black and white photo of a family standing in a city street
The Boas-Pais family in front of their home in the Netherlands, before World War II (Courtesy/Annehuis ter Harlingen)

1939 silent film of wedding offers Netherlands a look at prewar Jewish life

The Jews of Friesland, a region in the northern Netherlands, are not known for stories with happy endings.

During the Holocaust, Friesland’s vibrant Jewish community was obliterated, including its endemic customs and distinct Yiddish dialect. It is one of the starkest examples of how the Holocaust decimated and irreparably changed Dutch Jewry.

That’s why the recent surfacing of a unique film from 1939 showing the wedding of a Frisian Jewish couple who escaped the genocide is generating remarkable reactions from local media and Dutch state historians here.

The silent, black-and-white film was the subject of a special aired last week in prime time by the region’s public broadcaster, Omrop Fryslân. All the region’s main dailies reported on it, as did some national publications. Placed on YouTube by the Frisian Film Archive on Jan. 25, the film received thousands of hits, becoming the archive’s second most watched over the past two years.

It is the only known footage of Frisian Jewish life from before the Holocaust. Its discovery comes amid a wave of popular interest in the Holocaust in the Netherlands, including in films and series with record ratings and in the construction of monuments — including the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, which opened last year.

The 7-minute film posted online last week — excerpted from longer footage — shows the bride, Mimi Dwinger, wearing a form-fitting satin wedding dress, riding a horse-drawn carriage with her fiancé, Barend Boers. It’s a sunny spring day and the couple is headed from Leeuwarden City Hall to the local synagogue.

As elegantly dressed women and men wearing top hats stream into the shul, other locals from the Jewish quarter of this poor, provincial city gather around the entrance for a better view of what seems to be an unusually opulent affair.

Inside the synagogue, which is filled with wedding guests, the region’s chief rabbi, Abraham Salomon Levisson, officiates. He’s wearing the black hexagonal hat favored by Sephardic rabbis — an influence brought to Holland by Portuguese Jews. Smiling, Boers signs the ketubah.

The newlyweds appear relaxed at the reception held at the local Jewish kosher hotel, the German Eagle. The guests chat and, after a few glasses of advocaat — Dutch eggnog — they giggle at the cameraman. The excerpt (the full footage was given on loan to the archive in early January) ends with Boers gently kissing his wife on the forehead.

Nothing about the film suggests that the people featured in it had any idea their world was coming to an end.

The couple’s children handed over the film in January to the Frisian Film Archive, after finding it in their late mother’s suitcase in 2008. They had hung onto it for nearly a decade to “come to terms with it,” Andre Boers, one of the couple’s three children, told JTA.

Just a year after filming, the people in the movie would come under the Nazi occupation that decimated the Frisian Jewish community, along with 75 percent of Dutch Jews — the highest death rate in occupied Western Europe.

While few of their relatives and guests survived, the lovebirds plotted the escape that allowed them to survive against all odds.

The couple escaped the Netherlands in 1942, through France and Spain to Jamaica. Boers enlisted to fight with the Allies, while his wife volunteered to work for the British War Office. Boers participated in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1944 as part of a Dutch brigade that fought embedded within the Canadian army.

The couple returned to the liberated Netherlands. Boers died in 1979 at 69. His widow, Mimi, passed away nine years ago at 90, leaving the film and photos in a suitcase that was found by her three children, who now live in Amsterdam and Israel. The Frisian Film Archive learned of the film’s existence after the family offered to give the 16mm footage to the archive on loan.

The film’ “offers hope — that not all the people in that film died in the camps, that a few managed to escape, after all,” said Hans Groeneweg, a historian at the Frisian Resistance Museum, a state-funded institution entrusted with documenting the occupation years.

But for Andre Boers, Mimi and Barend’s middle child, who is living in Israel, the film has a far more personal significance. Before the family found it, he had not seen moving images of many of the relatives featured.

It’s a “highly emotional opportunity to see my grandparents, great-grandmother, uncles, aunties and many others just a few years before most of them were murdered by the Nazis,” he wrote last week on Facebook.

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent