I am a great believer in balance. It is good to have a balanced view of life. I have written quite a bit on how the Dutch failed their Jewish-fellow citizens, and the Dutch complacency, might be considered a crime.
However, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes you need to take a step back and take a balanced view of events. I don’t know what I would have done during WWII, I hope I would have done the right thing but in all sincerity, I am not sure. That’s why it is important to sometimes focus on those who did not sit idly by but took action, regardless of their safety.
Of the approximately 160,000 Jews who were registered with the general and local governments in the Netherlands at the beginning of 1941, an estimated 30,000 had gone into hiding. The need to secure hiding places was clear for many Jews when the Nazis ordered the deportations of Jews in the summer of 1942. The entire Stroomenbergh family was fiercely committed to saving the People of the Book, even if it meant putting their own lives in danger on a daily basis. In early 1943, five-year-old Arnold Bouwman, his parents, aunt and uncle from Zeist, Utrecht, were looking for a new hiding place. A local underground activist arranged to take the boy to the Stroomenberghs in Driebergen, Utrecht, where he stayed until May 1945.
Jan and Johanna Stroomenbergh had two adult children named Jan and Johanna [aka Susan, later Halpern]. They were devout Protestants, and Jan Sr. was caretaker of the local strictly Calvinist Gereformeerde church. Despite the enormous age difference, the Stroomenberghs took in young Arnold and treated him like a member of the family. Only the immediate family and the local minister knew the real identity of the boy. To everyone else, he was a nephew evacuated from The Hague. Whenever there was a warning of an impending search, daughter Johanna, would take Arnold on the back of her bicycle to friends until the danger passed. The Stroomenbergh house was a centre of Resistance activity. Johanna Jr. was a courier for the underground, delivering messages and food coupons, and accompanying Jews to hiding places. On 23 January 1945, Jan Jr., dressed in a Nazi uniform, took part in a successful raid on a police station in Zeist, freeing about 12 prisoners, most of them Jewish.
The Stroomenbergh family sheltered one of the prisoners, Ernest Stein, until liberation. The family also hid Abraham Wijnschenk and his wife, Judith, for three months, in their home. During the Hunger Winter of 1944-1945, the Stroomenbergh family managed to feed their family and all the Jews they were hiding in their home and those hiding in other places for whom they provided food. As Arnold wrote in his testimony to Yad Vashem, “All members of the Stroomenbergh family took part in keeping me out of German hands. They took enormous risks on behalf of me and many other Jewish people. Jan Stroomenbergh, Sr. and his wife took care of me and my education during the war. They treated me like their own son. After the war, they understood immediately the importance, of a Jewish child being raised by young Jewish relatives. My parents were betrayed and died in Auschwitz…I stayed in the Stroomenbergh home…this meant that all of the members of the church were aware of my presence and also of the presence of Mr and Mrs Wijnschenk. Every member of this congregation was 100 per cent reliable, and no one put us in danger.”
One day, a young Jewish man named Berthold aka Burt Halpern came to ask the Stroomenberghs for help. He needed a new safe place to live. He was born in Germany, on 6 July 1926 to Rabbi Felix Halpern and Hanna Gostinsky Halpern. Burt was placed with a Christian foster family who attended the same church as the Stroomenbergh family
Susan Stoomenbergh recalled: “The first time I saw him, the very first time, he came from my parents’ house. And I looked at that guy. And I said, hello. He walked over and said, hello, you’re Frau Susan. He called me Miss Susan. And I looked at him. I said, boy, that’s my guy. I go after him. and I made sure I saw him all the time. They took him to church every Sunday, twice. And Burt liked it. He was reading the Bible. He learned about Jesus. And that’s the way Burt became a Christian.”
The two fell in love and it led to a 71-year-long love affair and they truly were forever soulmates. Though the ravages of war took so much of their lives, together they managed to find that forever love and strong determined faith, that bonded them and carried them through anything!
Burt and Susan immigrated to America in 1954. As a skilled tailor, Burt became the Head Fitter at the prestigious Barney’s New York and became one of the most sought-after tailoring fitters of his craft. Susan created a loving home for Burt and their children. Susan was gifted with a beautiful soprano voice and performed many choral selections in their church. She directed Sunday School programs. Both Burt and Susan were always involved in local church missions.
In 1997, Susan was proud to accept a most prestigious Award. The Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, established by Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Heroes & Martyrs Remembrance Authority, based on the evidence presented before it, had decided to Honour, The Stroomenbergh Family, who during the Holocaust period in Europe, risked their lives to save persecuted Jews. The Commission, therefore, has accorded them the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. Their Family Name shall be forever engraved on the Honour Wall in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
Burt Halpern, 93 of White Township, NJ, passed into the arms of his Lord and Savior on February 9, 2020, at Barn Hill Care Center in Newton, NJ.
Susanna Stroomenbergh Halpern died on her 99th birthday, April 7, 2022, at Hackettstown Medical Center, Hackettstown, NJ, after surviving WWII, COVID-19, and a broken leg.