|When asked "what miracle stands out in your life, George," I immediately
respond: "me! I am a miracle." I know this because my siblings and I are the
product of two people who survived the Nazi Holocaust. Moreover, my parents came to know
Christ because of their experiences. They dedicated their lives to Christ, but they were
determined to retain the faith of their parents. While accepting the primary tenets of
Christianity, they maintained their Judaism, becoming what would be called Hebrew
Christians. My father became an ordained Presbyterian minister and my mother a teacher of
languages for the Carroll County Schools. Throughout their lives, they ministered and
witnessed to people all over the world about how God led them through the fiery furnace of
the Holocaust to the cross of Calvary. In the end, they produced five children, two sets
of fraternal twins and an older daughter. They immigrated to the United States in 1952,
where my father began his ministry to the Jewish population of northern New Jersey. In
1968, he accepted a call to become the pastor of Emmanuel Hebrew Christian Congregation in
suburban Baltimore County. It was there that I grew up and was educated in both Jewish and
Christian beliefs. Throughout my childhood, I dealt with the questions of my peers as they
asked "How can you be Jewish and Christian at the same time?" What follows is
one attempt at an explanation.
Ernest Cassutto: The Miracle of Liberation
My father did not refer to his acceptance of Christ as his Lord and Savior as a "conversion." Instead of a "converted Jew," he said he was a "completed Jew." He came to know the Messiah that the Hebrew prophets had predicted hundreds of years before Christ appeared on Earth. He had read Isaiah 53, which described the suffering servant with such clarity that it could only be describing the Jewish teacher from Nazareth.
While in the prison cell in Rotterdam, My father became familiar with the New Testament. Having only a bible for spiritual comfort, he read the gospels, which told the story of Jesus, his ministry, his arrest, cruel death, and of his resurrection. As fantastic as the story must have sounded to my father at the time, he came to believe. It is often in our lowest moments when we turn to Christ for help. My father was contemplating his own mortality in that cell. He had seen so many of his friends, even his own fiancée, carried off to extermination camps where certain death awaited. He knew that such a fate may also await him. In a way, he was coming face-to-face with Christ in the Rotterdam prison cell, and Christ was asking him: "who do YOU say that I am? as he had asked Peter (Luke 9:20).
My father read a passage from Romans that speaks to us today. Paul wrote
The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. that is the word of faith that we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10: 8-9)
This passage gave my father the justification he needed to say to himself "Jesus is Lord." After he escaped and began his ministry to the Jews, it would become an important part of his message. Paul also wrote in Romans 1:16:
"I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." The message had to go to the Jews first because they brought forth the Messiah into the world. The Jews of Paul's time rejected Christ as the spiritual savior that he was, hoping for a political leader who would break the chains of Roman domination. My father wanted Christ's own people, the Jews, to recognize Him for his true identity: the savior of the world from sin and death.
In bringing this message to the Jews with whom he had contact, my father felt it was imperative to maintain and expand his own Jewish training and faith. Becoming a follower of the Chosen One did not mean having to forsake the ways and faith of the people that brought Jesus into the world. In fact, recognition of Christ as the Messiah required a more intensive Jewish faith than my father had ever practiced before he accepted Christ. My father took this passage from 1 Peter literally:
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 6-9)
Peter is describing the joy that we feel, and that I think my father felt, when he recognized that Christ was the Savior, and that he had been saved, not just from death in the gas chambers, but from the emptiness that comes from being without God both in this life and the next. This joy is barely something that can be put into words. The feeling goes beyond our ability to explain in scientific or rational terms. indeed. this joy, and the resurrection from which it flows, is miraculous. It is a miracle that we all have the opportunity to experience when we confess "Jesus is Lord."
Elisabeth Cassutto: The Miracle of Forgiveness
My mother and her brother, my Uncle Henry, would never see their parents again. In 1960, the International Red Cross confirmed for my mother that her parents had been gassed in Auschwitz. The Christian woman who had hid my mother during the war, whom we had come to know later as "Aunt Grace" ("Tante Grie" in Dutch), became my mother's legal guardian at the end of the war in 1945, and their relationship lasted until her death in 1964.
Elly and her foster mother, Grietje "Grace" Bogaarts, ca. 1958.
In 1983, when the names were being collected for the Wall of the Rescuers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, my mother submitted the name of her foster mother, Grace "Grietje" Bogaarts, to the museum committee as one of the "righteous gentiles" who protected Europe's Jews during World War II. My wife and I agreed to name our first daughter after this courageous woman who demonstrated the best God-given traits of human nature. When I see my little daughter Grace, I see the miracle of life that was given to my mother through her namesake, Grace "Grietje" Bogaarts.
My mother shared her husband's faith every step of the way. By faith they carried out their ministry through difficult times and prosperous times. They met at a conference at Hebrew Christian youth in the Netherlands after the war in 1948. Until her death from brain cancer in 1984, she performed the duties of a faithful minister's wife while putting forth the flare of a typical Jewish mother. In fact, my mother died after returning from a Fulbright scholarship in Germany to take care of her husband, who had been showing signs of Alzheimer's Disease-like symptoms. He died less than a year later in March of 1985.
My mother faced a great challenge after becoming a Christian during her captivity. She had lost her parents in the gas chambers of Auschwitz at the hands of the Germans. They died because they were Jewish. Now my mother had to face the idea that she was embracing the religion of her parents' murderers. Of course, no true Christian would have engaged in the wholesale slaughter that is now known as the Holocaust. But to an eighteen year-old girl who had made it through occupation and captivity, the association may not have been avoidable. Moreover, the anger and pain of the senseless loss of one's parents at such a tender time in her stage of development was traumatic. It is no wonder that she married a man 12 years her senior in an attempt to find a father-figure to replace the one she has lost to the Nazis.
My father asked my mother to forgive her German persecutors. For years, she harbored anger toward the German people. Even though my mother's faith in Jesus was genuine and had become a guiding force in her life as she raised her family, made her home in a new land, she still hated Germans for what they had done to her and her brother. I remember my mother emphatically stating she would never step foot in Germany while her heart was beating. Her heart had been hardened to a point where she was holding on to the only vestige of her parents that she could find: a prejudice against Germans.
My father had come to terms with his captors and their actions as Christ had commanded. Sometime after the war, my father was been notified that the commander of the prison where he was held was on his deathbed. My father went to him and forgave him. My mother wanted nothing to do with this line of thinking.
Later in her life, after she had matured in her faith, she too came to grips with her prejudice. After her children were all grown and out of the house, she received a teaching certificate in the area of foreign language. Her proficiency in German led to her teach it on the high school level, along with French and English. After five years of teaching, she accepted a Fulbright scholarship where she could study the German language and culture in Germany while teaching English to German students. After only a few months there, she returned to help her ailing husband. Three days after returning to the United States, my mother suffered a massive seizure caused by a brain tumor. The Lord brought her home in May of 1984.
Before her untimely death, my mother had to put her personal history aside. As Christ has commanded, my mother had to come to pray for those who had persecuted her. Just as Christ forgives us, my mother came to forgive those who had wronged her. Overcoming the pain and hate caused by the Holocaust was in itself a miracle. I am certain that she had made peace with her anger and with the Lord before she died. My mother was too loving a person, and too strong a Christian, to have taken that hate with her to the grave.
My Miracle: Some Final Thoughts
Their survival is a miracle because it tells us all what God wants from us even in the worst of times. The Lord calls Christians to stand up for their faith, even if it meant laying down one's life. Those who hid my parents risked their lives so that others might live. We face these same problems today, and through prayer we must not fall prey to inaction. The story of my parents is the inverse of a famous quotation that also stemmed from the wartime experiences of a Christian leader in Nazi Germany, Martin Niemoller:
"In Germany the Nazis came first for the Communist, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they cam for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me."
-----Pastor Martin Niemoller
Another German pastor who died in the Holocaust, Dietrick Bonhoeffer, said: "When Jesus calls us he bids us come and die."
In today's world, we may not suffer death at the hands of a Hitler when we must stand up for Christ by fighting prejudice and injustice. Instead, we may experience the "little deaths" that may result from our forthrightness. Friends may choose not to associate with us. Spouses and family members may feel alienated from us because we are unwilling to participate in racist jokes, ethnic slurs, or because we embrace those who are different from the majority.
We have a spokesperson in the form of Jesus Christ. And as we strive to emulate His life andthe way he lived it, so we must be willing to speak up for those who are the victims of injustice and prejudice.
I want to stress the following point: their survival is my miracle. Their faith is my miracle. My brothers and sisters are their miracle. We are all witnesses to God's mercy and love. My siblings and I have arrived at our own understanding of faith in God through our own individual walks with Christ. We represent a spectrum of religious practice from evangelical Christianity to a Hebew Christian practice that would make my father proud. I recognize that we have not achieved salvation by virtue of the fact that we are all PK's ("preacher's kids"). Each one of us has had to read, study, and put into practice what our Lord commanded. In the end, the roads each one of us has walked has been a road to Emmaus. Each one of us has walked with our Lord. Many times he has carried us because we were too tired, too depressed, or to victimized to carry ourselves. I know of times I have looked at the face of Jesus in my heart and asked him "why were there only one set of footprints, Lord. And every time he says to me in a soft and still voice "Son, that is when I carried you."
There is a miracle that we still pray for. In my mind's eye I see dimly my parents waiting for all five of us at the foot of the cross, at Calvary, where the road ends. While I pray for a long and fruitful life in this world, the words of the hymn Be Still My Soul" always touch me and comfort me:
Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed, we shall meet at last.
The words describe the greatest miracle: Christ's victory over death. It is a gift He shares with each of us.
Ernest H. Cassutto: The Last Jew of Rotterdam
In 1939, my father came to know a woman with whom he quickly fell in love. Her name was Hetty Winkel, and they were engaged that year. Sometime in 1943, the couple was separated. My father later learned that the Gestapo had arrested Hetty. He would never see her again. She died in Auschwitz in January of 1944.
My father had gone underground, meaning that he went from safehouse to safehouse seeking refuge from Nazi arrest. This hide-and-seek went on until March of 1944, when the Nazis had discovered his hiding place. My father's family had separated and survived the war without being discovered by their Nazi occupiers. Interrogation by the Gestapo was painful and humiliating. My father was taken to the headquarters of the Security Police in Rotterdam, a major port city in the southwest of Holland. It was there that my father was questioned on the whereabouts of his family, other Jews, and the activities of the Dutch underground.
All prisoners were placed in single, five by seven-foot cells enclosed by a thick steel door with only a bench and a toilet with a single light bulb overhead. This captivity amounted to solitary confinement. On the outside of the cell door was posted the yellow star of David that my father had been forced to wear, indicating the status of the prisoner contained within. My father was given starvation rations of tulip bulbs and sugar beets fried in grease. He was totally alone, except for a Bible that his Nazi captors allowed him to read, and the newfound faith he had discovered while in hiding. It was in that cell that my father discovered the Chosen One of Nazareth. He made a commitment to Christ.
Final deportations and exterminations were being carried out. Somehow, the yellow star on my father's door had been removed, and he had been left behind. The Germans would later call him "The Last Jew of Rotterdam." My father always maintained that an angel had removed the star that indicated he was among the condemned. God had a plan for Ernest beyond the prison of Rotterdam.
Ernest was assigned to slave labor outside Rotterdam during the time that the Allies were racing across Western Europe into the heart of what was left of Nazi Germany. During this time, my father had befriended a member of the Dutch civil police force, who was in contact with the Dutch underground. This police officer had been conscripted by the Germans to keep watch over Jews and other prisoners in the prison camp in Rotterdam. As they moved to and from the slave labor camps, the guard obtained a pass for what Ernest was told would be his "final shower." Instead, Dutch policeman and his charge left the camp and went into hiding. Two days later, on May 5, 1945, Canadian and British forces liberated Holland. My father was reunited with his family, who had survived in tact. But 150,000 Dutch Jews would not return from the camps. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
Elisabeth Rodrigues Cassutto: Anne Frank With A Happy Ending
Elisabeth, called Elly by family and friends, was eleven years old in 1942 when she went into hiding with her parents and her older brother Henry. Elly had been attending the Jewish Secondary School in Amsterdam, a development that was the result of full-scale segregation of Dutch Jews in all public accommodations since the start of the Nazi occupation of Holland in 1940. There was another Jewish girl who was attending the same school as Elly. Her name was Anne Frank. The world would come to know her story of courage and kindness through her diary, which was found and published after she died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March of 1945. Elly's story is very similar except for the ending.
By 1943, round-ups, arrests and mass deportations of Jews in Amsterdam has become commonplace. Abraham Rodrigues, my grandfather, made the decision to go into hiding to avoid capture by Nazi occupiers. Their first hiding place was an attic that they shared with another Jewish family. The Rodrigues family shared this attic of two rooms for eleven months. During their stay here, the children could not move from 8:00 in the morning until 5: 00 in the afternoon for fear of being discovered by passers-by and those who used the building for business. Jews could be turned in to the Gestapo for scarce wartime goods such as bread and cigarettes and money. During the silent time, Elly's mother offered school lessons, and the children played games to keep their minds occupied. It was the goal of my mother's parents to create an atmosphere of normality for the children to the greatest extent possible under these trying conditions. After 5:00, those in hiding had greater freedom of movement within the confines of the attic. The Dutch underground provided periodic updates on the military progress of the war, and also of the state of Dutch society under German occupation. One would hear of neighbors who had been arrested and rumors of mass extermination in the concentration camps.
Elly's father had received word that their hiding place was about to be discovered. The family made a daring midnight transfer to the new hiding place, which would turn out to be the first of many in the coming months. They traveled by hearse, which was one of the vehicle types the Nazis did not interfere with. The other was the ambulance. By the winter 1943, Abraham Rodrigues made the decision to stop running. With the help of business contacts and the Dutch underground, my grandfather left his daughter with a schoolteacher who lived in a rural village in the south of Holland. Henry, my uncle, was placed in a nearby village as well. Once safe, Elly's mother and father hoped to find a safe place in one of Holland's urban centers. Elly's foster mother would later be called Aunt Grace (Tante Grie, in Dutch) by the children of my family. But at that time, my mother had to take on the identity of an adopted child, which was not unheard of in wartime Holland and other nations where children were sent to the country side for safety. Grace had a plan to completely revise her new daughter's identity. She would no longer be in hiding, but the old Elly could no longer exist. Grace coached my mother in her new role learning a new name, a new religion, a new personal history.
My grandfather made numerous trips to the village to supply Grace with falsified documents to support my mother while she was in hiding. In the early months of 1944, my mother's parents had been betrayed and arrested. With Elly vulnerable and no source of support, Grace decided to take her into hiding in the northern coast of Holland. They spent the next six weeks in another attic together, sharing their food, space, and their faith. Months later, Grace was given the word that returning to her own village would calm suspicions and constitute the safest move. So they returned in the fall of 1944. The villagers later revealed that they suspected Elly of being Jewish, but they refused to betray their fellow Dutch citizens and human beings.
Elly and her brother were able to come out of hiding, but she would never see her parents again. In 1960, the International Red Cross notified Elly that her parents had been gassed in Auschwitz. Grace became Elly's legal guardian at the end of the war in 1945, and they continued a relationship that lasted until her death in 1964. In 1983, when the names for the Wall of the Rescuers were being collected, Elly submitted the name of her foster mother, Grace "Grietje" Bogaarts, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum committee as one of the righteous gentiles who protected Europe's Jews during World War II. (My first daughter was named after this woman who demonstrated the best God-given traits of human nature. When I see Grace, I see the miracle of life that was given to my mother through her namesake, Grace "Grietje" Bogaarts.)
The Story of Ernest and Elisabeth Cassutto: An Epilogue
My parents met at a conference of Jewish Christians in 1948. They had joined a small group of young Jewish people who had become Christians by faith but who wanted to retain and maintain their Jewish religious and cultural identity. Ernest shared with Elly the loss of his fiancée, Hetty. After they became engaged, Elly suggested that their first daughter be named in the memory of Hetty. This memorial would become reality in 1951 when the first child of the family, Hetty, was born.
Ernest's family survived the war intact. My uncle also survived, but my maternal grandparents parents did not.
Ernest and Elly were married in April of 1949. Later that year Ernest became an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. The family immigrated to the United States in 1952 just before the birth of their first set of twins (my sisters, Carolyn and Marilyn). Another set of twins was born in 1960 (myself and my brother Benjamin).
My father was appointed missionary to the Jewish population of New Jersey. After receiving his Doctorate of Divinity in 1968, my father was asked by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to become the pastor of Emmanuel Hebrew Christian Congregation outside Baltimore, Maryland. It was there that he made his home until retiring in 1979.
Elly was a full time mom and supportive minister's wife. She decided to use her talent for languages, and became a teacher for the Carroll County Schools in 1978.
Ernest H. Cassutto died of a syndrome similar to Alzheimer's disease in March of 1985 at age 65. His wife died almost a year earlier, on May 5, 1984 of a brain tumor at age 53. Elly died on the 44th anniversary of the liberation of Holland. It is only speculation that the causes of their deaths were related to exposures or experiences connected to the years of the Holocaust. It is hoped that you, the reader, can get a sense of the courage, faith, and kindness of these two individuals, and also of those who chose to hide, aid, and comfort the persecuted within their midst. It was the example set by my parents and their protectors that instilled in me a love for learning, a respect for history, and a faith in God. These pages have been developed so that their memory will live on.
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