At the end of October 1939, shortly after Aaltje’s birth, Mutti, Papa and I, a six-year old “adventurer,” escaped from Germany. It all began with a visit to Mutti’s relatives in Amsterdam. We stayed with Tante Käthe and Onkel Isaak where I met Aaltje for the first and only time. I held the baby with great love. Everyone reminded me often that this was my only cousin. I couldn’t really play with this babe of two months. How does one “play” with a newborn? At best, one shakes a rattle in hopes of eliciting a gurgle. Did we roll on the carpet? Did I teach her a song? Surely, it was the clichéd love at first sight.
Early in November of 1939, my parents and I found our way to Antwerp, Belgium. I remember none of that journey which lasted only a few days. Some trains. Some walking. No other memories. I already missed Aaltje.
The Nazis invaded Holland on May 10, 1940. We don’t know the details of the family’s suffering. Years later, however, while studying records at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, I learned that on February 19, 1943, Aaltje, with her twenty-nine year old mother, died at Auschwitz. The Nazi killers had kept scrupulous documentation in a clear script. Aaltje’s age at the time of her murder: 3½.
What can I tell about Aaltje Wurms? All I remember is that she was small, an infant, when I saw her last. I can only imagine her life story; what might have been. Might she have become an Anne Frank? A Nobel laureate scientist? Or, might she have become a housewife caring for her own children and grandchildren? She might have grown old, just as I did. She might have grown old with me to become my only cousin—just six years my junior.
Parents gone. Uncles and aunts gone. Cousin Aaltje, gone. I am an only child. All I have left is the photograph of a child who did not survive the Holocaust.
My second grandchild, Zoe Summit, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on March 17, 2007. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a celebration of “coming of age” for Jewish boys and girls. At age thirteen they make their covenant with God just as all Jews have done since the time Abraham made his covenant.
Zoe decided to partner with “Remember Us: The Holocaust B’nai Mitzvah Project” to honor a child, one of the 1.5 million, who did not survive the Holocaust. Each Bnai Mitzvah youngster is assigned a child who perished in the Shoah. Zoe, like other program participants, integrated “her” child into her own ceremony and said Kaddish, the mourning prayer, on the day of her Bat Mitzvah and will again, each year, on the anniversary of that day as well as each year on Yom HaShoah, the day of Holocaust remembrance. When she read from the Torah she spoke with two voices: her own and that of the child she honored on this special day. Zoe has given her selected child the gift of Bat Mitzvah.
Zoe specifically selected a Dutch child named Aaltje Wurms. Zoe’s congregation, Temple Emanuel of Worcester, MA, provided a bracelet with Aaltje’s name, a bracelet that honors Aaltje and reminds Zoe of my cousin—and Zoe’s cousin, although several generations removed. Thank you, Zoe!