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 fiancיe, 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.