Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Corrie Ten Boom's Risky Business (c) By Polly Guerin

Dear Corrie: I often wonder what I would do in the wake of Germany’s invasion of Holland in 1943. Would I protect my friends who were being persecuted because of their faith? Would I step up to the plate and save Jewish people I did not even know? Would I risk my own life to facilitate their escape? These are questions I ask myself, but you did not even consider questioning your benevolent behavior and took a great risk to help Jewish people and you paid dearly for doing so. In the hallmark of remarkable women, determined to succeed, you leave a legacy of unparalleled bravery.

The Ten Boom family was renowned clock and watch masters and Corrie was one of the first women trained as a clock smith, who repaired and improved clocks in Haarlem, Holland where the Ten Boom family lived and were highly respected citizens. Corrie recalls, “Life was so peaceful then when I was growing up in Haarlem. I helped out in my father’s clock repair shop on the bottom floor of our home. Our family was well-liked in our neighborhood. I even taught bible class and started several girls’ clubs that became popular in Holland. It was a peaceful and idealic time, but it drastically changed with the German invasion.”
In 1837, Willem Ten Boom founded a clock and watch shop which later passed onto his son Casper, and then to his daughter Cornelia Ten Boom, generally known as Corrie Ten Boom (1892-1983). Casper Ten Boom was a well-liked watch repairman and often referred to as “Haarlem’s Grand Old man.” Their home called Beje (short for Barteljorisstraat) was a happy place where a cultured and religious family and their faith inspired them to serve both the Church and Society at large.
During World War II, their home Beje became a refuge, a Hiding Place for fugitives and hunted people who were sought by the enemy. By protecting people, father Casper and his daughters Corrie Ten Boom and Elizabeth ten Boom, called Betsie risked their lives. Their undaunted faith led them to hide Jews, students who refused to cooperate with the enemy, and members of the Dutch ‘underground’ resistance movement. The Beje accommodated these refuges until it was ‘safe’ to smuggle them to other families and thereby saved a great many lives.
After the German invasion of Holland in 1943 life began to change dramatically for the Jewish people. Every week there was something they couldn’t do. They lost their jobs, or their businesses were taken away; they were banned from public places; and they were denied food. Jewish men were sent away and never heard of again. Some Dutch people became unkind to their Jewish neighbors because the Germans gave them special privileges, but our family, and many others, knew that we had to help those being targeted. Corrie recalls, “We dedicated their lives in Christian services and our home was ‘an Open house’ for anyone in need of help. Our house, Beje, became a symbol of refuge during WWII. We built a safe room in the wall of our house and even though the Nazis would search hard, they never found the Jews who were hidden there.”
Corrie recalls, “I had been sick for several days with a bad case of the flu, but I was awakened by screams and the sound of feet rushing toward my room. At first I thought that it was one of the drills we had practiced to hide Jews. But this time , February 28, 1944, it was German soldiers raiding our home, looking for Jewish people that they had heard we were hiding. I leaped from my bed to help our guests hurry into the secret space that had been built inside a wall in my room. Once they were safely hidden, I pretended to be asleep but the soldiers rushed into my room. They wanted to know where the Jews were, but neither my sister, Betsie nor I, would tell them. We were slapped and hit by the soldiers. Blood tricked down our swollen faces, but we were willing to die than tell where they were.”
After the family was betrayed and the Gestapo raided the house they arrested six members of the family. The Nazis plundered the place, knocked down walls but could not find the Jews. However, they did find enough written material and food cards to send the Ten Boom family to prison. During the next hours about 30 friends, who came to the Beje unaware of the betrayal, were also arrested and taken to Ravenbruck concentration camp. The sister’s ordeal there was sustained by their unwavering Christian faith. They recited the Bible from memory and throughout their incarceration they helped other prisoners to renew their faith and take comfort in the words that would lift up their burden. Corrie’s sister Betsie died at Ravenbrook as did Casper (84), Christiann (24). Willem (60) died shortly after the war.
Corrie survived the horrors and deprivation of Ravenbruck concentration camp and when the war was over, she wrote a book, “The Hiding Place,” detailing the Ten Boom family saga. Corrie travelled around the world and encouraged everyone she met with the message that Jesus Christ is Victor over all and everything, even the misery of the concentration camp. Her family home, Beje is again an “Open House,” a living museum memorial to the Ten Boom family of Haarlem, who lived as Christians. The museum keeps alive the spiritual heritage of the family as an inspiration for everyone to learn and savor the truth, the true meaning of a Christian faith. The Ten Boom Clock and Watch shop has been partly restored in the setting of that time period and a watchmaker carries out this meticulous work of repairing watches on the spot in the shop today.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Zelda Fitzgerald Painter and Linguist (c) by Polly Guerin

Dear Zelda: So much noteriety has focused on the life you led with your husband, the celebrated author F. Scott Fitzgerald that you were seemingly cast in his shadow without the rightful recognition you deserve as an independent woman determined to succeed.

Christened the original flapper, your zany cavorting with Scott fed the scandal sheets with regularity. Friends and acquaintances were awe struck by your storied antics. You flouted convention but underlying your unbridled demonstrations was an unprecedented craving for attention, and something to call your own: painting and writing.
Perhaps that is why you had such urge to excel and as a child took ballet lessons. Later in life trying to claim something of your own you at age 27 you indulged in ballet with wild and unrelenting pursuit. Yet your role as an artist is one of your finest achievements. The watercolor paintings which you produced were well executed subjects that were charming, whimsical and sometimes absurd, but definitely worth discussing here. Zelda was a creative talent who was a dedicated artist, the one artistic expression that she practiced throughout her life. When the Fitzgerald’s moved to Paris in 1924 they became part of a circle of artists including Constantin Brancusi, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. It is at this time that Zelda began painting in earnest. Subject matter reveals her appreciation for landscape and flowers, and her unique and wonderful sense of fantasy and theatricality. A large group depicts fairy tales and reveals dynamic reinterpretations of traditional children’s stories. Zelda’s paintings are primarily from the 1930s and 1940s. These works were exhibited once in a New York Gallery in 1934 but were exhibited mostly in private showings. After Scott died in 1940, she created a sentimental series depicting places in New York and Paris. Rediscovering Zelda and her paintings began with a 1974 exhibition at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. Later an exhibition of Zelda’s painting was circulated to museums across the United States under the auspices of International Artists, Washington, D.C.

You were a born original linguist. Many of your words and phrases found their way into Scott’s novels. These examples are a mere smattering of the breath of your contribution. In the conclusion of Scott’s “This Side of Paradise, the soliloquy of the protagonist Amory Blaine in the cemetery is taken directly from your personal journal. When you gave birth to your daughter, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, you exclaimed, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool---a beautiful little fool.” In “The Great Gatsby,” the character Daisy Buchanan expresses the same for her daughter. In the 1930s Zelda created some her best work, including the only novel, “Save Me the Waltz.” Your originality deserves kudos not given to you during your lifetime.

One need only refer to your undisciplined childhood that set the stage for outrageous adult behavior. Spoiled by a doting mother, Minerva “Minnie” Machen no doubt contributed to your willful conduct. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda Sayre (1900-1948) had a prestigious lineage starting with her father Anthony Dickinson Sayre who was a justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. The Sayre’s were a prominent southern family with relatives in the United States Senate, and a Montgomery newspaper editor. Despite this staid background during Zelda’s childhood she developed a distinct appetite for attention and scandalized conventional society by dancing the Jazz Age Charleston and fueled rumors that she swam nude by wearing a flesh colored bathing suit. Those were just a smattering of her antics that shocked Montgomery social circle. Always, her father’s reputation saved her from scandal. No wonder she stood out, southern women of the time were supposed to be delicate, obedient and accommodating.

There was no excuse for her scandalized behavior, but the more flamboyant her antics the more she fueled the gossip mongers in docile Montgomery society who were in for another surprise. At a country club event where she performed, “Dance of the Hours” for the social set the handsome first lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald entered her orbit of entertainment. Courtship swiftly followed, but she only agreed to marry him once his first novel, “This Side of Paradise” was published. It is a known fact that Scott had ransacked Zelda’s diaries and letters for story and novel material and had used verbatim excerpts in his novels. Zelda had a natural talent for writing and Fitzgerald’s penchant for lifting works, written by Zelda, became routine. In fact Zelda was engaged in writing of her own but there was the touchy matter of by-line consideration. Often, therefore, Scott’s name appeared for publication, as his name was known to the reading public and would garner higher fees. There is no doubt, however, that Zelda had certain literary gifts. In the winter of 1928-1929 Zelda completed a series of stories for College Humor, and Scott signed his name to many of them. Zelda’s “the Girl with Talent” and “The Girl the Prince Liked” were inevitably drawn from her natural talent and original voice. She helped Scott write the play The Vegetable, but when it flopped the Fitzgerald’s found themselves in debt, so Scott wrote short stories with a frantic pace, but became burned out the depressed.

After the success of “This Side of Paradise,” Zelda and Scott became New York celebrities. The couple embodied the fun, exhuberance, and glamour of the 1920’s but their wild behavior and drunkenness led them to be evicted from both the Biltmore and Commodore Hotels. Their social life was flooded with alcohol and to their delight the New York newspapers had a field day reporting their escapades. They became the icons of youth and success. "Flappers," a term Scott Fitzgerald coined to refer to a new breed of modern, independent woman, was inspired in large part by the freethinking, strong-willed Zelda. Scott himself named the decade the "Jazz Age," when Flappers and their swains frequented speakeasies during prohibition home to drinking, dancing and swinging to the sounds of the Jazz Age

Sadly after a lifetime trying to succeed Zelda was driven to the heights of physical exhaustion. The histrionics and drama of Zelda’s life, and her grueling routine to become a ballerina resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1930. Zelda’s health slowly deteriorated and she was diagnosed as schizophrenic, thus spending 18 years of her life in and out of institutions. Despite her illness she spent the majority of her days painting. One wonders what amazing works of art she might have created had she not died tragically in a hospital fire at the age of 48.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Portrait of Dona Gracia Nasi

Dear Dona Gracia: As we celebrate your 500th birthday (1510-2010) and your incredible accomplishments you rank among the most noble of women determined to succeed. Dona Gracia Nasi, born in Lisbon, Portugal (1510-1569) was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of the Renaissance who used her personal fortune and powerful contacts to help conversos (forcibly converted Jews) prime victims of the Inquisition to flee to safety in the Ottoman Empire. Dona Gracia Nasi’s negotiating skills, leadership and fierce commitment to her Jewish faith serves as a role model for women of all religious persuasions. Her unwavering courage and leadership is a story worth the telling and inspires women today.
Dona Garcia lived at a time in which her actions, setbacks and strategies were surprisingly modern, and that is only one of the reasons I include her in this series on amazing women of the ages. Consider her name, for example, she never known by her husband’s name Mendes and like other women of the l6th century, she retained her birth name, Beatrice de Luna, until she took her original Hebrew name in the Ottoman Empire, where she could live openly as a Jew. Never underestimate the powerful convictions of a woman such as Dona Garcia. She took control of her personal life and never relied on one doctor’s opinion concerning a medical concern but immediately sought another doctor’s opinion.
Beatrice de Luna was born into an ancient, venerable family of “Marranos,” (New Christians), that fled Portugal when Spain expelled its Jews in 1492. She married into the eminent international banking and finance dynasty of Mendes, and in 1528 when she was 18 years old, she married Francisco Mendes in a public Catholic wedding and then a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah (a formal contract in a Jewish religious marriage). Francisco, along with his brother Diogo, ran a powerful trading company and bank of world repute with agents across Europe and around the Mediterranean. Following the opening of a sea route to India, they became important spice trader. After her marriage she was known as Dona Beatrice Mendes and in private life, called by her Jewish name, Gracia Nasi. (Dona is a formal title meaning “Mrs.” Gracia is the Spanish equivalent of Hannah)
Dona Beatrice Mendes was widowed in 1538 leaving her with an infant daughter, Brianda. Following her husband’s death she went to Antwerp, where her brother-in-law Diogo Mendes had moved the family business years earlier. At his death in 1542 she took up the reigns of management and not only ran the family’s banking business but the trading and shipping empire as well. She became a celebrated banker and as Diogo had done before, she continued using the family’s contacts and international resources to help Jews escape the Inquisition, and by doing this act of bravery, her family was also constantly in danger.
You may rightly wonder what prevented Dona Garcia from re-marrying? Remember she was a woman of her time but she knew the compulsory rules of the day. In the Renaissance Dona Garcia could not remarry and bear more children without making grave sacrifices. The laws of those days would have immediately handed control of her money and business to her new spouse. Instead she became a powerful woman managing the Mendes commercial empire and becoming a successful businesswoman. Legend has it that she was a fierce negotiator, tough and determined when it came to collecting debts, whether from fellow Jews or the royal courts of the day. Her enormous wealth put her into a position to influence kings and popes dealing involved commercial activities, loans and bribes. Payments to the Pope, for example, delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal. She even maintained her own lobbyist at the Vatican against the expansion and grisly deeds of the Inquisition.
During her travels through France, Italy, and Turkey the Inquisition pursued her and greedy local rulers attempted to confiscate the family fortune. With amazing determination, business acumen, shrewdness and diplomacy, she managed to escape each assault and continue to build the family business. Dona Beatrice and her family finally reached Turkey in 1553, where they settled near Constantinople, finally free to live as a Jew. She de-Christianized her maiden and married names and was called Garcia Nasi. She built synagogues, yeshivas and hospitals. Gracia Nasi a noble and sainted woman of the ages died near Istanbul in 1569.
The remarkable life of Dona Garcia Nasi deserves full disclosure as only a scholar can produce. Andree Aelion Brooks, award-winning author of a new biography of Dona Garcia Nasi called, “The Woman Who Defied Kings,” published by Paragon House (2002), presents the incredible story of Donna Garcia Nasi, the 16th century Jewish woman banker who developed an escape network that saved thousands of her fellow converses from the terrors of the Inquisition. Ms. Brooks is an associate fellow at Yale University and a former contributing columnist to the New York Times. She can be reached at A Journey into the Life and Times of "La Senora," the first commemoration in honor of the 500th birthday of Dona Gracia Nasi was presented by
Ms. Brooks at The brotherhood Synagogue on June 6, 2010.