February 13, 2012

Righteous among the nations

More than a year ago, my friend M began the process of obtaining recognition as Righteous Among the Nations for the family who hid his father during the Holocaust. This designation requires careful investigation by Yad Vashem, the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust.

As we move beyond years and into decades after the Holocaust, fewer survivors and their rescuers remain with us. It grows more difficult to provide the eyewitness testimony and evidence necessary to receive this designation.

Click here to read a link to the JT News story about M's father and his rescuers.

And here is the story, as M told it to me:

In 2010, our family returned to Friesland to meet and see where my father had been hidden in the war. We met the descendants of the farmer, and, for me, our meetings were transformative. We had come to give thanks, yet we were welcomed back like long-lost relatives. We visited the actual farm…long since sold and no longer in the family, but were graciously allowed to see the "hiding place". My father had spent 18 months here, simply becoming one of the children, his presence never divulged by those that knew he was there. At one point, I asked one of the grandchildren why she thought her grandfather had done this? The question, I could see, puzzled her. She even turned to her sister-in-law, and even though I cannot understand Friesian, I could see that clearly they had never thought about it. Finally, she turned to me, and said, "Well…it was just the right thing to do". As we left Friesland, which will never be the same to me, I could not forget the welcome we had received nor the motivation for my Father's rescue. I had learnt much about the Netherlands and their not so stellar performance in the war wrt it's Jewish population. So, even though it might have seemed to be "well…just the right thing to do", it was clearly much more than that. I was determined to do something that would recognize that. 
My father had fled Amsterdam for Friesland in late summer 1943. The underground had brought him to a farm near Leeuwaarden. The leader of the underground subsequently betrayed them (who was later executed by the same underground). As can only happen in stories like these, a couple of farmhands rushed to the farmhouse in the early morning and warned them minutes before the SS arrived. My Dad escaped into a field, as a dense fog settled over the area to envelope him and another Jewish fellow, who had also just escaped and now had somehow found each other there. Alone, hunted and scared, another Friesian farmer found them. He directed them to a barn and for the next 6 weeks arranged food to be brought daily. Soon, too many people knew about the "boys in the barn" and they were told to say they were leaving the area. He took them about 10 km away, then after a week or so, returned them to the farmer we visited, my father's friend to another farmer nearby. The ruse, in my father's case, was spectacularly successful, and he spent the next 18 months on the farm, called the "Heskampen". 
For 8 months after we returned from our family trip, I worked to present a coherent application to Yad Vashem, asking for recognition of these farmers. I quickly learned that this honor is not given lightly. There are distinct disqualifiers, such as payment for the rescue, ulterior motivation ( eg adoption of children, conversion ) and qualifiers (the rescuer needed to take full responsibility for the welfare of the rescued, or the rescued person needed to be Jewish and the rescuers needed to know that…not that obvious in Friesland as many who were hidden were not Jewish). It was obvious to me that my father's rescuers at the Heskampen met all those criteria. I just had to prove it to an independent committee at Yad Vashem. From the very beginning the "Heskampen" family bought into the idea of their grandfather being honored, and soon I had what I considered a good presentation. We went through all the disqualifiers. Money? I would ask my Dad. Yes…he said. My heart sank. The farmer, he explained, had given him 100 guilders at the end of the war to help him restart his life. Clearly not what I intended to find out, but a welcome and surprising answer in any case. My father had also wanted the first farmer, the one who had found them in the field, that "Black Thursday", as October 21, 1943 came to be known, honored. It so happened that that farmer had a "daughter", whom my Dad would see from time to time. As you can guess, that "daughter" turned out to be a young Jewish girl that too was successfully rescued. As I felt that applying for the first farmer solely based on what he had done in organizing those first 6 weeks after the raid might not qualify him for recognition, I sent in an application which applied on behalf of the first farmer based both on what he had done for my father, as well as the rescue of the little girl. This, strangely enough, turned out to be a much bigger challenge, but soon both applications were submitted to Yad Vashem.
Last Thursday, I was able to send this email to all the families. 
Justice can have a memory. 
Sixty-six years ago, Dad accepted 100 guilders and started his journey back to Amsterdam. As he left the Heskampen, he might have walked past a young girl who too would soon begin her own journey back home. Both had survived one of the most heinous acts in our long history of adversity and triumph. Neither could have done it alone. Both were helped by many people. A few in particular stand out, who, even though they may not have recognized it at the time, were Righteous Among the Nations. 
Today I am so proud to be able to tell you that the State of Israel and Yad Vashem in particular have recognized that. Accordingly, from this time onward, the R and D families can tell anyone who asks, that their parents or grandparents now occupy a special place in the history of the Jewish people. 
Indeed, justice does have a memory!




3 comments:

  1. I love this. What a beautiful way to start my morning. God was surely at work in the hearts of these farmers, in the town, as well as in the heart of J's father, since he apparently was able not only to trust, but to open his heart to them all in such a way that it caused them to love him like their own son. In the heart of the ugliness, there was love.

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  2. Joyce Loveless9:03 AM

    Thank you for posting this story. Ditto what Debby said above!

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  3. so miraculously beautiful. Things such as this give me hope. Thank you for blessing us with this history of your friends family.

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