Amazing twist of fate reunites family with lost heirlooms


For decades, a silver kettle and golden bell stood on display in the van der Wateren family home.

Indeed for Sylvia van der Wateren, the middle of three daughters, they had become part of the furniture in the family's lounge in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

A Jewish neighbour called Salomon Hoogstraal had given them to her father, Johannes, for safekeeping during the war.

After 1945, Johannes had searched for Salomon in order to return the objects, but could not find him.

Now, 76 years later, an incredible twist of fate has reunited these heirlooms with their owner's descendants.

Back in May Joy Clift, a London-based South African with Dutch roots, travelled to Amsterdam with her uncle, Leo van Gelder.

While there, they visited the city's Jewish Historical Museum to view a siddur stored there that had belonged to Frouke Hoogstraal, Leo's mother and Joy's grandmother.

What happened next took them both by surprise.

Ms Clift, a 35-year-old analyst, said: "The lady behind the counter recognised the Hoogstraal surname and asked if we were related to Salomon Hoogstraal." The answer was yes - Salomon was Frouke's father.

Several weeks earlier Ms van der Wateren had contacted the museum, offering to donate a postcard from Salomon that she had discovered among her father's belongings.

Ariane Zwiers, a researcher at the museum's archive centre, tried to locate the Hoogstraal family but without success.

So she emailed Ms van der Wateren to say the museum would gratefully receive the letter.

The very next day, Ms Zwiers was manning the desk at the museum when Ms Clift and her uncle walked in.

Last weekend Ms Clift travelled to the small town of Grootebroek, north of Amsterdam, where she met Ms van der Wateren, her mother and two sisters.

The Dutch family presented her with the heirlooms, as well as the hurriedly written postcard Salomon had left before his family was rounded up by the Nazis in 1940.

Speaking from the Netherlands, Ms van der Wateren, 64, told the JC: "Salomon Hoogstraal and my father were business neighbours. Our family had a printing press at 279 van Ostadestraat and Salomon had a brush factory at 271."

The retired nurse had discovered the postcard while going through her parents' belongings after her father died and her mother moved into a retirement home.

Translated from Dutch, it reads: "Dear van der Wateren, It's now our turn. They picked us up. Love from us all and good luck. Family Hoogstraal."

Ms van der Wateren said: "My father spent years looking for them through the Red Cross. After a few years he stopped looking."

Salomon was killed in Sobibor death camp in 1943. Of his nine children, only two survived the war, including Frouke who moved to the Dutch East Indies -now Indonesia - in 1939.

Ms van der Wateren has spent more than five years trying to track down Salomon's descendants, trawling online records and Dutch archives and even placing an advert in a local newspaper. Unsuccessful, she decided to donate the postcard to the museum.

"I received an email on the Thursday and the next day two people came asking to see a book belonging to Frouker Hoogstraal," she said.

"The woman behind the desk asked if they were family of Salomon and they said yes."

Ms Zwiers said: "Hoogstraal is not a common Jewish name so when they came in and asked for the prayer book, I made the connection.

"It was so strange because we had just decided to accept the postcard. It's even more of a coincidence that I was on the desk that day - had it been one of my colleagues, nothing more would have happened."

She added: "These kind of things make our work very special - to connect people and bring things together."

Ms Clift said the encounter with Ms Zwiers was no mere coincidence. "It must have been fate - it gives me shivers down my spine."

She added that she was amazed that the van der Waterens had gone to such lengths to try to contact their lost Jewish neighbours.

Mr van Gelder said he was astonished at the whole sequence of events.

He said: "Purely on the spur of the moment, Joy and I decided to go to the Jewish Museum to see my mother's siddur that her friend had donated after her death .

"I had no idea that anything remained of my grandfather's possessions, and was most surprised. I believe somewhat in coincidences, but this sounds much more a case of 'it was meant to be'."

Mr van Gelder knew little of his Hoogstraal relatives as his mother rarely spoke of the loss of her family.

He said: "I'm astounded , and grateful, that my grandfather's belongings have made it to today's world. They provide a little clue to their everyday lives, and the things they thought important."

Reflecting on finally meeting the van der Waterens and receiving her family's possessions, Ms Clift said the experience had been wonderful, but quite surreal.

She said: "I didn't expect to be as emotional as I was, but seeing the postcard and how it was also so special to Sylvia and her family really moved me."

Ms van der Wateren admitted she felt a "bit sad to say goodbye" to the belongings, but added: "They were never ours to keep. They were things that we were meant to take care of and so it's really good that they're finally going back."

Ms Clift added: "It's amazing to think that after all this time these things will finally make it back into our family."

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