As a little boy in Amsterdam in the 1920s, Maurice spent every Friday night after dinner with his family listening to his father sing. His grandmother played the piano to accompany him, even though darkness had long fallen and Shabbas – the time between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday when observant Jews do not work – had officially begun. “It was the highlight of our week, celebrating and singing together as a family,” he says, his chin resting on his folded hands, brow furrowed.
Maurice’s childhood was peaceful and filled with routine. His father was in the diamond trade and spent every week working in Belgium, returning home only on the weekends – usually just in time for Shabbat dinner with the family, and then to sing. Maurice often spent weekends with his grandparents, who had so little space in their house that they had to push two chairs together with pillows laid across to make a bed for him. But the time he spent there thrilled him anyway.
Most of his family were not observant Jews. Maurice only had a bar mitzvah (the Jewish ceremony celebrating the passage into adulthood for boys) for the sake of his mother, who wanted to honor the tradition. But for him, the true passage into adulthood came in an entirely different way.
“One time, my father, grandfather, and I went out for lunch on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar,” he recalls, “while my mother stayed home and fasted all day [for the holiday]. I remember that – where we were, and what it meant to me as a teenager to be defying the rule with the men of the family. It was like I had arrived as a man. It was one of the most memorable things that ever happened to me.”
As a teenager, he would often bike from his home to visit the old Jewish neighborhood. There, he would watch people shopping at the market, and the unusual street figures who performed there. There was something magical about those afternoons for him. “There was such color, and I would go by myself just to be there in the middle of it,” he says.
Then, the Germans arrived. “Finished,” Maurice says, his hand silently slicing the air in front of him. His father was working in Belgium when the Nazis invaded and, unable to get back into Holland, fled to France with Maurice’s aunt and uncle. For a while, life continued as normal. Maurice graduated high school and began attending medical school.
Then came the day when everyone was issued identification cards with a capital “J” for Jood, the Dutch word for “Jew.” Jews were told to leave the universities. And after that, the deportations started. “So,” Maurice says, “we went into hiding.”
They hid for the duration of the war. Maurice and his mother were taken in by the former housekeeper of his great aunt, a Protestant woman named Tina.
Contact with the outside world was minimal, but his father managed to get occasional messages to the family by routing postcards through a friend in neutral Switzerland. The last six months of the war were terrible and bleak, recalls Maurice with a shake of his head, and many people went without food, gas, and electricity. He recalls using empty grapefruit juice cans as makeshift pans; tulip bulbs were a common source of food.
By the time the war ended, almost all of Maurice’s family had died in the war. “They were taken away and met with tragic ends, which is unthinkable when you’ve known somebody as a little boy, and were so close. My grandfather was my most favorite person,” he remembers, shaking his head slowly and lowering his eyes. His father had made it to the U.S. and was trying to secure visas for Maurice and his surviving family to join him there.
But in 1946, before they could reunite with him, his father died of a brain hemorrhage. The connection with his father that Maurice wanted so desperately to recover after so many years apart seemed lost forever.
Maurice came to the U.S. with his mother and brother shortly after his father’s death. He finished his medical training, got married, and became a psychiatrist. He had always loved singing on his own, but never took lessons or performed. For most of his adulthood, singing remained both a hobby and a memory that reminded him of Shabbat dinners long past, from another life.
It wasn’t until relatively late in life that he decided to pursue his love of singing more seriously. He joined the choir at the retirement center where he lives with his wife and started private lessons with the choir director. “You’re never too old to learn something new,” says Maurice. “It makes you feel like you’re still learning – still creating. And it can give you closure for things you may have struggled with your whole life.” In May 2010, he gave his first solo recital at the center.
That night, Maurice shared his story with his audience. He told them about the war, and about his father. He told them about the Shabbat dinners. He sang to them. “And for the first time,” he says, “I was able to do something to honor my father’s memory. Singing completes the connection with my father that I have been missing all these years.”
The last thing Maurice received from his father before he died was a letter containing the lyrics to a song he used to sing to the family. As he sits thinking about that letter, he starts to hum the tune. The words start to form faintly on his lips. A small smile passes across his face, then lingers. He sings to himself – and he sings to his father.
by Claire Berman