Simon Sleutelberg’s 100th birthday was a real celebration of his life and the lasting impact he has had.
My extended family gathered at my and Robert’s home to celebrate my dad Simon Sleutelberg’s 100th birthday. Throughout my life, my dad would remember and mention every relative’s birthday. He would say: “Today would have been Opa’s 93rd birthday,” or “Today would have been Oma’s 109th birthday.”
Though he died 15 years ago, we gathered on his 100th birthday on Nov. 23 to eat his favorite foods, reminisce about his life, tell stories and watch two videos, one recorded by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation project in which Dad shared his life story, including his escape to America. The other video was filmed during our 1995 three-generation family trip to the Netherlands, where Dad shared what his life was like in Appingedam.
He stood in front of what had been his kosher meat market and talked about what it was like growing up in a small Dutch town. We went in what was the synagogue (now an event space) in which he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1932. From the women’s balcony, his grandchildren, Ariel and Hannah (then 8 and 3), sang songs and blessings Ariel learned at Hillel Day School. We went to the Jewish cemetery where he talked about our relatives who were buried there as well as the dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins and his grandparents who were murdered by the Nazis. We stood on the bridge from which, as a teenager, he painted a canal scene which hung in our home in Hudson and now graces our Lake Orion home.
Having escaped the Netherlands on the last ship out of Rotterdam Harbor, Dad arrived in New York with his parents and younger brother. They made their way to Michigan where they had a distant relative. He and his parents started Meyer’s Department Store in Hudson, a town with no other Jews, where they hid their religious identity in case Hitler’s decrees ever made their way to these shores. After the war they learned of the murder of nearly all their relatives.
Dad was set up as a pen pal with a hidden child survivor, Edith Hes, who still lived in the Netherlands. They married in 1954 and started a family in Hudson. Over the years, my parents felt more comfortable disclosing our Jewish heritage and became proud to represent the Jewish world in this small rural town. They joined the synagogue in Jackson, Michigan, where our whole family became pillars of the congregation, each in our own way.
My sister Ester became the first dentist to have graduated from Hudson High School, and I became the first rabbi to have done so.
On the occasion of Dad’s 100th birthday, the Hudson Post-Gazette newspaper published a front-page op-ed that stated: “Simon and Edith Sleutelberg were kind, thoughtful and giving people. Simon — and the rest of the Sleutelberg family — taught us a lot. In a gentle, unassuming way, Simon and his family exemplified respect for the community they became a part of, and the community returned that respect. The Sleutelbergs reminded us, by their mere presence here, that differences make us strong. The integrity with which they lived their lives is a shining example for all of us.”
Dad’s 100th birthday was a real celebration of his life and the lasting impact he has had on each of us. We look forward to my mom’s 100th in 2027.
Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg served as spiritual leader at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy for 28 years.