Searching for great-aunt who saved Jewish men

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"Regina Adema ID I49344, daughter of Martin Adema and Jikke Justina Blom, was born in Bolsward on December 19, 1902, the Netherlands. Regina is deceased."
by SYBRANDUS ADEMA | Jun 20, 2016

So began my Internet search regarding a great-aunt of mine, a larger-than-life mensch, singer and lingerie seller. But, more importantly, a woman who sheltered and kept five Jewish men alive during the Second World War in her cramped Amsterdam apartment. A woman who managed to offer hope to these trapped men in a country that saw roughly three quarters of its Jewish residents murdered during the Nazi occupation.

And what would such a story be without romance? She and one of the Jewish survivors, “Oom (Uncle) Sal”, married directly after the war – and were inseparable until her death.

Growing up with Jewish neighbours and later friends in Cape Town (my immigrant father met my mother here), I sometimes mentioned the story, but never investigated it, even when I met Oom Sal as a child and later lived in Amsterdam for a year. So I e-mailed aunts and uncles, but strangely most barely knew anything - during the war, the less people knew, the less chance there was of accidental betrayal.

Shortly after the First World War I, a young Regina Adema moved from the rural province of Friesland to Amsterdam. She was a very good singer and wanted to perform with Louis Davids (real name Simon David 1883-1939), one of various Jewish Dutch cabaret artists at the time. Her musical career was not enough to survive on and she opens a “bh-zaak” (a lingerie store).

In May 1940, Adolf Hitler conquered the Netherlands; rapidly, new laws restricted Jews’ movements, leading up to their mass deportations. In part due to the registration of Jews by the Jewish Council and the Dutch’s meticulous bureaucratic machine, it was relatively easy for the Nazis to apprehend Jews.

As Tante (Aunt) Regina was now friends with many Jewish artists, she was asked to provide some of them with shelter, and soon there were four or five Jewish men in her small apartment, including a Salomon Shrijver. As described in the diary of Anne Frank - whose house on Prinsengracht was not far from Tante Regina's near Carré and the Amstel - everyone had to keep quiet. The curtains remained closed and they were basically prisoners.

Whether Oom Sal had any contact with his family was uncertain. His father Hartog had passed away in 1939 and mother, Roosje Speijer, died at the beginning of the war - both are buried in the local Diemen Jewish cemetery.

Oom Sal was one of 14 children, of which two died very young. Five of his sisters and three brothers died during the war years; one in Amsterdam, most in the Sobibor concentration camp in Poland between January and July 1943 - moreover, two of them on the same day in a gas chamber. Which makes one wonder: Were they at least together in those final moments?

After about a quarter of a million Jews perished in Sobibor, the inmates rioted in October 1943. Hundreds of prisoners fled but most escapees were eventually tracked down and murdered. I even found a grainy photo of another of Oom Sal's sisters, Sara, who survived an unnamed concentration camp. Tragically she died on a train on her way back - less than 300km from the Dutch border. Her body was left on a station as an air raid prevented any burial.

Before this, however, in the last year of the war, the Netherlands’ “Hunger Winter” saw severe shortages. Tante Regina faced innumerable military checkpoints to cycle hundreds of kilometres over the Afsluitdijk (Enclosure Dike) between North Holland and Friesland provinces to collect and smuggle food.

Back home, she and Sal had fallen in love, but due to the war, marriage was out of the question; the country was barely liberated before they got hitched on June 27, 1945. The few Dutch Jews who survived, formed a close-knit community in Amsterdam and despite all the sadness and pain, they retained their sense of humour. Life went on, and decades later the couple ended up in a Jewish old age home near Utrecht.

And I at last have their photographs, taken at a final celebration. Tante Regina turned 80 in 1982, and in the photo they are singing and dancing together - just a few months after I, as a nine-year-old, met them.

In 1983 Oom Sal turns 80, also celebrated with a big party. His wife passed away shortly thereafter and he, inconsolable, died soon afterwards of the proverbial broken heart.

The final words belong to Oom Sal, the eternal optimist, as quoted to me by an aunt: “Years after the war, he still left the house’s door open; ‘what if a family member returned?’”

* This is a shortened version of an article appearing at




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