through the door at Brugsestraat 74. And for what? I suspect they didn’t even know. Pamphlets, for sure. Perhaps a printing press. Maybe they wanted to put hands on the wife and kids. Roust them a little bit. Haul someone in for questioning. Create a little terror. But the guy they really wanted wasn’t even there. Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg was up the road in Amsterdam. Preaching against them. Well, they were soon going to put a stop to that.
“Of course . . . to speak out will run the risk that one will face persecution. But so what? There are times that Christians must endure such persecution if they want to save their souls and be true to their calling as believers in truth and justice.” Such were the words of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg, as translated into English by his late son Isaac. The dead passing on the words of the dead. That’s how it works.
Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, a hair’s breadth from 90, remembers the sunshine, the happy faces, the good times, and the Rottenberg family. She speaks of Sunday school classes with all six of the Rottenberg’s kids and visits to the Rottenberg home at Brugsestraat 74. That’s her in the front row of the Sunday school class clasping her legs. She says it is too long ago for her to recognize the Rottenbergs in the group. But look at her back then. A seventeen-year-old girl giving us a cool appraisal. Is that a smile?
Seventy-two years ago this picture was taken. What did Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst know of the future any more than any of us? As she leans in to show me this photograph on a hot day in mid-summer in her senior living apartment, there is an urge to reach into the picture, grab the young Elisabeth by the shoulders, and tell her to run before it is too late. Tell her that her mother will die of cancer before the year is out. Tell her that she will be alone, holding her father as he dies from starvation in the winter of 1945 during the last gasp of the German occupation. Tell her that some of her friends in that photo will be executed by the Nazis. Tell her to just unclasp those hands, spring up, and run until those white bobby socks are shreds of cloth. Just go.
But to where? Where do you go to escape your life?
Many years before this photograph, the young Alter Mendel Rottenberg was following in his father’s footsteps. Born in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, in 1890, Alter Mendel came from a scholarly Jewish family, where his father taught the Talmud and Torah down the road in Krakow. Both towns, by the way, just a short bus ride from Auschwitz.
When Alter Mendel turned 21, off he went to study with a famous Talmud teacher in Switzerland. Instead, he became interested in Christianity. He ended up at a mission in Rotterdam, where he was assured a job and could continue his studies in Christianity with another Jewish convert. His father sent scholars to Rotterdam to bring him back to Judaism. Alter Mendel refused to return to the faith of his father, and his father never talked to him again.
From there, Alter Mendel’s biography is short on facts and long on travels. From Rotterdam, he studied theology around the world, ending up in Scheveningen by 1940. During that time of travel, he published pamphlets and married and had six kids. His was an itinerant scholar’s life, arguing to any who would listen about the need for a Jewish understanding within a framework of Christianity. But by the time he returned to the Netherlands to continue his writing and preaching, he couldn’t have been more in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 1942, Alter Mendel gave a sermon in which he said, “National Socialism is in conflict with the Bible.” Yikes. By German definition, a Jew, publicly preaching against the Nazis. A double danger for sure. The same year that Anne Frank, just up the road a little bit in Amsterdam, was hiding out in the secret annex. Not good timing.
“The Nazis picked him up. They put him in jail in Sheveningen. Transported to Amersfoort. Taken to Buchenwald, and he died in Mauthausen, the mines, in June of 1942.” Jan Kleiweg de Zwaan translates this information to me by rote from the various church documents at Duinzichtkerk, where he is a member of the church board. Kleiweg de Zwaan, 74 years old, is genteel and proper, with a soft voice and a busy demeanor. It turns out he was the Dutch Ambassador in Belgrade in 1998 when things blew up with Kosovo and he had to quickly shut down the embassy. And then, if that wasn’t trying enough, he became the Dutch Ambassador in Beirut. I imagine the murder of Alter Mendel is one more injustice on a long list of injustices he has witnessed.
But the mines were particularly evil no matter how often you hear these stories. Mauthausen was another Nazi invention where torture and death was disguised as work. Made up of multiple camps in Austria, it was known for having its victims quarry rock with their bare hands and carry the rock up the sides of the pit. When the victims were too ill or too weak to work any more, they were sent to the gas chamber or pushed off the edge of the quarry. Simple and horrible.
So the Duinzichtkerk church commissioned a stained glass window to honor those members of the church murdered in the war. And there is Alter Mendel, the guy looking at us with his chin in his hand. A good man, according to Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst. Always moving. Always in a hurry. A man on a mission. A kind man.
“I was not aware that Mr. Rottenberg was arrested at the time. Probably the family did not talk about it. They did not want to draw attention. After they were forced to move from Brugsestraat 74 [so the Germans could build their Atlantic wall], he was just not there any more.”
Elisabeth Andriana Hogervorst, of course, had her own problems by this time — she was young, mother dead, father dying, and forced out of their own home in Scheveningen. And she’s right. It was not the time for anyone to draw attention. It was time to keep your head low. Time to survive.
And so Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg disappeared. “He was just not there anymore.” The end of the line.
Out of the sandy dunes of Sheveningen, across the Atlantic Ocean, over the East Coast through its big cities, into the Midwest and dropped down into Des Moines, landing at a far table in Centro Restaurant, there sits a man. Paul Rottenberg.
Yes, our Paul Rottenberg of Gateway Market – Centro Restaurant – Django Restaurant -Zombie Burger fame. Paul Rottenberg, son of Isaak Rottenberg, son of Alter Mendel Johannes Rottenberg. The grandson of a man who said there comes a time you must speak to save your soul. Paul Rottenberg’s existence is a reminder in our own strange times. A reminder of past courage. And a prompt for the future.
Look around. Is that a squawking seagull? Speaking out in the silence? Perhaps it is time to draw attention.