By Peter Oliver -- Early February, Philippa and I attended a very moving ceremony in Haarlem: the unveiling of two Stolpersteine (“stumbling stones” or struikelstenen in Dutch) on the pavement in front of the home of our good friends, Alison and Leonard Besselink. This was to commemorate two Dutch Jewish women, Elisabeth (Betsy) Cats-Speelman and her only child Minny Hanny Cats. They had lived in that house and were both deported to Sobibor where they were murdered.
The Stolperstein Project
Stolpersteine were the brain child of German artist Gunter Demnig https://www.stolpersteine.eu/en. The first “stones” commemorating individuals were placed in Berlin and Cologne in 1996. Today some 96,000 of them can be seen in the streets of Germany and more than twenty other European countries - including some in Brussels - most of which have been installed by the artist in person.
Each Stolperstein is covered by a small copper plate. That is the only visible part of the Stolperstein, once it has been put in place (i.e. embedded in the pavement in front of the last safe home of the individual concerned). Each copper plate states the year of the person’s birth and the date and place of their murder; but sometimes further information is given. In my humble opinion, one of the numerous merits of the Stolpersteine is that they are big enough to be noticed but small enough to be unobtrusive – making them more acceptable to the local residents which (I hope) reduces the risk of their being vandalised.
According to Demnig’s website, this project commemorates “anyone persecuted and/ or murdered by the Nazi regime: Jews, Sinti and Roma; Jehovah’s Witnesses; homosexuals; mentally and/ or physically disabled people; people persecuted for their political views, their religion, their sexual orientation or the colour of their skin; forced labourers; men considered deserters; and people who were persecuted on grounds that they were ‘anti-social’ such as homeless people or prostitutes”. This definition includes those who survived persecution. In fact, it would seem that the overwhelming majority commemorate Jews who were assassinated by the Nazis and their henchmen.
Betsy and Minny clearly fell within that definition. They had lived in the house from 1923 until 1942, when they are thought to have gone into hiding near Breda before being denounced and deported from Westerbork on 6 April 1943. (Lion, Betsy’s husband and Minny’s father, had died two months before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Haarlem.)
Three days later the mother and daughter arrived in Sobibor where Betsy was murdered the same day. Minny was shot on 14 October of the same year during an uprising in the camp. Fortunately, three of her friends managed to escape and were able to testify in trials of SS guards as well as to give an account of Minny’s tragic life in the months immediately before her death.
Researching Betsy and Minny’s lives and family
Once he discovered that Betsy and Minny had lived in what is now the home which he shares with Alison, Leonard researched into their lives over a period of many years. He first saw their names on the local memorial of the 733 Jews who were deported from Haarlem and annihilated. But it was not enough to prove that they had lived there; in addition, he had to show that the house was their last safe home. Most fortunately, Leonard also managed to trace the descendants of Betsy’s two sisters, three of whom attended the ceremony.
The official database of the more than 104,000 Jews who were deported from the Netherlands https://www.joodsmonument.nl was a very useful source of information.
The Unveiling Ceremony
The order of service began with a short speech by a representative of the local struikelstenen association followed by a heart-rending account by Leonard of the lives and deaths of Betsy and Minny (see photo). Following the unveiling of the two “stones” a number of participants placed pebbles on them and then Leonard’s godson sung Ravel’s kaddish to the accompaniment of three musicians. Then the husband of Anita Frank, one of the members of the family, recited kaddish; and the ceremony concluded with a reading the twenty-third psalm by Alison.
The ceremony was not only deeply moving, but also uplifting: it is truly wonderful that so many people like Leonard and some of the members of the local struikelstenen association, who have no family connection with any Jewish community, are prepared to devote so much time to the memory of the Dutch Jews who perished in the holocaust.