A Father's Daughter

Parashat Lech Lecha
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

A Father’s Daughter

There is something Biblical about the trajectory of my late father’s life. Born in Amsterdam in 1903, in a devout Protestant family, he was the only one of five his siblings not born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA). Breaking with a long family tradition to train for the ministry, my father embraced science and reason and studied medicine instead. In the 1930’s my father was an ambitious young family doctor with a dream to become a psychiatrist.

My father, Paul Theodoor Hugenholtz in the 1930's with his parents and siblings. He is the man labeled number 5.

During the mid-to-late 1930’s, my father travelled to Germany for reasons unknown to me; perhaps they were related to his profession. Family history recounts that he had a chance to witness Adolf Hitler speak and that my father, intrigued by how such a cruel demagogue could sway so many, went to the rally. My father intellectually, morally and ideologically rejected everything Hitler stood for but found Hitler mezmerising. After witnessing Hitler speak; he understood what a danger this man represented if for no other reason than the force of his oratory.

Forewarned by his own political instincts, my father joined the Dutch resistance in a non-combat capacity. His role was humble and prosaic though brave in his own quiet way.

As a doctor, he could defy the curfew to aid Jews and others who the Nazis deemed enemies or undesirables and whilst working at his psychiatric clinic in Amsterdam, he was able to aid in the clandestine medical care for Jews and resistance fighters and issue Jews forged psychiatric reports which would prevent the Nazis from deporting them. The Nazis feared mental illness, considered it a contagion and so my father’s Jewish ‘patients’ would be left alone, at least for a time. After the War, he was honoured for what he did and knighted for his post-War psychiatric efforts to support survivors of the Sho’ah, both in his private practice as well as in the professional support he lent to medical organisations.

Growing up, my older brothers and I marvelled at this bit of family history. There were other, more distant, relatives of the Hugenholtz family who resisted the Nazis in different ways. My brothers and I would often ask ourselves if we would have the courage and moral fortitude to take a similar stand to which our conclusion would invariably be that we didn’t know – that we hoped we would follow my father’s lead but that until you are actually confronted with that situation, there is no telling.

My father, being considerably older than my mother – his fourth wife – passed away when I was young, merely nine years old.

I don’t have a great number of memories of him, though the ones I have are sweet and warm and I guard them closely. However, whatever I lacked in emotional connection to him was made up by his moral example.

This week, we commemorated Armistice Day and more pointedly, also Kristallnacht, that fateful night on November 1938 where Jewish businesses and homes were terrorised and which, in a sense, represented the starting point of the Holocaust. Knowing the tale of my father’s witnessing of Hitler, I wonder where my father was at that point and what he made of it. My father must have realised that evil seeps through a million paper cuts; a million unkind acts, a million hints at dehumanisation. And my father, through the length of his years, fathering eight children with three of his four wives of which I am his last-born, must have seen darkness settle on the world time and again. He lived as a child witnessing the Great War (though Holland remained neutral), saw the 1929 Wallstreet Crash and the economic devastation that ensued, followed by the rise of Hitler and the Second World War, the Cold War, the turbulent 1960’s right to the late 1980’s when he passed away. My father saw a world in flux and instability, with great horror and dazzling potential. He saw the rise of the automobile to the moon landing, the development of personal computers, the emancipation of women and minorities, the Nuclear Arms race, the onset of environmental degradation. He saw it all and he did not remain silent.

I wonder if my father felt like his world was speeding up and spinning out of control. We may very well feel this in our own time. Recent political events continue to destabilise our already unbalanced world. Old fear and lingering bigotry are making a resurgence; the dark forces my father and his generation tried to excise.

We are living in a polarised world where opinions are sparked by the push of a button or a swipe on a screen; where Twitter condenses the boldest of opinions in 140 characters, be they uttered by the anonymous citizenry to powerful world leaders. Many of us feel anxiety over the rise in racism, xenophobia, misogyny and antisemitism. I know I do.

So I try to hold on to the example of my father; this man who to me is half-myth, half-memory. And I have been thinking of his lived experience a lot as of late.
Yet, I also look to the example of someone else who is also my father, albeit in a different way - as he is my spiritual father. Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, the progenitor of the Jewish People who surpassed Noach in courage, conviction and kindness. Avraham too lived in unsettled times where the culture he was from – Ur Kasdim – experienced moral fragility. Avraham, and the co-heir of their vision, Sarah, realised that their world merited a response—a response of equal parts compassion and vision.

There is a strange Midrash from B’reishit Rabbah that talks about Avraham sojourning through the land and encountering a ‘birah doleket’ – a ‘light house’ or a ‘burning citadel’, depending on the interpretative choice you make. The Midrash responds to the opening line of our portion, ‘lech lecha me’artzecha umimoldad’t’cha umibeit avicha al ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ – ‘go into yourself, from your land, and the place of your birth, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’

So Avraham is imagined wandering the land and seeing the burning palace and asks himself ‘is it possible that the palace has no owner?’ only for him to hear the owner of the palace call out, perhaps in distress, perhaps in witness – we don’t know. As Avraham witnesses the edifice being consumed by flame, he both questions and accepts the existence of God to which the Midrash suggests that the voice calling from the palace was God’s own voice. It is an unusual story that can be interpreted on many levels and many ways but one thing is true: it asks us to not turn away our eyes from the fires that consume our world and to invest a moral trust in our universe and be energised by it. We can only presume that Avraham journeyed on, like the parashah tells us, to bring in people under the wings of the Divine Presence and to become a blessing to all the families of the world.

These are difficult times, friends, and we must look to the origin of our values, the source of our strength and the fount of our hope. Perhaps it is our family, biological or otherwise. For certain, it is our lineage to the Jewish tradition – be it through birth or choice. And maybe it is through the Holy One who calls to us, in small, quiet ways or through the loud roar of the fire. 
We cannot despair because the world is dark; on the contrary – this is a great opportunity for us to rise in love, grace and kindness. 

That alone gives me hope, that alone gives me strength. 
That alone makes me proud and determined to be my Father’s Daughter.


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