Review of ‘The last Jew of Rotterdam’ by Ernest Cassutto

Review of ‘The last Jew of Rotterdam’ by Ernest Cassutto

This is a remarkable story of survival, salvation and forgiveness. Until the age of fourteen, Ernest Cassutto enjoyed a carefree childhood in the pleasant climate of Indonesia. Isaac, his dad moved the family to Holland since the school where he taught closed and he subsequently accepted a teaching post at the University of Utrecht. The narrative is also interwoven with the events in the life of Elly, whom Ernest would become acquainted with following the Second World War.

Though his mum and dad’s parents were Orthodox they were neither religious, nor practising and they considered themselves open minded Jews. Nonetheless, Ernest Cassutto recognised that the existence of the Jewish people despite ongoing persecution was actually proof of God’s existence.   Ernest was initially homesick as he now resided in a more modest residence and in a new culture. Shortly afterwards however, his family met another family whom they were well acquainted with over in Holland and he became engaged to Hetty who was his teenage sweetheart. While that was occurring, Elly struck up a relationship with Barry through drama auditions at her school production.

The outset of Nazi occupation was not at first traumatic though matters swiftly took a turn for the worse. Ernest had never given a great deal of thought concerning his Jewish identity until completing a census form and the subsequent arrest of his father. Meanwhile, Elly who was also from a Jewish family experienced rapid and increasing banishment from many public services and even synagogue meetings were banned. Ernest would not be following his father’s footsteps into law school since the Nazis had excluded Jews from universities. Nevertheless, he developed a curiosity concerning the Jewish faith and started reading the Bible.

Ernest had a friend called Martin Kwint whose father was a Reverend.  Reverend Kwint explained to Ernest and Hetty gravely that things would get worse for the Jewish people though discretely explained his involvement in the underground resistance movement. Reverend Kwint introduced them to a Jewish Reverend Rottenberg who gave Ernest a Bible to read.

Kwint asked Ernest if he had ever considered whether Jesus could be the Jewish Messiah? Ernest responded that if you asked ten rabbis you would likely receive ten varying responses and Hetty added that Messiah should bring peace and give Israel back to the Jewish people. Surprisingly, Kwint didn’t supply an explanation to either remark but instead gave them Isaiah 53 to read as homework.

Ernest was astonished to discover that the content of Isaiah 53 concerning the suffering Messiah was clearly fulfilled by Yeshua (Jesus) in Matthew’s Gospel. His reservation nonetheless was that Jewish people are supposed to believe in one God so there appeared to be an irreconcilable contradiction. Rottenberg drew his attention to three clear references regarding God’s Son in Psalm 2, Isaiah 9:6 and Proverbs 30:4.

Things were starting to fall into place for Ernest though Hetty was baffled that Reverend Rottenberg was Jewish and believed in Jesus. Rottenberg responded that that was the case and added that He was a Jew who had found his Messiah. That same night both Ernest and Hetty asked God to forgive them for their sins and believed that the death of Yeshua provided atonement for them and that He was Messiah. As the Lord raised Yeshua from the dead they could now have the assurance that He would raise them from the dead and they would be in heaven with God for eternity.

As the persecution intensified, they went into hiding though fortunately Reverend Kwint had friends in the underground movement. In view of the risk of being identified it was necessary to split company. Hetty was arrested. Ernest and Elly moved from various respective locations from pillar to post and Ernest recollected that within the space of eighteen months he had stayed in over forty abodes. Elly was taken in by Gretje, a large-hearted Christian Dutch woman to stay at her house. Elly needed to blend in at school and conceal her Jewish identity. Gretje was like a mother to her and swiftly brought her up to speed on the New Testament since there would be a Christian Bible Class every day at the school. Concurrently, Barry was true to his word and remained in Amsterdam and kept Elly’s Jewish identity a secret.

One day at Bible Class and with a slip of the tongue and whilst reading in front of the class, Elly pronounced Isaiah in Hebrew and it drew the attention of the principal. Astoundingly the principal explained the same to Gretje who he secretly sympathised with and advised Gretje to ensure that Elly knew the English names for the Hebrew prophets.

Interestingly a curiosity arose within Elly whether Yeshua was the Messiah and she asked her father, Abraham whether that was the case.  Abraham counselled that she should learn what Gretje taught her but then forget that after the war had ceased. Elly asked Gretje some questions following a church service and Gretje explained that Jesus fulfilled prophecy by being born in Bethlehem and that He came from the lineage of David. Soon afterwards Elly would come to trust in Jesus as her Messiah when she discovered that she could believe in Him as Messiah and still retain her Jewish identity. Her faith was not just about verses to be remembered important though that is, but a living faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Ernest was taken to the municipal prison in Rotterdam fully expecting to be deported to Auschwitz. His only remaining possessions were his Bible and a photo of Hetty. Astonishingly, upon examination, the guard handed back both items quietly and covertly explained to Ernest that he hadn’t been able to save Hetty, though he might be able to save Ernest. Later, Ernest found a report which revealed that Hetty was shot with yards of the gas chambers and a guard took pity on her shooting her in the neck. Hetty managed to save the life of her hostess by thinking on her feet and apologising to her hostess in front of the guard that she hadn’t told her she was Jewish. The ruse worked. Sadly, Reverend Rottenberg also perished at Auschwitz.

Like in Bible times, the Lord acted providentially even whilst Ernest was imprisoned. He sought the Lord’s help that he might be able to forgive the Nazis and soon afterwards the fellow prisoners asked him to lead services. Ernest did so and continued cautiously, so as not to attract the attention of his captors.

A short while later, two guards seized Ernest and made him gaze at a pile of dead bodies whose suffering was evident on their frozen faces and a note pinned to one of them read “THIS IS WHAT WE DO WITH DUTCH RESISTANCE MOVEMENT WORKERS”. Yet when he was returned to his cell there were no yellow Jewish stars on any of the cells and his one had also been strangely removed. Ernest was the only remaining Jewish survivor in the Rotterdam prison. Instead of being killed, he was forced into slave labour and the resistance kept him alive by smuggling a piece of bread or potato or assigning him a task where he could eat the potato peels.

The resistance informed Ernest that the Nazis knew they were at the brink of losing the war so would be executing prisoners and records of those who could testify against them.  Urgent action was needed. A guard working for the resistance convinced another guard that the prisoners were in danger of TB and that low water pressure had prevented them from bathing or showering for a fortnight.  They were moved into a woman’s home and then within the space of a couple of days they were finally free.

Ernest was reunited with friends and his parents and brother George. Meanwhile Elly was delighted to find her brother Henri though when she explained to him what had happened to her and especially her new faith in Yeshua the Messiah, she was shocked by his reaction. Henri said she had been brainwashed and asked how could she believe in Jesus after all that had happened, or even believe in God anymore? Henri said that she was as dead to him as were their parents who had recently passed away. Elly could not stay with him so Gretje together with Gretje’s uncle in Amsterdam became co-guardians for her. Later on, Ernest received a phone call from his other brother Max, who was befriended by missionaries at the Kwai river bridge and he also had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah.

At Gretje’s suggestion, Elly attended a meeting held by the Hebrew Christian Youth Organisation (Haderech) in Utrecht. A range of Jewish people aged from roughly sixteen to thirty- five were present. She was asked to take notes for the day. Elly willingly complied and became increasingly committed.

Elly was excited about a long weekend with Haderech in Amsterdam. At the same time, Ernest had an invite but really didn’t want to go. Ernest had completed his Bachelor’s degree in theology and was working on his Master’s degree with the aim of ordination in the Dutch Reformed Church. Nonetheless Ernest recalled he had a wonderful time and also brought his bugle and guitar along and he was keenly required to play both.  In short, Elly’s responsibility was to provide the musical program.

Elly came to learn that Ernest would be attending, she learnt a few things about him, and it was explained to her that he might be able to help with the music. Elly and her friends were discussing when Messiah would come and mentioned that the trumpet would sound before Jesus’ return. Ernest was out of breath having biked for an hour only to see a labyrinth of doors at the large church in front of him. He needed to find them. Using his initiative he blew his bugle loud for a long duration. They all raced humoured and excitedly to the courtyard to see what was happening and in a fit of giggles and quick wit, Elly and Ernest made their introductions explaining what had preceded their meeting. The service went well, afterwards they learnt more fully about each other’s personal stories from the war and within weeks they were engaged.

Whilst Elly and Ernest were making wedding plans the phone went and Ernest was given an unusual and especially difficult request. A commandant of the prison where Ernest had been was dying and though he had been sentenced to death was exempted due to severe illness. His last request was to see Ernest. This was painful for Ernest and as he met the guard, who apologised and wept over and over. Ernest led him in a prayer asking God for forgiveness explaining that the only way that we can stand before a holy God is through Jesus who made atonement for sins. Herr Bartels last words were “Thank God you came. Thank God you said my last prayer with me. Thank God.”

Ernest recalled what happened to Elly. He reflected that the Lord had taught him to love his enemy and his enemy to love him. It was Hetty that had told Ernest to pray for the Nazis. Elly remembered that Ernest was engaged to Hetty since he was wearing an engagement ring years back when they first met. Ernest responded that Elly’s compassion reminded him of her. He showed Elly Hetty’s diary which she looked at with watery eyes and looking pensively remarked that when they would have their first daughter, they would name her Hetty. They did.