Normally I wouldn’t try to write about a relative unless I knew a fair amount about his or her life story, but I was so fascinated by my discovery of Margot Rehfisch and what I learned about the latter part of her life that I had to share it with you, regardless.
My mother’s maiden name was Rehfisch, but all during my years researching my family’s history, Margot’s name never came up, until quite recently. It surfaced as a headline in a Jewish newspaper from Belgium as part of a story about her and her partner. But first we need to go back to one of my very first discoveries that launched me into the wild and wooly world of my family’s history in the first place:
When my mother passed away in 1998, I found a few old letters of hers that she had kept in a box. But since they were hand written in German I couldn’t read them, and filed them away for the time being. But then I discovered her family photo albums and really began to get the urge to find out more about all the people who were pictured. Many of them appeared to be relatives and possibly those very family members who I grew up knowing nothing about.
But now that I needed some way to identify them, I hoped that maybe Mom’s letters would help. Through the internet I found a German woman in Kansas of all places, who not only translated the letters, but was able to describe where some of my ancestors fit in our family tree.
One of those letters was from Mom’s grandfather, Isidor Rehfisch, written in 1917, near the end of WWI. It was addressed to his daughter in law, Bertha Rehfisch, my grandmother, and described what was essentially a family reunion, with the return of five of his six grown children. Since Bertha and my grandfather Louis, were not there, Isidor sent the letter to recap what they’d missed.
Who was Sally?
From the letter I learned that four of the siblings were male, and two were in the German army. But the fifth, who was always referred to as Sally, I thought was a girl. Since the name was usually combined with another diminutive, a girl called, “Julchen”, I assumed that it was referring to a daughter and grand daughter of Isidore’s, who were mother and child.
Since my translator in Kansas couldn’t solve it either, I didn’t learn the truth for years until I discovered a Rehfisch named Margot, and found that Sally was a really a HE, because she (Margot) was one of his daughters. Isidore had six sons and Sally was one of them.
But Sally never ever used his real name, which was Salomon Rehfisch. There’s a certain irony that he was able to maintain his nickname even in death, because public records and his grave marker still identified him as “Sally Rehfisch. “Julchen” was actually Julie, his wife.
But I wouldn’t have learned Sally’s story had I not discovered his youngest daughter, Margot first. What made it so dramatic was that her name didn’t appear in some musty public record, but in the subtext of a headline that turned up in my Google search looking for anyone named Rehfisch.
It revealed several news stories about a large gift that she had made posthumously, but it also included a partner of hers with the strange name of “Fiep”. Unbeknownst to me, but well known throughout Western Europe, Fiep turned out to be the very talented and beloved Dutch illustrator and author of many children’s books, Fiep Westendorp.
What was in the headlines?
The headlines were all datelined AMSTERDAM, March 2005, and said that Fiep and her friend, Margot Rehfisch, left their extensive art collection to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
From the proceeds of the sale just one Van Gogh pen drawing, called “De Tuin van de pastorie in Nuenen”, sold at Christie’s Amsterdam for 120,000 euro ($161,000. USD), which later paid for the construction of a new children’s wing at the Jewish Museum.
Finding that Margot was a cousin really piqued my curiosity, in part because I ended up finding out more about the two people connected to her – Sally and Fiep – than I did about her.
Other than her date of birth, October 30, 1908 in Berlin, the rest of the information I have about her life is pretty meagre. I know that she authored a couple of books in her lifetime; one done as her disertation/thesis in 1935 with an extremely technical title, “Zur Frage der ursächlichen Beziehungen zwischen Trauma und Hypernephrom“, and much later an art book with Fiep.
From the solitary date of 1939, marking her arrival the Netherlands, I assume that she fled there from her home in Germany. But I have no further details.
Sometime later she began a relationship with Fiep Westendorp and they became life partners.
That seems a logical conclusion since she died on March 2, 1994 in Amsterdam, and was interred in the same burial plot with her partner in the cemetery at Gemeentelijke Begraafplaats, Lauren, N.L. But nothing else other than she and Fiep owned an extensive art collection together, and they’re buried in a double grave.
Yet so much about Margot remains a mystery. What did she do the first 31 years of her life before she emigrated to the Netherlands? How, as a Jew, did she survive the war and the Nazi occupation? What did she do for a living after the war? But most of all, when and under what circumstances did she meet and begin a lifelong relationship with Fiep?
I’m hoping that maybe someone reading this can help me fill in the details
Know more about Fiep!
Learning more about Fiep was easy because a simple Google search not only brought up numerous bios about her, but hundreds of reproductions of her delightfully quirky and whimsical illustrations.
Here’s a short Wikipedia bio: Sophia Maria “Fiep” Westendorp was a Dutch illustrator who became especially popular due to her long-term collaboration with writer Annie M.G. Schmidt. Three generations of Dutch people have grown up with her illustrations. She was born in 1916 in Zaltbommel, N.L., and died February 3, 2004.
For more insight into Fiep Westendorp’s art, you’ll enjoy visiting Marloes de Vries’s blog