Mark-Paul Gosselaar's Great Grandparents Were Murdered at the Sobibór Nazi Death Camp
Updated: Jun 12
Mark-Paul Gosselaar—the actor who played Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell—in real-life has a family tree with a sad past tied to the Holocaust.
As Saved by the Bell turned 30 years old this week, I thought I'd take a look at the family trees of some of the actors, starting with none other than Zack Morris. Many remember Mark-Paul Gosselaar best as the character Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell, the iconic television show from the 1990s.
In addition to his stellar success in Saved by the Bell, Gosselaar has also had prominent roles in Franklin & Bash, Raising the Bar, Commander in Chief, CSI, Nobodies, NYPD Blue, and currently, the television show Mixedish.
Descended from Over 300 Years of Dutch Jewry
Gosselaar's unmistakable Dutch surname pointed me to the Netherlands (sometimes called Holland). I was able to trace Gosselaar's patriarchal line going back 314 years to his 5th great grandfather, Nathan Jacob Gosselaar, who was born in 1705 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Nathan Gosselaar was married to Blommetje Machial, who was born in Amsterdam in 1719.
When the Netherlands became its own independent country in the late 1500s, religious tolerance became an important part of the constitution of the new country, which brought about the return of Protestants and Jews seeking religious freedom. This attracted Mark-Paul Gosselaar's Jewish ancestors to the Netherlands, where they flourished for many generations.
In the 1700s, the Gosselaar family was living in Amsterdam, and over the generations migrated to Rotterdam, and eventually settled in The Hague.
Mark-Paul's Great Grandparents
Mark-Paul's great grandfather, Hartog "Herman" Gosselaar, was born in The Hague on 28 June 1875 to Nathan Gosselaar and Vrouwtje Hijman de Jong. Hartog married Hester van Emden, who was born 2 March 1878, also in The Hague.
In the 1940s, Hartog and Hester Gosselaar were among the roughly 116,000 Dutch Jews in the Netherlands. An additional 24,000 German Jews had fled to the Netherlands to escape Nazi persecution in Germany.
On 10 May 1940, the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany under the orders of Adolf Hitler, placing some 140,000 Jews within the Netherlands in danger. Rotterdam was heavily bombed by the Nazis, forcing the Dutch forces to surrender.
The Gosselaars Under Nazi Occupation
The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands must have brought a great deal of fear to Hartog and Hester Gosselaar. The civil registration records in the Netherlands identified the faith of Dutch citizens, and the Nazis used these records to identify Jews.
In 1941, Hartog and Hester Gosselaar, along with all other Jews, were barred from public places such as public transit, parks, theaters, swimming pools, libraries, museums, and more. Jews were also removed from public schools and universities.
The Gosselaars were also forced to wear Star of David badges with the word "Jood" on it, Dutch for "Jew." The Gosselaars were forced to declare their Jewish roots to authorities, and had a large "J" stamped on identification cards they had to carry with them at all times. This made it easy to identify, persecute, and prevent Jews from leaving the country.
The Nazis Viewed the Gosselaars as 'Inferior'
The Nazis viewed all Jews like the Gosselaars as enemies of the Nazi state, regardless of their religion, physical appearance, or political beliefs. Not only were they viewed as enemies of the state, but they were viewed as "inferior," or "subhuman" to the Aryan race (Caucasians of Germanic and Nordic descent). The Nazis spread fear and hate toward the Jews through hateful words, speech, and false propaganda.
Eventually, the Nazis came up with their "final solution," which was to rid Europe of Jews by extermination (i.e., mass murder). Special killing centers or "death camps" were built in Nazi-occupied Poland solely for the purpose of mass-murdering the Jews, who would be brought in from all over Europe by railroad.
The Gosselaars are Deported from the Netherlands
In 1942, the Nazis began the deportation of Jews from of the Netherlands. Deportation notices were sent out to Jews, telling them that they were being taken to labor camps or to be resettled in the east. Of course it was all a lie, and the Jews had no idea of the secret killing centers that awaited them. Anne Frank's sister Margot received a deportation notice during this time, which prompted the Franks to go into hiding in Amsterdam.
Beginning in August 1942, the Nazis, with the Dutch police battalion at their command, began rounding up Jews for deportation. In the beginning, German and Dutch Jews in the Netherlands were sent to Auschwitz, but by 1943 nearly all Jews from the Netherlands were taken by rail to the killing center at Sobibór, in Nazi-occupied Poland.
By the time the Gosselaars were placed on a train to the east, the pace of extermination was ramped up, so Hartog and Hester were placed in a cattle car train, where they were likely forced to stand most of the journey in cramped conditions with little to no food and water.
The Gosselaars Arrive at the Sobibór
Hartog and Hester Gosselaar arrived at Sobibór on 9 April 1943. This would be their final day on earth. We know what their experience was like because the system of mass murder at the Sobibór killing center was highly organized and carried out in much the same manner for all arriving Jews.
When the Gosselaars' train arrived at Sobibór, they were ordered to disembark with their belongings. Platform workers assisted the Gosselaars in carrying their luggage to a nearby barrack where they were given claim tickets to retrieve their luggage at a later time. This, of course, was a lie.
The Gosselaars were then led to a writing table where paper, pencils, and postcards were provided. Here they were encouraged to write letters to family and friends back in the Netherlands, informing them that they had arrived at Włodawa in Poland, and that the recipients could send them return correspondence there. This of course was part of the Nazi ruse to fool the friends and family of Jews back home that they were safe and resettled.
Next the Gosselaars and the rest of their transport were led to a yard with an overhanging roof, where a Nazi SS official, in a calm and convincing voice, welcomed them and apologized for the inconvenience and difficulty of the trip. The official then explained to the Gosselaars that, due to strict sanitary conditions to prevent outbreaks of disease, they must shower and be disinfected. Afterwards, he promised, they would be settled and be able to work, get paid, and live with their families until the war was won.
Meanwhile, as the Nazi SS official was giving his soothing speech, camp workers had already set about going through the Gosselaar's luggage, sorting and stealing their valuables and possessions to be sent back to Nazi Germany, if they weren't taken by the Sobibór guards themselves.
At the conclusion of the fake welcome speech, Hartog Gosselaar was made to say goodbye to his wife Hester, as she was ushered away with the other women to go "shower."
Hester was led with the other women and children down a narrow alley lined with pine trees toward a barrack. Inside the barrack, Hester was ordered to remove her clothes to prepare for the showers, and her hair was quickly cut off. She was likely told it was to prevent the spread of lice, but in reality, her hair would be sold to factories to make any number of items such as socks, felt stockings, ropes, cords, stuffing for mattresses, or ignition mechanisms for bombs.
With her head shorn and naked with the other women and children, Hester was led into a gas chamber disguised to look like communal showers. Hester was brutally packed into the chamber with the other women and children. After the guards closed and locked the doors behind them, a tank engine was switched on, which piped carbon monoxide exhaust into the gas chamber. As described by Sobibór survivor Thomas Blatt:
"Soon a horrifying mass scream could be heard. At first it was very loud and spontaneous. About five minutes later it gradually subsided until finally a contrasting silence took over."
Next the men were brought to the gas chambers and Hartog Gosselaar was packed into the chamber with the men, and the process of murder by gassing was repeated until the male victims fell silent.
The bodies of the Gosselaars were removed from the gas chamber and a final search of their person was conducted for any hidden valuables or gold teeth. Then their bodies were burned on an outdoor crematorium pyre where their remains were reduced to ashes.
Within about an hour or less of their arrival at Sobibór, all that remained of Hartog and Hester Gosselaar were their ashes. The horror of the crime is unspeakable.
In just the space of a few years, the Nazis murdered over 250,000 men, women, and children at Sobibór. So great was the loss of life on the site that the ash and bone fragments of the victims still rise to the surface each spring during the thaw.
As shown in the image below, buried under and intermixed with the stone and sand lay the remains of more than 250,000 victims. All of those lives, all of those stories, all of their potential descendants—that all ended here.
These inexcusable crimes against humanity began with hateful ideas. Then hateful words. Then hateful propaganda. Followed by laws and policies that led to mass murder. So we must watch ourselves.
"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
— George Santayana
The final act the Nazis performed at Sobibór against the Gosselaars was to burn all of the documents and photos they had brought with them, in an attempt to erase any evidence that they ever existed. But the Nazis did not fully succeed in erasing them.
We will not forget Hartog and Hester Gosselaar.
We will remember their story and their lives. We will also celebrate the legacy they left for the world in their great grandson, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, his family, and his children.
About the Author
As a genealogist and family historian, I enjoy researching my own family tree, and the family trees of others. It gives me a sense of someone’s background and what makes them who they are today. To see their roots, and where they come from, is inspiring to me. I’m often in awe of the experiences of their ancestors and how they connect to the present. I hope to inspire others to research their own family trees and find out where they come from by sharing interesting insights from the family trees of notable figures.
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