Louise Lawrence-Israëls finds herself fearful nowadays, while at the same time she’s determined to combat what makes her so uneasy.
Anti-Semitism has played a significant role in the Netherlands-born woman’s life. Her family went into hiding in Amsterdam in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of their country when she was an infant. The Holocaust colored her parents’ lives with fear and sorrow.
“My parents were always afraid, and I kind of pooh-poohed that,” Lawrence-Israëls, now 77, says.
“After what at happened in Charlottesville [2017 Unite the Right rally and deadly violence], I really don’t want to go to synagogue. I’m afraid,” she says in a recent interview, “because there is security, but security is far away. And you go in, and if somebody starts shooting, the security cannot get to you. So if we have a function like a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah or whatever, Sidney [her husband of 54 years] and I go in early and we leave early, before the crowd. I finally understand where my parents were coming from.”
There’s more: “In the middle of the coronavirus, you see what happens at Tikvat Israel,” she says, referring to the March 28 defacing of the Rockville synagogue with swastikas and hate epithets. “You have the horror of the coronavirus and they are thinking about anti-Semitism.”
It was at least the third act of anti-Semitic vandalism of a synagogue in the Washington area in six months.
Lawrence-Israëls, a Bethesda resident, has been a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for 26 years — 16 of them as a survivor-speaker. She relates her story, often to educate a younger generation about the Holocaust, urging its members to speak out against hate and not fall for hate’s proponents. The message is as important as ever, she says.
“I was six months when my parents had to go into hiding. We were hidden in a storage attic,” she continues. “Two and a half years.”
Her world consisted of her parents, brother who was 18 months her senior, plus a young woman, a friend of her mother whose family had been taken by the Nazis while she was helping Lawrence-Israëls’ mother.
“We didn’t know there was an outside,” she says of herself and her brother. “We thought everybody lives in an attic.”
Her parents tried to give them happy childhood experiences. Among her recollections is her second birthday. “My mom’s friend made an incredible Raggedy Ann kind of doll for me from old rags. My mom cut up a blouse and she made a beautiful dress for me. They sang to me and it was very special.” Her brother gave her his only toy for the day.
Their parents tried to school them. “When I was 3 and we were liberated, I could read. That’s because we didn’t do anything else, there was nothing else to do,” she says.
She recalls the exceptionally frigid winter before Amsterdam was liberated, when she was hungry and cried from the pain of being so cold.
She recalls her shock that followed liberation in 1945 by Canadian troops. For the first time, the youngsters went down four flights of stairs. “My father opened the door, and there, all that light, it blinded us. We didn’t know what a street was. … We did nothing but cry. … All we wanted was to go back upstairs.”
Her parents never spoke about the Holocaust, but kept few Jewish practices after the war. Of relatives, only her father’s parents survived the war. At 15, she told her parents she wanted to embrace Judaism.
“They were afraid I would put myself in danger,” she says.
Years later, she, a former physical therapist, and her husband, an American physician, moved to the Washington area. Within months, in 1994, she was volunteering at the fledgling Holocaust museum. Only when she told her father she would be joining the museum to document and share the horrors of the Holocaust did he open up.
Once strictly a translator, Lawrence-Israëls says she took on telling her story to combat deniers and hatred, and educate others about the Holocaust and its lessons.
Now, as she sees anti-Semitism and hate rising openly, she finds educating people about the devastating results of hatred growing in urgency.
“We all have to set an example of being tolerant,” she says.
“It’s not just that people are focusing on Jews. It’s done against other minority groups,” she says.
People must continue to combat anti-Semitism and all racial, religious and ethnic hatred, and tell leaders to stand with them against hatred, she says.
“Sidney and I are not young anymore, but I am afraid for our children and our grandchildren,” she says. “That is one of the reasons I keep speaking.”
Visit jcouncil.org/yhs for information and to sign up for the Jewish Community Relations Council-sponsored Yom HaShoah commemoration, livestreamed at 1 p.m. April 19, where Louise Lawrence-Israëls will be featured, as well as to learn about related Holocaust conversations and events.
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.