A 91-year-old Dutch Jew who fought the Nazis in World War II has marked his bar mitzvah decades after the traditional date. Hans De Leeuw says he was “shaking” during the service – usually meant for 13-year-olds – at the Kosel in Yerushalayim on Sunday.
De Leeuw put on tefillin and a tallis. He called the ceremony “a tremendous event,” saying he didn’t do it earlier because of his secular upbringing and the war.
He said “there was always something missing in my life until now.”
When Hans reached the age of 13, in 1932, it was a totally different world. The son of an assimilated family living in Rotterdam, he sold dried fruit together with his twin brother, Eddie.
The two were unaware of the ancient bar mitzvah custom. Judaism, as they were concerned, was a matter related to their family’s past. But several years later, it led to their parents’ death in Auschwitz.
When the Nazis approached, the young boy escaped to Antwerp. In 1940 he escaped from Belgium to England and joined the army. He took part in the invasion of Normandy and returned to Antwerp along with the city’s liberators.
During the war he met Hetty, another assimilated Jew, and the couple had three children. The family lived in Canada for years, without connecting to its Jewish roots. “The only thing I knew was that I was Jewish. I didn’t remember anything else, and it didn’t really bother me,” Hans said Sunday.
The turning point was 15 years ago, after Hetty’s death. Hans started searching for a meaning to his life and discovered the local synagogue. He began attending prayers and even visited Israel, but his three children’s marriage to non-Jews pushed him away from Judaism time and again.
Six months ago, Hans arrived at a World War II veterans’ conference in Bratislava, wearing all his medals and decorations. This conference, he says, changed his life.”I saw a Jew wearing a skullcap there. It was former Ambassador Yitzhak Meir. I approached him and introduced myself.”
“He was wearing a brown beret and many decorations on his chest,” Meir recounted on Sunday. “I asked what his name was, and when he said ‘De Leeuw’, I remembered that it originated from Levy. I asked him if that was the origin of his name, and his eyes suddenly filled with tears and he whispered, ‘My name is Eliezer Ben-Moshe, and I never celebrated my bar mitzvah.’
“His daughter, who was at the conference with him, nearly fainted. I immediately told him, ‘No problem. I’ll organize a party for you.'”
During the conversation, the two men realized that they had both left Antwerp on the same day – May 12, 1940. Meir decided that it was fate that brought them together and began planning the event with the help of the Yaldenu fund, which helps troubled youth.
“It’s symbolic that Hans is having his bar mitzvah together with children who emerged from situations of distress,” said the fund’s chairman, David Cassuto. “He too was a lost Jewish child for many years.”
‘Better at 91 than never’
At the Kosel on Sunday, together with 13 boys and girls from Kiryat Shmona, Hans fulfilled his 78-year dream. He was so moved by the ceremony that he decided to stick to his Hebrew name from now on. “No more Hans. From now on, only Eliezer,” he cried out.
“I feel like I’ve officially become a man today. It’s a shame I only have 29 more years to live.”
As he posed for photographs with the other bar mitzvah boys who celebrated with him, he admitted he never believed he would return to Judaism.
“When you spend your entire childhood surviving a war, you don’t care about anything else. But now it’s time to settle this debt once and for all. I didn’t think I would be so excited, but this is one of the happiest days of my life. Had I been aware of the satisfaction a bar mitzvah could give a person, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s better at 91 than never.”
At the end of the ceremony, the elderly man got up and slowly walked to the holy wall. He raised his hands, leaned on a stone and broke into tears. It was the first time since the war that he allowed himself to cry.