The day after I returned from my brief trip to the UK a single piece of white A4 paper was posted through our letter box. It was a print-out of some Dutch words that I mercifully didn't have to go to too much effort to translate as I'd seen similar posters displayed on my street. It translated as "During the war, Abraham Boeken lived here." And below this were two dates and two names of places. The dates and places corresponded to the individual's birth and death. I was saddened to Google "Sobibór" and learn that it was an extermination camp in Poland where an estimated 250,000 Jewish people died during less than an eighteen month period. He was 38 when he died.
After laying this suddenly precious piece of paper out on our flat kitchen counter top surface and trying to flatten it out a bit under the weight of some recipe books - our letter box is a little brutal to mail! - I found it very hard to forget about Abraham Boeken, not least because his surname translates as "books" in English. I found myself looking at the spines lined up on the book shelf in our lounge. I found myself suddenly yearning to progress my own short stories and novels. I found myself wondering how many books he had and how many he left behind when he was forced to leave his home - the very same building I live in now. Then I started to think about the other posters on our street. There must be 20, maybe 30 names on what is a relatively small stretch of houses. It both magnifies and widens the scope of devastation.
As soon as the crumples were straightened out, I stuck the poster in our front window facing the street, making sure it was positioned at eye height.
It's not possible to know if Abraham Boeken lived on the floor we occupy in our five-storey townhouse but a little extra research on the fantastic website for the Jewish Historical Museum, who is behind this moving initiative (supported tirelessly by residents of the participating Amsterdam neighbourhoods like my own), I discovered that Abraham was one of seven children born to Mozes Boeken and Sara Boeken-Bartels. While records show that his father died in Amsterdam in March 1940, poor Sara also met her fate in Sobibór, only a few weeks before her son. While another son of Sara's, Marcus, was also in Sobibór, two of her daighters children died in Auschwitz, as did her brother Arnold. It seems Sara's family was all but wiped out.
It's not hard to let feelings of sorrow, horror and disbelief surface when we sit and contemplate the atrocities of the Second World War. It's not hard to let the same feelings arise when we read the news everyday. The world is full of evil acts depriving people of their freedoms and their lives on varying grotesque scales. I can't begin to bring any reason to this.
But here's what I can do.
I can spend today - Liberation Day in the Netherlands - thinking about Abraham Boeken and his family. I can offer up a small smile and firm nod when I see the piece of paper stuck on our window as I walk out the front door and return home again. I can remember that I now live in a country that was occupied during the Second World War, something that makes me instantly aware of a different side of the conflict. It can't help but add a new dimension to what I learned in my history lessons at school back in the UK. I can think about one of my grandfathers who fought in the war as a teenager and no doubt partly because of the war, continued to give a lifetime's service to the British RAF. I can think about my other grandfather who having contracted TB was too unwell to fight but the war impacted him greatly as he became a lifelong pacifist. I can think about my grandmother who was evacuated from London to Shropshire and there eventually met my grandfather, a young navigator in the RAF. And I can think about my other grandmother who was a young, newly trained nurse working in London hospitals during the war, which led her to working on a TB ward where she gave a young man a bed bath and some months later they had their first kiss while on a day trip to East Sussex coast.
People say that my generation and those that will follow will forget the war and its impact and the way it changed the world. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I won't, that I can't. In a strange twist of happy fate at the hardest of times, I came exist to because of the war.
And now I have Abraham Boeken too. He will never let me forget, just as I won't forget him, his surname or his family who called my home their home.
Frances M. Thompson
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