I was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Amsterdam, Netherlands, just after World War I. My mother Sophie was born into a Jewish family in the province of Groningen. She had three brothers and two sisters.
My mother’s parents (the Duveens) were farmers just outside the city of Grogingen, and they delivered milk—especially to the Jewish community in the city. My mother recalled that her family had problems with the surrounding farmers who thought that Jewish farmers should not own a farm in their area. Anti-Semitism was thinly disguised among so-called Christians. My mother’s brothers were once attacked by hoodlums when they went to school. Eventually my grandparents sold the farm and moved to Amsterdam, the center of Jewish cultural life with a large Ashkenazi synagogue and a large Sephardi synagogue and a liberal one too. My father Maurits was born in Amsterdam into a family with four sisters. His father, Jacob Mozes Van Ameringen, worked with other family members at Asher, a large factory.
My mother and father married just after World War I. They owned an electrical appliance shop in the center of Amsterdam. I was born on July 22, 1921, in the Korte Nieuwendijk (Short New Dike) Street in central Amsterdam. At birth, apparently I was very fragile due to a skin condition, and a nurse had to care for me. I developed asthmatic bronchitis and had a skin allergy until the age of fourteen.
We were situated close to Martelaarsgracht (Canal of the Martyrs), which featured several cafés and a wide promenade where many people enjoyed their meals and drinks accompanied by barrel organ music till late in the evening. As a child I drove my Vliegende Hollander (Flying Dutchman), a hand pedaled cart, through the busy street. Later on, in the winters, I joined other boys and girls skating through the streets. I attended a nearby public primary school, and every winter when it became bitterly cold, I folded socks over my shoes to keep myself from losing grip on the ice and sliding under the bridge railing into the Singel Canal. The cobblestones on the Singel Bridge were often treacherous even for Clydesdale horses that routinely pulled long beer carriages across the frozen bridges.
My sister Helena was born January 24, 1923. We had many a fight and squabble in our youth. As we got older, we assisted and protected each other, especially during the war.
Jewish Boy in Amsterdam
At a young age, I wanted to know about God. Though my parents were lax in their observance of Jewish festivals and customs, and Jewish schools were too far from my home for us to attend, my sister (Helena) and I received instruction in Hebrew writing and Judaism from a tutor who visited our home twice a week. I soon learned to read our prayer book and to write in Hebrew. I wore my little prayer shawl (tallit katan) under my shirt, and I regularly said my morning berachot. I laid tefillin every morning for thirty minutes or more. My grandfather Kobus (Jacobus Mozes) and my Aunt Lies (Elisabet) encouraged me to attend synagogue with them as often as possible.
In 1933, when my father moved out of the retail business to sell his products wholesale, we moved from the center of Amsterdam to Amsterdam South. That also gave me the opportunity to attend the new youth synagogue there. We enjoyed the festivals of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Channukah, and Pesach, which were all held at my grandparents’ place. Little Opa (Kobus) and Oma kept everything kosher. We visited Tall Opa and Oma (Herman and Helen Duveen) also, but they were liberal and did not bother much with the festivals. When I became thirteen, I studied hard for my portion of Vayikra to be sung on my bar mitzvah. Many of my relatives attended the synagogue on that occasion, and there was a large feast following the ceremony. Shortly after that time, my voice broke and I lost my soprano-range singing voice.
I experienced hard times, especially in the fourth through sixth grades, being the only Jewish boy and also the only one going on to high school. It was very hard for me to have real friends; there was an anti-Semitic attitude among many. Having been selected as the “headmaster’s assistant” did not endear me to the other students either. After completing the sixth grade, I progressed to a class with a special curriculum to prepare for higher education and sit exams. I qualified to go to an advanced academic grammar school studying Greek and Latin. However, since the other Jewish boys and I did not attend school on Saturday mornings, we were disadvantaged. For example, the Greek and Latin teacher purposefully scheduled tests and exams on Saturdays. Since no provision was made for taking tests at another time, eventually we were eliminated from the program. They were not willing to accommodate Hebrew School. I later learned that the Greek and Latin teacher was a member of the NSB (National Socialist Bond), i.e., a Nazi and an anti-Semite.
The Nazis Arrive
During the middle of my fourth year of high school (May 1940), my world was dramatically altered. The Dutch army was treacherously defeated in a mere five days by the Germans. The German advance forces had disguised themselves by wearing Dutch uniforms that had been stolen some two years prior. To make matters worse, the Dutch Royal family and the entire cabinet had fled overseas leaving the country leaderless and in a mess. An Austrian SS officer, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, was appointed governor of the Netherlands, having full control over police and internal affairs, protected and assisted by the German army, Green police, SS troops, and the Dutch NSB (i.e., Dutch Nazis). During 1940, the German military concentrated their efforts on looting the Netherlands by loading and shipping military trucks, trains, and buses with all kinds of non-perishable foods, clothing, leatherwear, and metals stolen from the government (all copper wire), private warehouses, shops, antiques, and paintings. Everything was shipped to Germany. Gradually, they stripped Holland bare.
By the end of 1940, all Jewish people were required to wear a yellow badge bearing the Star of David. The underground Dutch resistance fighters supplied many Jewish people with false identity cards from those who had “lost” them and had them replaced. Later it became more difficult to obtain food vouchers from the distribution centers. In 1941, it became more difficult to attend classes because there were razzias, sudden roundups by the Green Police Nazi troops who terrorized every house on that street. Their goal was to round up all young men from age 17 to 30 for forced labor in Germany. Teachers warned us to stay home that day. At the end of the year, I was scheduled to sit for my exams. It took me three weeks to hear an “all clear.” Despite the terror, I passed my exams.
That year I received “an invitation” to join a work camp that replaced army service. I tore it up knowing what the outcome would be. Hiding at home was not easy. Dutch Nazis were spying on Jewish homes, and the Germans fully utilized their information. Staying in a cupboard or in a special room on the top floor of our apartment block became intolerable and dangerous, so I moved under curfew to live with friends on the other side of the city.
In July 1941, I got the opportunity to hide out and work on a farm just outside of Amsterdam along a stream called Het Gein. For an entire year (1941-1942) I milked cows by hand in the fields, while wearing wooden clogs. I assisted with the production of Amsterdamer Cheese, which the farmer took to market on a horse-drawn cart. The farmer’s wife made butter for their own use. By the end of the year (1941) it became too dangerous to remain there as the farmer’s eighteen year old son had to be kept hidden for fear of being rounded up by the razzias.
I returned to my home in Amsterdam, but in early 1943 the Germans abruptly broke into our home, seized my mother and sister and shipped them to a German concentration camp in Westerbork. When the Germans discovered my sister’s talent for sewing, they sent her back to Amsterdam to work forced labor for the Germans sewing uniforms in a factory.
Escape to France
Fearing for my safety, my father sent me to a former customer of his in Hertogenbosch in Brabant where he arranged for me to be smuggled over the border to Belgium. This involved running and dropping into ditches to avoid detection by border agents. They put me on a train filled with peasants who brought their pigs, hens, and vegetables with them to sell at the market in Antwerp. I escaped detection and caught a local train to Brussels, where I would board the international train to Paris. The LORD protected me there. Although I was frightened, I was aware of his divine protection. A stranger approached me on the station platform in Brussels and invited me to join his firm. They sent young Flemish men to France to keep them from being shipped to Germany as slave labor. I had to promise to speak only French to avoid detection.
On boarding this train, a group of Flemish men made a plan to keep the German soldiers from climbing on aboard. When the soldiers came to begin the car by car interrogations, the men made a coordinated effort and blocked the doors, giving the impression that the train was too packed to allow anyone else on. One leader of the underground group taunted a belligerent, beefy German soldier, “You can come on board.” At the same time, the crowd was pushing him out. He angrily fired his revolver into the air as the train departed.
Arriving in Paris, I was assigned to work with a group in Villers-Cotterêts, working with a pick and shovel. Some men were forced by Germans to dig trenches for them. The foreman quickly realized I was ill-suited for this work, realized I was educated, and offered me a job in La Rochelle. I gladly accepted. La Rochelle was an old German submarine base. I worked as a supervisor and translator in French and German for the Flemish managers of the work crews commanded by the Germans. The Germans used Flemish people in France because they assumed that Flemish people would not have loyalties with the French people or work for the French underground. I was able to find housing with a pleasant family, and the husband, a city councilman, provided me with a special French-alien identity card.
Tour de France
When France was freed by the Maquis (resistance) in November 1944, I crossed the border into Free France on a bike along with two others, a Dutchman and a Flemish friend.
A French patrol spotted us and ordered us to stay put while they continued their patrol. They left one soldier to guard us. I engaged him in conversation, and he recognized me from my work in La Rochelle. He was friendly.
Then a detachment of three Russian soldiers appeared, a colonel sporting a colback hat, similar to that of the Buckingham Palace guards, a lieutenant with a heavy machine gun, and a sergeant loaded with ammunition. The colonel challenged the French guard, “We are the Russian patrol from the Russian Embassy in Paris!”
The French soldier rebutted him, “There is no Russian Embassy in Paris.”
The Russian continued, “We are patrolling this area and that man,” he said, pointing at me, “is a spy.” He claimed that I spoke French too well. The colonel ordered us to empty our pockets and belongings into a bag, and he ordered me to stand against a tree to be shot.
The French guard interjected, “If you shoot him I will shoot you.” He pointed his rifle at the colonel. The colonel was stunned.
Just then, the French patrol returned. The French soldier reported the incident to his captain. The captain stated the Russians were now his prisoners, and the patrol surrounded the three men. They were later imprisoned as thieves. Fortunately, we retrieved our belongings and received a letter authorizing safe travel to Paris.
Another incident occurred in Lyon. Despite my warnings, the Dutchman in our bicycle party liked to dress up like a German: all black with German army boots. That attracted the attention of the French police. They stopped us as suspicious characters, and they put us in a cell. I served as the spokesman. The policeman interrogated us about our history. I showed him the letter from the Maquis and my French passport from La Rochelle. After two days, they let us go. We continued biking toward Paris, and then on to Brussels. The bike trip from Paris to Brussels alone was 880 kilometers (528 miles) over hills and plains, and it took us an entire month. My bike was laden with two large suitcases. It felt like the Tour de France.
In Brussels I worked in a British army base under a Dutch captain who was in charge of civilians. I was given a military camouflage jacket to appear as a British army volunteer. I received permission to enter the British army canteen. The American rations were superior and of higher quality to that of the British. I often had good conversations with the soldiers and non-commissioned officers all the while improving my English language skills. I especially enjoyed the black NCOs who often gave me rations.
Return to Holland
When the Germans capitulated in 1945, the captain who supervised us persuaded us not to go back to Holland immediately as the country was deprived of even the basics: food, clothing, bikes, cars, horses, buses, trams, trains … everything that was essential to normal life. At that time, however, I could not resist returning home.
I eventually found my sister Helen. Despite many privations, she had survived the war. After escaping from the Germans, she had lived for the remainder of the war in hiding at a girlfriend’s place in Amsterdam. Despite the danger, she was somehow able to bike to various farms to supply food for needy families without arousing suspicion. At that time, she rode a bicycle with wooden wheels that had a strip of rubber for a tire; the Germans had seized all the good Dutch bikes and exchanged them for “vouchers to be honored at the end of the war.” In the winter of 1944-1945, Helen saw many Dutch people dying of starvation, simply lying on the side of the road, but she was unable to help them.
I was happy to find her, and Helen was equally excited to see me. She accompanied me to the government registration office to certify my real identity so I could receive my proper identity papers and be registered as “alive.” I soon received information from the Red Cross on the fate of many of our relatives. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts, etc. were all sent by cattle trucks to the German concentration camp in Sobibór, Poland. They all died during 1943 and 1944, either on the way to the camp or in the camp. Regrettably, the records of these extermination camps were so haphazard that many names went unrecorded.
The Jewish Bible
I could not remain idle so I went to the Haarlemmermeer Polder, land that was formerly underwater, reclaimed from the sea. I worked there as a research assistant at an experimental farm, and after that, I pursued agricultural studies at the University of Wageningen and, after that, Deventer Higher Tropical Agriculture College.
During my studies in Deventer, I boarded with the family of Henny and Joke Kroes and their five children. They lived across the river Ijssel, which was a challenge for me in the winter. I had to cross the bridge on my bike facing ice-cold wind twice a day. The family regularly attended church, and the mother read the Bible aloud after each meal. I was intrigued as I recognized the Bible stories. We had discussions about the Bible, and she told me that the Christian Bible is really the Jewish Bible. I was astounded. She also claimed that the New Testament is part of the Jewish Bible and that it was written by Jews. I had never heard that before. One day she invited me to join the family in a church service.
A certain young lady at the church inquired of my hostess who I was, and upon meeting her, I discovered she was a friend of the family. She invited me to join her on a bike ride to a nearby park where she proceeded to unpack her Bible and discuss God and his influence on us. Several such discussions ensued also at her father’s home. Both pointed out to me that any acceptance of Yeshua as Messiah would not mean a change of religion because the Redeemer and all his disciples were themselves Jews.
The One Who Was and Is
The stories in the New Testament made sense to me. At night, however, many doubts plagued me. I constantly asked myself, “Why did my parents, uncles, friends, rabbis, and all the others reject Yeshua as the Messiah?” The devil tried to convince me that I should not believe what I was reading and hearing. I was so troubled that I asked Alice, the young lady, how I could possibly be sure that the content of the New Testament was true. She replied, “Ask Yeshua to show himself to you.”
Shortly thereafter, in another troubled night, I cried out in desperation, “Master, Yeshua, if you are alive and truly the Messiah, please show yourself to me!” To my great astonishment, without opening the door of my room, what appeared to be a hooded man dressed in a long robe entered my bedroom. I rubbed my eyes to see if I was actually awake, not dreaming or seeing a vision. I sat up in bed, startled, and I saw this figure coming closer. He stopped at the end of my bed. I asked him, “Are you alive? Are you Yeshua?”
He responded, “I am the one who was and is.”
I immediately remembered the words of HaShem when speaking to Moshe in the burning bush incident in the Torah: “I will be as I will be.” So I asked, “You are the Savior?”
He nodded, turned around, and left in the same way that he had come.
This encounter left no room for further doubt in my mind that Yeshua was alive and that the Scriptures are true. A few days later I met the young lady again. I told her about my experience. She simply replied, “I told you so.”
Sometime later, Alice told me that she was in love with me. She had never revealed her feelings to me before hearing about my experience and change of heart because she was not willing marry an unbeliever. In April of 1952, Alice “Aaltje” Ekkelenkamp (my new fiancé) and I sailed on a converted liberty ship (former troop carrier) from Amsterdam to New Zealand. Alice and I were married in Auckland on May 19, 1952.
In March of 2015, while on an FFOZ speaking trip to New Zealand, Toby Janicki and I had the opportunity to meet James Van Ameringen. I had heard the story about James Van Ameringen a few years before coming to New Zealand because our Kiwi hostess, Esther Irwin, an FFOZ Friend, told me a little bit about this remarkable Messianic Jewish fellow that she knew.
Through the influence of Messianic Judaism, HaYesod, FFOZ, and our hostess, James has rediscovered the Jewish heritage of his faith. James was, at the time, ninety-three years old, but “his eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). Full of laughter, full of joy, and full of the Spirit, James continued to navigate through life with a contagious sparkle and optimism.
Two days before the Sabbath when Toby and I were to conduct a Shabbaton at the Messianic community where James attends in New Zealand, I scanned over a few pages that he had typed up as a sort of life-memoire several years earlier. James himself had forgotten about these notes, and he did not know that Esther had given me a copy of them. Those same memoires provided the material that I have since excerpted and edited together to form the article above.
As I looked over his life story, I noticed that James had received his bar mitzvah on Parashat Vayikra—the very Sabbath on which Toby and I were to visit him and his community two days hence. Not only that, but that Sabbath was going to be the eightieth anniversary of the day that thirteen-year-old James had stood at the Torah scroll to read the beginning of the book of Leviticus back in 1935. By way of remarkable coincidence, Toby and I were present to point out the significance of the Sabbath to his community and to surprise James on that Sabbath with special honor. His face lit up, and he exclaimed, “How did you know?” James led us in the recitation of the Kiddush at the Sabbath table, and, the next morning, he stood before his congregation, awash with joy, and read aloud from Parashat Vayikra.
— D. Thomas Lancaster
Source: First Fruits of Zion