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Personal Stories

Ghosts of their Fathers

March 18, 2009 © by Susan Swartz

Corlene Van Sluizer knows why she is unable to attach to a place. It comes from her father, a Dutch Jew who in his late 20s fled Amsterdam to escape Nazi persecution but lost much of his family to the Holocaust. Van Sluizer, a poet and former therapist in Santa Rosa, says her father, Hans Van Sluizer, after coming to America and marrying, kept their family constantly on the move. "I think he always felt like a displaced person," says Van Sluizer, who became a wanderer herself, living in Europe, Mexico and different American cities.

Giselle Perry’s father Walter A. Simon was also a Holocaust survivor who couldn’t settle down for long. "He could never stay still. It was never the right job or the right town," according to his daughter who lives in Rohnert Park. Her father and his parents were able to escape Frankfurt for London and then New York. But, Perry says, "They too suffered because they had no choice but to get out of Germany. It didn’t matter that they were German. They had no rights."

He always felt like a displaced person.

Rene Powell lives in the East Bay and is a student at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. She also has a legacy from her father. In 1938 there was money for Powell’s father, Gerald, age 12, and his 14-year-old brother Helmut to leave Berlin but not enough for their parents to accompany them. Gerald Powell was a British soldier when he returned to his Berlin home after the war to look for his mom and dad. They were gone but the neighbors gave him a box his parents had left behind for their sons. In it were letters including one which began: "If you read this, then we are dead."

These three daughters, like their fathers, are survivors of genocide even though as Van Sluizer says, they can only imagine the horror of their parent’s experience - "the sense of powerlessness, the loss of community, suddenly becoming refugees, your family exploded apart." Each of these women went back to Europe with their fathers but there were little or no records, often no grave markers or relatives left to provide memories.

This month they will find "one place to have some peace" as Rene Powell says when many survivors share stories and honor their lost families at a new memorial to genocide victims at Sonoma State University. The memorial is in the form of a glass tower mounted at the terminus of railroad tracks. The ties of the tracks are made of bricks inscribed with the names of genocide victims from the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and Armenia. There’s room, too, for victims of the ongoing crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Rene Powell said her father’s inability to know where and how his parents died left him with an "amputated spirit." Her second-generation grief has compelled her to study theology "to try to make sense out of the incomprehensible." Giselle Perry, who promised her father to never forget her Jewish heritage, is a school counselor, working with migrant children who have their own stories of displacement.

Poet Corlene Van Sluizer went to live in Amsterdam in her 20s as a way to get to know her father, "to find these threads that place me somewhere." Sometimes she watches movies like "Schindler’s List" to make a connection with her lost family. Her memorial brick is for her Uncle Max, her father’s brother, who stayed behind in Amsterdam with his wife and children. From as much as she’s been able to learn, Max and his family were rounded up and sent to Westerbrook, a transit camp in the Netherlands and a stopover for Auschwitz.


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