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Jewish Journal

Books: An enduring romance

by Celia Soudry

June 19, 2008 | 2:26 pm

Decades after being forced to hide in confining attics in Holland, Holocaust survivor Flory A. Van Beek, now 86, tells a courageous story in her memoir of how she and her husband Felix, now 96, kept romance and hope alive during chilling times.

Van Beek was lucky enough to have miraculously recovered more than 1,000 documents, diaries, newspaper clippings and photographs, many of which have been preserved in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But even with this volume of material, Van Beek's account of the events, in person, is sharp and concise. Clearly it is easier these days for her to tell her life story than when she first began writing it about 30 years ago.

It's been a long road from being harshly thrown out of her childhood home in the Netherlands to now nestling in a cozy Newport Beach home with her husband. Their home was built by her rescuers' two sons, Bertus and Hannie Hornsveld, whose parents harbored the couple for more than a year. Patios were built adjacent to each room to accommodate Van Beek's claustrophobia, a result of her many years in hiding.

As the gracious and warm Van Beek cheerfully offered a visitor an array of Dutch pastries, apple pie and dark chocolates, it was difficult to imagine the scared teenager hidden away in the small Nazi-occupied town of Amersfoort in 1937.

A Dutch beauty and the youngest of four children, she was faced with a decision no teenager should have to make -- whether or not to leave her family and home to flee her country in hopes of a better life. Similar to other young women with fantasies of love, Van Beek had developed an immediate crush on Felix, a handsome young German Jew whom she met while playing tennis one afternoon. Unaware of the events that were to unfold, she confidently told her new love interest, "As long as the queen is here, I am not afraid."

Reality struck on Kristallnacht, however, showing that Hitler was not afraid of their queen.

Fearful of the events to come, Felix offered to whisk her away to Chile on the SS Simon Bolivar, an 8,300-passenger ship. Van Beek hesitantly accepted Felix's request and soon after waved farewell to her mother and siblings as she watched their faces fade away on their way to the docking station. This was one of the last times Van Beek would see them.

With thoughts lingering about her family, friends and life back home, she was violently thrust to the floor when the ship was hit by three German mines in the North Sea. The explosion killed the majority of the passengers and injured many others, including Van Beek and her future husband. Following the shipwreck, they were hospitalized in England -- Van Beek suffered wounds caused by a large piece of glass lodged in her neck, which she saved and still keeps in her purse as a reminder of her astonishing survival.

After several months in the hospital, the two were deported back to Holland, then smuggled from home to home. By chance, as she was wandering the streets, the bewildered teen was stopped by a tall man on a bicycle, Piet Brandsen. Noticing that she wore a large yellow Jewish star on her clothes, Brandsen asked her, "What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse? Take that damned thing off and follow me."

The Brandsen family welcomed Van Beek and Felix to hide in their home for as long as they wanted -- but not until they were married, because theirs was a conservative Catholic home, and an unwed man and woman living together would be a sin.

"At nightfall of this memorable day, we walked into our 'honeymoon suite,' a room in the attic of Piet's house, beginning another chapter of our journey through the Valley of Death," Van Beek wrote.

After the war, the frail couple immigrated to the United States, in 1948, spent three months in New York and then ended up in Burbank. With only $1,500 to live on, granted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, they saved up and settled in Newport Beach in 1951. Raising their adopted son, Ralph, the Van Beeks were not prepared for the tragedy yet to befall them. Ralph, at only 16, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. His bar mitzvah photo hangs proudly on the living room wall.

After the loss of their only son, the mourning parents decided to form another close-knit community, founding Temple Isaiah in Newport Beach in 1974, which started out with ever-expanding Shabbat celebrations in their home. Focusing on traditional Jewish values and practices, the temple, now located in a church, is not affiliated with any specific movement and encourages newcomers of all denominations.

"Everyone is always welcome -- old and young, rich and poor. I see only the good in people of all walks of life," Van Beek said.

In an effort to touch other people with her story, Van Beek's memoir was once scheduled to be adapted into an ABC-TV network four-hour miniseries. However the production came to a halt when the Shoah survivor discovered the purported anti-Semitic actor Mel Gibson's professional involvement with ABC. Rabbis and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum representatives encouraged Van Beek to pull out of the project. Despite the setbacks, she still hopes that her story will one day hit the small screen, and her film producer, Daniel Sladek, is working to make that dream a reality.

Often praising Holland in her writing, Van Beek confessed, "The Dutch are reliable, honest and gullible." In hindsight, though, she admits she has mixed feelings about her native country and its people.

Today, she is an avid pianist and expert in Jewish liturgical music. She tries to be optimistic about the future of the Jewish people but is troubled to see radical Muslims who in her opinion are "trying to take over the world."

"I pray for harmony," she said. "Felix and I hope for goodness for all people and peace on Earth."

"If you see evil," she advised, "do not accept it."

"Flory: A Miraculous Story of Survival" by Flory A. Van Beek (HarperCollins, $23.95).

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