Last year, when I wrote about the discovery of my cousin, Margot Rehfisch*, I opened with this admission:
“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.
Based on that shred, my story was mainly about her relationship with the beloved Dutch artist and children’s book author, Fiep Westendorp*. By the time I finished the story I knew a whole lot about Fiep, but still very little about her friend and life partner, my cousin, Margot Rehfisch.
I Get a Break!
After posting the story I continued my quest for information by contacting both the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, and the Fiep Westendorp Foundation. A very helpful young lady at the foundation gave me the name and address of a woman in Holland who she thought might know something about my cousin. Her name was Hanny Hefting and she lived in the city of Utrecht.
But first I needed to find someone who could help me write a letter to her in her native language. While I could certainly write the letter in English, there was no way I could translate it into Dutch.
Then I realized that the answer was at my gym. One of the members was from Holland, and travelled back to his homeland on a fairly regular basis. I mentioned Margot’s story to him and gave him a copy of it to see if it would pique his interest.
It didn’t take much because almost immediately he sent back a complete translation of my letter. Then I mailed both versions to Ms Hefting.
Weeks went by, but there was nothing in my mailbox. Yet every time we’d see each other at the gym, he’d ask if I heard anything from Hanny?
Then one morning when my phone rang, the first thing I heard was a falsetto voice at the other end cooing, “Hallooo! Is this Petah Vonlawwww?”
Was I being pranked?
No! It was Hanny on the line. She had chosen to phone me instead of writing a letter. And what a smart choice it was, because we very quickly became great friends.
But translating my letter into Dutch certainly wasn’t necessary because she spoke perfect English. Hanny had lived in Australia for nineteen years, beginning in 1955.
Here’s what she was able to tell me about my cousin:
Dr. Hefting, Hanny’s father, was a successful GP in Amsterdam. He undoubtedly met Margot through his colleagues, since she’d already been a practicing physician with more than two years experience working at the Jewish Community Hospital in Berlin before the war.
The Heftings had chosen to hide Margot in their house in Amsterdam, knowing that they did so at great risk to themselves and their own safety.
That was late 1942, when Hanny was around 12 years old. Once her father decided to hide Margot from the Nazis, she remained out of sight in the family household for the remainder of the war. Rarely, if ever, was she able to go outside because it was too dangerous to do so without the proper papers.
As Hanny says, “The past was never mentioned and everything remained very hush hush. It was just too dangerous to know too much”.
So it’s unfortunate but she knew nothing about Margot’s life prior to living with Heftings.
As a result, how or when Margot got out of Nazi Germany remains a mystery. However, I assume she did so in late 1938 after Krystalnacht, when her cousin, Paul Rehfisch* and his wife also got out.
At that time it was still easier to travel across the border to the Netherlands than it would have been had she waited any longer. The Nazis just wanted to get rid of the Jews, not exterminate them…yet.
Assuming that they would be safe from the Nazis there, both my cousin and my uncle made the choice to emigrate to Holland. For Margot it was true. She did indeed reach safety. But sadly for Paul* and his wife, they would not be so fortunate.
Play a Few Bars of Beethoven
In exchange for her protection, Margot worked as the Hefting’s housekeeper But often, when she’d dust the Hefting’s grand piano, she would take a brief time out to play a few bars of Beethoven, before getting back to her dusting.
Young Hanny was already in love with music. But I’m sure that hearing Margot periodically play fragments of Beethoven in her home nurtured her enthusiasm. Ultimately she went on to study at the Music Conservatory in Amsterdam.
Although, never aspiring to perform professionally, she continues to play at age 85, and still practices three to four hours a day on one of her TWO grand pianos.
Hanny relishes playing duets with professional friends of hers, and regularly puts on small recitals in her home for a few invited guests. So great is her love of music.
But I digress…
One Photo of Margot
Fortunately Hanny was able to find one picture of Margot from which she had a copy made and then sent it to me. When I saw it, there was something very familiar about Margot which reminded me of an old picture of my mother.
I scrambled to find it. When I did, buried deep in my computer files, I was surprised by the uncanny resemblance between the two woman. Yet it made sense since they were first cousins, sharing the same grandfather.
Resumes Her Goal
Once the war was over and Margot could come out of hiding, she was able to renew her aim at becoming a psychiatrist once again. But she had no intention of resuming her studies in Germany, choosing to remain in Holland instead. She finally received her license to practice a few years later.
Having established a successful practice, by the 1960s she had both her home and office in Amsterdam. It was around that time that Fiep became one of her patients, and rented an upstairs apartment in Margot’s house.
Then later, when Margot retired from practice, she bought a large house in the country, where she developed a reputation for taking in sick animals and nursing them back to health. While no one seems to know for sure, this is probably when she and Fiep actually lived together.
According to Hanny, Margot came to the U.S. in the 1950’s ostensibly on business. But I know that her older sister Erna lived in Queens, with her husband, Martin Nachmann, and their son Guenter. So, business aside, it may well have been her first opportunity to see her sister since before the war.
Hanny also gave me the email address of Fiep Westendorp’s nephew, Hans, hoping that he could provide more information about my cousin. While he had little direct experience with her, he did send me copies of her academic history from her extensive medical studies in Germany before the war.
At that time, her apparent goal was to parlay her education in Germany and continue her medical studies here in the U.S. This is evidenced by the great lengths she went to, to have all of her records translated to English. But of course, the war changed all of that.
Her Medical Studies Before WWII
But thanks to Hans, here’s a chronology of Margot’s medical studies in Germany:
1936 to 1938 – Jewish Community Hospital in Berlin – She works as a doctor/practitioner at the in the Internal Disease ward, and later in the TB ward.
However, reading this, I find some curious issues with her education that probably can’t be answered. Here are a couple of them:
First, her certificate of service at the Jewish Community Hospital in Berlin wasn’t signed until Dec. 1938, one month after Kristallnacht. I thought it odd that it was signed by the Home Secretary of the Reich, considering that she was Jew.
That was three years after the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935, which decreed that no Jew could study beyond age 14. On the other hand this may have been the reason she seems to have stopped her medical studies at the University of Basel at the end of 1935. Then moved into medical practice at the Jewish Community Hospital in Berlin the following year.
I assume her transfer to the Jewish Community Hospital was the beginning of her internship as a doctor. But there’s still an educational component to it. So, either it came within the limits of the Nuremberg Laws, or the Nazis didn’t know she was Jew (which makes little sense, since it was a Jewish Hospital), or they didn’t care…at the time.
Nevertheless, thanks to my new friend, Hanny Hefting, and Fiep’s nephew, Hans Westendorp, I know quite a bit more about my cousin Margot than I did before. And there may still be more to come.
So, stay tuned….
* Words or names highlighted in red are links to more information – usually a related post. Just click on your selection, and that blog will appear.
3 thoughts on “Margot Rehfisch Redux”
Pete, very fascinating—you are a good story teller/writer
Thanks so much for writing this…SO powerful.