In January 2017, a seven-minute black and white film surfaced on the internet. Filmed in 1939, it captures the wedding of Mimi Dwinger and Barend Boers, a young Dutch couple in the community of Friesland, northern Holland. The film had been discovered gathering dust in an attic by the couple’s children. It shows, on a beautiful spring day, a vibrant Jewish community celebrating the marriage of two young people just weeks before darkness and death rained down on Europe’s Jews. Posted on the internet, it went viral. Google ‘Dutch Jewish Wedding’ and you’ll easily find it.
I was born in Amsterdam and spent my adolescence there after the war with my parents and my two brothers Jacques and Victor. We grew up living in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father had lost over a hundred members of his family in the camps. Most of the people in the Boers wedding film also perished in the camps. The Boers miraculously survived.
Brother Jacques, still living in Amsterdam, drew my attention to the wedding film. Jacques had also found letters to my father from the Boers and in true Jacques fashion he wasted no time in reaching out to the family. What they told him changed our lives and inspired an adventure. The Boers claimed that their newly-wed parents only survived the Holocaust because of my father: Sally Noach. And that there were hundreds of others whom Sally had helped escape deportation to Nazi death camps.
Now the first thing you need to know about my father is that he was not exactly a shy, retiring wallflower. Short in stature, but with a giant personality, he was the embodiment of chutzpah. The life and soul of any gathering, he was fast with his jokes, a fabulous story-teller, and unashamed bon viveur – he’s the guy you’d want to sit next to at any dinner party. He had his boat for the weekends, enjoyed skiing, travelled Europe in his big American car, loved food, smoked cigars, sold Persian carpets and always wore the best suits. In Amsterdam, they called him “The Prince of Carpets”. He was a character and he lived life to the full.
Yet when it came to the war, my father was uncharacteristically shtum. I remember as a little girl, a stranger stopped us in a square in downtown Amsterdam. “Aren’t you Sally Noach?” the man said. “You saved my life!”. My father’s response: “Please, just forget about it”. He took my hand and we walked on. Another time, over a family dinner, dad’s face popped up on the screen of a TV documentary. “Switch if off”, he hastily told my mother Annie. It was as though he had a secret life – and a past – to protect.
When my father died in 1980, I had moved to London and was a young mother, busy running my own family. But over the years rumours continued to circulate. That my father had been a spy. That he was interrogated by MI5 during the war. That he ran the Black Market in Lyon, during Petain’s regime, a Jewish Harry Lime. And then there were the letters, during and after the war – from Jamaica, Suriname, Lisbon. Tales of daring rescue, intrigue and heroism.
Which is how, ten months later, I found myself in a small French town in the Pyrenees, with a documentary crew in tow. It’s funny, the makeshift family you acquire when you make a film and go on the road together. The secrets you uncover about your own past in real time, in full view of the cameras. In my father’s case, not just wartime exploits… but other families and other children! War, it turns out, is not just about guns and bullets.
From St Julia in the Pyrenees, we journeyed on to Lyon, to Amsterdam, to San Francisco and to Florida. We followed every clue, tracked down every expert and survivor who could help us excavate the truth. We met Herman Veder, “the fastest Jew in the world” in Boca Raton; Adolf Aronson, almost captured by the SS aged twenty and today a hundred years old and still the chazzan in his local synagogue; Jenny Grishaver Weinshel, who fled a privileged childhood in Holland and ended up in Jamaica “under a banana tree”. I learned more about my father in those intense months than in my entire life. It was as though he had parceled up a gift for me, well wrapped, to be given beyond the grave – an opportunity to get to know him as an adult, as an equal. I am older now than he ever was. Would I have had his courage to do what had to be done?
In our search for the past, we often start with documents and images, and we end up in far-flung places we could never have dreamed. For me, with strangers – many now friends – whose stories touched my heart and reminded me that we forget the past and its victims at our peril. I have been lucky. I also found what I was looking for. A way to rediscover a man who had departed, and who I loved the most.
“Forgotten Soldier”, narrated by Zoe Wanamaker and Henry Goodman, premieres at the Phoenix Cinema as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival on 19 November 2018.