My daughter, Fenya, is in the 5th grade, and has recently started a Social Studies unit on the Holocaust. Knowing that both of my wife's parents were in Holland during the war, she asked my wife to inquire if Oma or Opa knew anyone who had been taken away during the occupation.
Now, like a lot of people, I have a hard time categorizing my relationship with my father-in-law. Do I tell you we have drastically different ways about experiencing the world and the people in it? Or the fact that the very first words he said to me after being introduced and shaking hands was, "Soft hands"? Despite all that, however, he can be an easy fellow to respect. What he may lack in diplomacy he more than makes up for in honesty and clear language, and is an intelligent and inquisitive man with tremendous memory and insight.
He wrote the following to Fenya, and for a man of few words who does not have a lot of cause to write, he tells an important story about values, and risk, and familial connections to historic events in a way I can only describe as brilliantly succinct, and I wanted to share it with you.
March 27, 2009
You asked your mom whether I knew people of the Jewish religion who were taken by the Germans and died (or were gassed) in a concentration camp in Germany or Poland. I knew an old Jewish couple who came to Mom and Dad’s farm periodically for some food. My Mom knew them very well because they had a small store from where they sold yarn to knit socks, vests, sweaters etc. I picture them as being in their seventies and were marked by a yellow star (the Star of David on their clothing). The Star of David, King of Israel from the Old Testament, and is mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. From about 1942 on until they were rounded up they were to be identified by the Star of David and a curfew was imposed on them; they were not allowed on the street between 9 pm and 7 am by the German occupation in Europe. They knew that they were earmarked for destruction. The man said one time to my Mom, ‘there is no reason for us to ask anybody to hide us, we are old anyway.’
There were several Jewish people in our town who had small businesses from which they eked out a living. Your Great-Uncle Hendrik Torsius and his wife took a Jewish family into hiding for 3 years; a man and his wife and their two teenaged daughters. They lived in an out of the way area at the time. He built a sort of chicken coop and made it appear for anybody’s eyes like a big pile of straw which would be used for bedding for cattle in the wintertime. They lived in very close quarters but survived for 3 years by hiding in this way.
One time the German army came around checking the area farms. Your Great-Uncle asked the soldier who was to check out his place what he was looking for and told him there was nothing to be found; ‘You might as well leave.’ Luckily, he left.
After the war, the family was given the distinction by the nation of Israel as being Righteous Gentiles, and a tree was planted in their honor in Israel.
Your Great-Uncle’s family put their lives on the line to save that family. If that Jewish family would have been found, both families would have been shot dead.
High River, Alberta
Opa and Oma both experienced some terrible things during World War II. Opa barely missed being deported to work in concentration camps like Neuengamme and Birkenau in 1944. Over 600 young men and boys were shipped out, and only 49 returned after the war. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putten) I hope he can be convinced to write about that experience at some point, but I will certainly understand if he doesn't. In fact, this warcrime is so well known, he rarely even identifies himself as being from Putten.
At any rate, I am very grateful to my father-in-law, for connecting my daughter so directly to an act of heroism during a historic tragedy, and for reminding us that we are not so far removed from its effects as we might like to think.