book reviews, history

Repost: A review of Flory Van Beek’s book, Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death

Here’s another reposted book review. I read Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death in June 2018 and have decided to repost my review of it as/is today, since I hadn’t yet done it.

Every once in awhile, I go on a book buying spree on  A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing Amazon’s suggested books for me and I noticed one called Flory: Survival in the Valley of Death.  Originally published in 1999, this book was written by Flory Van Beek, a Dutch Jew who survived the Holocaust thanks to good-hearted Christians who sheltered her and her husband, Felix, during World War II.  I downloaded the 2009 version of Van Beek’s book, never having heard of it before I read it.

Flory’s story…

Flory Van Beek was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands in 1924, the youngest of four children.  She was her parents’ youngest child by quite a few years, and her father died in an accident when she was five years old.  Flory’s parents were Orthodox Jews who were close to both sides of their family.  After her father’s death, her mother moved to the town where she’d grown up, Amersfoort.  There, young Flory enjoyed a good education and proximity to her mother’s side of the family, which was reportedly much more religious than her father’s side had been.  Flory writes that everyone had faith in the Dutch royal family, led by Queen Wilhelmina.  Her mother reassured her that Holland would stay neutral and remain unaffected by Hitler’s hostility toward Jewish people.  She describes an idyllic upbringing in The Netherlands with plenty of exposure to music and sports.

As Flory grew into a young woman, political tensions developed between Germany and the rest of Europe.  Hitler had taken charge of the German government and was inexorably invading surrounding countries and systematically exterminating people who threatened him.  Jewish people were at the top of Hitler’s list of people to hate.  Flory Van Beek describes what it was like as Hitler gradually took over, confiscating businesses and homes of Jewish people and deporting them to concentration camps.

Sixteen year old Flory met Felix Van Beek one day while she was hanging out at the tennis courts; he had asked her to play a doubles set with him.  Felix was a twenty-five year old German man who had immigrated to Holland with his brothers and worked for an import-export grain company.  Felix and Flory became friends who eventually developed romantic feelings toward each other.  As their relationship bloomed, the Germans continued to threaten Holland. 

Many Jewish people tried to flee Europe.  In May 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, a large passenger ship, left Germany.  Some of Felix’s family members were aboard the ship, which was destined for Havana, Cuba.  Cuba had granted visas to German refugees; however, when the ship approached Havana, it was not allowed to dock.  The ship turned back toward Germany, with some hoping that the United States would allow the refugees to disembark in Miami.  Unfortunately, U.S. officials also refused to harbor the refugees.  Many of them eventually died in concentration camps, although some European countries did take in some of the refugees.  Among those who landed in Holland was one of Felix’s relatives.  By June of 1939, it became clear that Jewish people were no longer safe in Europe. 

Felix decided he no longer wanted to stay in Holland.  Felix convinced Flory’s family to let him take her by ship to Argentina by way of Chile.  In November 1939, the two were booked in separate cabins on the S.S. Simon Bolivar.  One night into their trip, the ship collided with a German mine.  Felix and Flory were both seriously injured, but they were among the 274 of the 400 passengers on the ship who were rescued.  The couple recuperated in England for several months before they went back to Holland, where the political situation had become ever more dire.

The Nazis had demanded that Jewish people start wearing Stars of David on their clothes so that they could be easily identified.  One day, Flory went to the grocery store, against her mother’s wishes.  The family needed food to eat.  She’d had to go during the two hours per day when Jews were allowed to shop.  At the store, she met the man who would save her and Felix from extermination.  A man named Piet, who had been riding a bicycle, stopped Flory and said, “What the hell are you doing here with that damned star on your blouse?  Take that damned thing off and follow me.”  Flory did as the man ordered.

Piet Brandsen and his wife, Dina, were a Catholic couple raising four young daughters.  He led Flory into his house and asked her to tell him her story.  He told his family that Flory was a Jewish girl who needed help, since the Germans were systematically executing Jews.  Piet said it was the family’s duty to help and that they must take her in and hide her.  Piet took Flory to her home, then returned the following morning to speak to Flory’s mother and take her to his house.  Felix had gone to Amsterdam in an attempt to get paperwork that would give them a stay before they were sent to Germany to “work”.  In June 1942, Flory had received a summons to Germany and Felix was trying to get her an extension. 

While Felix was in Amsterdam, among throngs of many desperate Jews trying to obey the insane laws put in place by the Nazis, the Germans arrived and started herding people to concentration camps.  Felix managed to flee and made it home, just in time to join Flory at the Brandsens’ home.  Since the Brandsens’ were observant Catholics, they insisted that Felix and Flory marry before they were allowed to share the one room they had available.

Three heroic families…

For the next few years, Felix and Flory remained in hiding, sheltered by kind and patriotic Catholic families who protected them.  Throughout those years, they quietly worked with the resistance against the Nazis.  They survived illnesses and dental traumas, thanks to compassionate healthcare providers who were willing to look the other way.  Piet was even arrested and sent to a camp at one point, although he was eventually released.  Flory lovingly writes the story of how through the efforts of decent people who cared, she and Felix were able to survive the Nazi occupation. Sadly, many members of Flory’s and Felix’s families did not live.  Several perished at Sobibor, including Flory’s mother.  A few died of illnesses.

In 1948, Flory and Felix were able to immigrate to the United States.  They lived in Newport Beach, California, where Felix co-founded a Jewish temple.  Both died in 2010. 

My thoughts…

This book was fascinating to me on many levels.  First of all, it was very hard not to see the parallels of what is happening in the United States with what happened in Europe during the 1940s.  While I’m not sure Donald Trump is going to be able to accomplish what Hitler did, there are a lot of similarities between his leadership style and Hitler’s.  Flory’s vivid descriptions of how Jewish people were rounded up and deported are eerily similar to some of the stories I’ve read about how illegal aliens in the United States are being treated now.

Secondly, my heart was warmed by the courageous Catholic families who did their best to resist the Nazi regime and help Jewish people who were being persecuted.  These families were fine examples of real Christians.  I was particularly moved by how close Flory and Felix were to the people who helped them. 

Thirdly, more than once, as I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but look at the place where I’m currently living and shake my head in disbelief.  It’s hard to reconcile the way Germans were in the 1940s to how they are now.  It just goes to show you that countries are made up of all kinds of people.  There is a pervasive sense of shame among Germans today about what happened during World War II.  They do not joke about those days.  And yet, as Flory said, “[The Holocaust] is history, and it should never ever happen again.  War, I don’t know. But persecutions? . . . If you die for your country, it is one thing. But to be persecuted because you have a certain religion is unbelievable.  What the Germans did, it can never be made good–ever, ever, ever, no matter what they say.”

I have noticed in the wake of Trump’s disastrous G7 meeting, many media reports of other countries getting fed up with Trump and his antagonistic policies.  Americans are commenting on those posts, hoping to remind people in other countries that not every American is an asshole.  Fortunately, it seems that many people understand that, despite the Twilight Zone political climate we’re in right now.  Still, I can’t help but worry about what’s going to happen if Trump’s bullshit isn’t reined in soon. 

Finally, Felix and Flory were an amazing couple.  They were married for over sixty years and managed to touch so many lives.  They were not able to have children of their own; a baby girl Flory delivered in 1946 was stillborn.  However, they did eventually adopt a son, Isaiah, who sadly died of brain cancer in 1970.  He was just sixteen years old.  They named the temple after him.   

Flory apparently tried many times to write her story, but each time she’d start her manuscript, she’d have to stop because emotion would overwhelm her.  In 1997, she finally decided once and for all to write her book.  It was published in 1998 and remains a very relevant book twenty years hence.  I’m so glad I had the chance to read Flory’s amazing story.  I hope you’ll read it, too.

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book reviews

Once an elite gymnast, prisoner, and porn star, now she’s Simply Verona…

I don’t remember how I first heard about former Dutch elite gymnast Verona van de Leur. I like watching women’s gymnastics, but I quit being a regular viewer a long time ago. I certainly never followed Dutch gymnasts. I don’t think they were regularly featured in the United States, anyway. But somehow, I was clued in to Verona van de Leur’s rather sordid story of leaving gymnastics, only to wind up living in her car for two years, doing a stint in a Dutch prison, and becoming porn purveyor, and I decided that I needed to read her book, Simply Verona: Breaking All the Rules. This book was published in March of this year. I found it a fascinating, but very long and involved read.

In 2002, Verona van de Leur was at the top of the Dutch gymnastics scene. She was named Dutch sportswoman of the year in 2003.

Verona van de Leur, born in Gouda, South Holland, and named after the Italian city, was a gymnastics natural. She and her younger sister, Denise, both studied the discipline, but it was very obvious that Verona was born to tumble. According to her book, Verona van de Leur’s parents were very much invested in her career, and they shamed her whenever she didn’t win medals. As Verona got better and better at the sport, they and her original coach, Frank Luther, demanded more of her. One would think that a woman so gifted at a sport would want to do it, but Verona got to the point at which she hated gymnastics, despite her talent. She was forced to work out constantly, deny herself food that she loved, and submit to abuse from her parents and coaches.

Verona on the balance beam…

Naturally, the goal was for Verona to reach the Olympic Games. She met many wonderful gymnasts on the way up, including the great Romanian gymnast, Andreea Raducan, whose book I reviewed. Unfortunately, she suffered a very serious injury in Greece when a vault went horribly wrong. That vault was the beginning of her downward spiral. She very badly injured her foot and it was not properly cared for at the time. She continued to train even when she was seriously hurt because her parents and her coach wanted her to compete in the 2004 Olympics. Sadly, she missed those Games due to the injury not being properly tended to when it first happened. Verona changed coaches, exchanging The Netherlands’ top coach, Frank Luther, for a Russian coach named Boris Orlov. Boris was a better coach for her, but Verona still never made it to the Olympics.

Verona helps put the Dutch team on the map, although this particular routine had an unfortunate break.

As she struggled to recover from the serious injury, she grew to like gymnastics less and less. She was also getting older and more interested in life outside of the gym. She wanted to date. Her parents weren’t on board with letting her have that freedom, even as she became an adult. When she made noises about wanting to quit gymnastics, her parents would react with rage. Verona had a sponsor who paid her, and her parents were handling –or should I say mishandling— her money. In 2008, she finally did walk away from gymnastics. Her parents reacted by throwing her out of the house and disowning her.

A beautifully done vault.

Verona met a guy named Robbie on the Internet. He had a criminal past. Verona’s parents disapproved of him, which helped them decide to toss away their daughter. They were very resolute about their decision to throw her away, to the point of not even letting her see her grandmother or giving her a winter coat. Verona had to sneak around to see her grandma, who would sometimes slip her some money. Verona and Robbie were forced to live in a car for two years. They had to scrounge for every euro cent, and there were times when they didn’t even have enough to pay for a piss at the train station.

Verona ended up suing her parents because they had illegally taken her money and squandered it. Originally, she was awarded 1300 euros and the right to take her personal belongings, to include a laptop computer, which her father scrubbed clean before it was given to her. With the proceeds from the lawsuit, Verona bought a camera, and one day, desperate from her situation, she caught a woman cheating on her husband. In a moment of impetuousness, Verona tried to blackmail the woman for 1,000 euros.

Meanwhile, Robbie, who is half Indonesian, was allegedly racially profiled while they were playing softball at a park. He had a criminal record and was carrying a bat, so someone at the park called the police, who arrested the couple. Verona was so flexible that she was able to get out of the police car while handcuffed. Not long after that arrest, the two were arrested again for Verona’s unsuccessful attempt to blackmail the adulterous couple she happened to catch on video.

Verona spent 72 days in prison, as officials tried to also prosecute her for having child porn on her computer, which was never actually found on her machine. It was scrubbed clean of data by her father, who’d had it in his possession when the porn was supposedly put there. Verona’s description of the Dutch judicial system was very intriguing to me. I felt sad for her having gotten into this predicament, especially after she was used by her family. Verona eventually got a 90,000 euro settlement from her parents, which was paid in monthly installments. It wasn’t enough to live on, but it did help her move out of the car.

Verona tried to turn her life around by teaching gymnastics clinics and working with children. But when the news came out about her legal problems, none of the gyms wanted to work with her. She couldn’t find work, and therefore couldn’t get back to a life of “respectability”. So then she turned to the adult Web site industry, which turned out to be her permanent ticket out of poverty.

Verona van de Leur’s story is amazing, although it took me a long time to get through her book. It’s basically well written, though there are times when I can tell that English isn’t her native language. I also noticed that she has a tendency to use Internetisms like “LOL”. A good editor would have counseled her against that, although maybe it makes her more relatable to younger people.

I was actually kind of moved by her words about the people she met while working in porn. I have some experience with that world myself. Years ago, I used to be in an online community for people who enjoyed BDSM. It was not something I experimented with a lot, but I did get to know people who were into it. Most of them were perfectly normal people who were just a bit kinky. Some were very good people, with good hearts. I had some fantastic conversations with a lot of them and entertained some of them by writing erotica. In any case, Verona ended up making friends with people who were enchanted by her pay Web site. One user was a guy who had a rare disease that had killed his mother. Because of his illness, he’d never had much of a sex life, but he was a very kind person. Verona got to know him because he was a regular on her site. Sadly, he did pass away, and she was very much affected by it, even though he’d been a “customer”.

Dutch pop inspired by Verona van de Leur… wonder what Verona’s parents think now. She is still estranged from them over ten years later.

The porn industry helped Verona earn enough money to get out of the dire financial situation she was in. She is now on her feet, having spent a year and a half writing Simply Verona. She has learned from others in the adult sex industry, but she’s also gotten to know musicians and artists, having inspired Ellen ten Damme to write a song about her. She quit the adult film industry in November 2019. However, she still uses her pole dancing skills, as you can see in the above video.

I enjoyed reading Verona van de Leur’s story. She has really led a fascinating life with many twists and turns. If I weren’t in Germany, I’m not sure I would have heard of her… but I will definitely recommend her book. It’s very much an eye opener, that proves that gymnastics is a pretty tough sport wherever you are.

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