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I got lucky; I married a great woman.
We met in Sydney in July 1994, me a recent immigrant from Iraq and a Dutch backpacker, and we decided to get married after 13 days (kids don’t try this at home!). Here we are 28 years and two wonderful kids later. It definitely worked out for us.
Early on, as we were getting to know each other’s stories, she told me that her grandmother hid Jews in her house during the war. Obviously I thought it was a great story, the way that I’ve heard about other stories and filed them in the interesting story folder. It was all very abstract.
Anyway, the last couple of years have made me reflect on the story, as it’s no longer abstract to me.
I FELT the State bearing down on me and my family with its mono-maniacally goal of keeping us and the community safe, at any cost. That included trying to stab us with a genetic toxin, or possibly fining us if we ventured too far from home, or possibly getting on the wrong side of a policeman on a power trip, or getting caught illegally having friends over at our home gym, or being found out using fake papers etc.
All the threats were real, but none of that compares to Nazi’s prowling the streets of Holland looking for Jews hiding among the local population. Relying on local Dutch snitches to lead them to their prey.
So, I’ve been thinking about my wife’s grandmother recently.
My wife’s parents lived here in Australia for a while but as her mother started showing signs of dementia, they made the wise decision to go back to Holland, as she was regressing to her mother tongue. My father-in-law has since passed away and my mother-in-law is in high dependency care with now full blown dementia.
Our kids went to a local Jewish school for a while (as they were accepting non-Jews) and for one of his projects my son decided to find out about his great grandmother. So, he asked his grandmother about her, and thankfully before the dementia kicked in, she wrote the following story. I am so grateful that she did, the story would have disappeared with her mind otherwise.
Her official name was Adriane, but everybody knew her as Jeanne (or as the Dutch would pronounce it, Jaana). Her maiden surname was van der Graaf.
She was recognised by the Israeli State as Righteous Among the Nations and is listed in the Yad Vashem database.
This is the synopsis in the database:
In July 1942, 32-year-old Hartog Rubens of Amsterdam was looking for a hideout for himself, his mother, Klaartje Kan-Polak, and his stepfather, Andries Kan. He found shelter for the three of them with Adriane-Jeanne van Ham, who was separated from her husband at the time. Adriane-Jeanne hid them in her home from July 1942 until May 1945. Hartog testified that she cared for them “lovingly.” From September 1944 until the end of the war, Adriane-Jeanne also hid Paul Hein and his wife, Netty Hein-Jacobs, in her home. On October 17, 1974, Yad Vashem recognized Adriane-Jeanne van Ham-van der Graaf as Righteous Among the Nations.
I only discovered this synopsis recently and well up every time I read it.
In 1942 this single mother of three (with one of them still at home), at the age of 47, took in, over a period of THREE YEARS (!), multiple Jews, under the threat of death if discovered.
The synopsis refers to Paul and Netty. They had a son, Peter, who went on to write about his parents’ experience including their time with Jeanne.
The Dutch summary of the book says:
The hiding of Peter Hein's parents, at twelve addresses, turns out to be one long story of betrayal and escape, wandering, despair, hunger, cold and again betrayal. The author also encountered a hidden issue: his parents were accused of betraying a hiding place, which killed four people.
After the war, Peter Hein's mother only talked about the war, while his father avoided that subject. Hein wanted to get the whole story of his parents clearly out and interviewed them. In The People in Hiding, Hein tells the fascinating story of his parents in hiding and goes in search of the real traitor.
I find this story most relevant to today, and so I’ve decided to share it.
In loving memory of Jeanne van Ham, and in the words of her daughter.
Memories of the Second World War
The Second World War started for me when it was feared our city would be bombed by the Germans. I was 4½ years old at the time, and I remember we hid beneath a sturdy oak table, and I was very frightened by the noise around us from low flying airplanes.
Of course, hiding like that that was not good enough, so our district was ordered to evacuate. We were placed on large open trucks and could take one suitcase and one blanket with us. They brought us to a farm area 50 km further east that was supposed to be safe. The next day the bombardments started there. A lot of confusion followed, I could not find my mother, panicked, and started running around with my small suitcase trying to find her. It took some time; the field around the farm had large bomb craters and dead cows everywhere. My fifteen year old sister found me and together we found our mother. We had to sleep in the empty stables on straw. The next day we returned home to find our area unscathed, and no homes demolished.
I do not remember much more of the first years of the war. All seemed normal, apart from large amounts of German soldiers everywhere. Everything you wanted to buy was restricted and you had to obtain new ration cards for everyone in the family every month. At the corner of our street there was a large café, later on it was billeted for White Russian soldiers who had joined the German army.
Opposite our street was an industrial area where my father, who was a painter and who designed and decorated handmade pottery, had his pottery ovens. He stopped working there after a few years as the Germans wanted all the artists to sign a paper that they all worked for and with the Germans. He and a lot of his colleagues refused to sign it and he started to buy and sell antiques instead. Of course he continued to paint in secret! Later he was awarded a medal from the Dutch artists society “Kunstliefde” in Holland, for refusing to cooperate with the Nazis.
The entrance to the industrial area was a bridge over the ditch opposite our house. There was also a large brick factory on the terrain, and a row of stables for the horses of our milkman, veggie man and other mercenaries. On the other side of the factories was an arm of the river Rhine. All the children of our street used to play there a lot because there were trees, shrubs, and a lot of grass. The company also used the area to dry the bricks they manufactured. Later on most of the space was used by the Germans to house soldiers and we were forbidden to enter, but of course we did that anyway as we considered it our playground!
Most of the German soldiers were quite friendly to us and did not turn us away, even let us play in their motorcars. The White Russians were a different sort, if you annoyed them, they were quite vicious and they could beat you up for nothing if you were not very careful.
A sabotage incident later in the war caused a boat to be blown up in the river behind the terrain where we often played, and a lot of oil was spilled. I can still remember us spending the day trying to scoop up the oil from the ditch. We used it to burn lamps and stoves.
To avoid being picked up to work for the Germans, my brother moved to the southeast of the country, and lived in a cloister. All young men were being picked up to work for them. Less than a year later he was found by the Germans and selected to send to a working camp in Germany. There he had to dig trenches behind the front lines. A lot of the people who did that died. He survived, but was mentally scarred and broken for the rest of his life.
One day in 1942, when my mum went to the big weekly market in Utrecht where you could sometimes buy things without ration card which were also cheaper. One day, she started talking to the owners of a booth with textile fabrics about the ugliness of the war and they asked her if she knew a safe place for her son. They were Jews and their son was a violinist at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. They told us many of his Jewish friends had already been rounded up by the Germans and taken to camps in Germany. In the end my mother decided her son Harry could live with us and she would hide him from the Germans. A few weeks later Harry asked her to go and look at his parent’s house and get some more things for him. She took the train to Amsterdam, with her neighbour who knew that she was hiding Harry. His parents were very frightened because lots of their friends and family had already been deported, they begged her to take them also, and they said they could pay for their food. My mother took them home by train, she travelled with the neighbour, but for safety reasons they travelled apart. The next week she went back to Amsterdam to get more of their belongings, only to find the house locked up and sealed by the Germans. She was very brave, took a risk and broke the seals to get the most important things out.
Now, we had three Jews living in our house. They were very nice people, but the son got restless sometimes because he missed his music so much and he could hardly play in our house. When the evenings were dark without a bright moon, my mother took them for a walk outside for 10 to 30 minutes, but the rest of the time they had to stay inside, which was very stressful for them.
Later we could not do that, because the Germans and the Police inspected everyone’s passes. The Jews had to wear bright yellow stars on all their clothing so they could be recognized, but of course our guests did not do that. Later there was also evening curfew so nobody could get out at night.
From time to time Harry’s parents had a row, just out of frustration. Harry’s mother said she would rather go to the Police and go to work in Germany than being cooped up for so long. My mother put on the radio with very loud classical music when this happened, because there was almost always a German soldier leaning against our front garden gate. He was there to guard the entrance against intruders to the terrain opposite us, that was now occupied by lots of German soldiers. It was dangerous for all if he heard anything from us, because if the Germans had discovered we were hiding people, we would all have been deported. Eventually, everybody calmed down again.
In order to feed her now doubled family, my mother had to get ration cards for them from the illegal Underground Resistance. She managed very well but had to go to two shops for milk, meat, and groceries because she could not shop for six people when they knew officially there were only three in the house. I remember you had to wait endlessly in the shops which were full of customers and as she had to do all shops twice it was a really hard job for her. Especially, because she had a full time job at school.
One day there were apples for sale at a building yard and there was a 1½ kilometre long row of people to get them. Mother was in the row, but I was naughty and crept in twice and went past all the people in front of us. Because I was very small at that time, everybody thought I was looking for my mother. Instead I bought apples twice!
We had made an escape hatch beneath the floor of our living room; put some old carpets on the sand, candles, and a torch. On our floor we put a carpet and a small table that could easily be removed in time of danger. When I came home after school, I opened the letter box (in the front door) and called out, “Mum, it’s Hetty, are you home?” That was the sign that I was alone, and our guests could open the door for me. When I had a friend with me, I said” Hetty and Willy are here, are you home Mum“? They would remain quiet – and we would go to the other girl’s house to play. It worked perfectly!
Through our contacts with the Resistance we were contacted one day to ask if we could help out and have another Jewish couple, because they had nowhere to go as their previous house had been raided. My mum agreed; the other Jews were against it because they were afraid it was too much.
By that time my sister had moved out, so we had a spare room. My sister Mia lived now in a town 20 km away with a girlfriend, she had a job there at the Railways. After one week, someone from the Resistance contacted us again because they had found a new home for the couple. They were reluctant to go because they liked it with us, and we liked them very much as well. They were such lovely people I feel I can cry even now that I write this, because they were picked up at their new address within a few days of arriving. Someone had betrayed them.
After the war their niece turned up and told us they were killed in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. We still had some of their belongings, and we gave them to her.
One day, when my mum and I were walking in Utrecht we were stopped by a German car with officers who wanted to know where “Stadtschenken” was. That was a bar frequented by all important Germans all the time. My mum pointed them in the opposite direction, and we hurried away to a far away bus stop because they would be furies when they found out we had misdirected them.
One time was really bad for my mother. She went to Utrecht to an address to get new ration cards from the Resistance for the Jews in our house. The door was opened by a German officer, and she was instructed to come in and tell him what she was doing there. It appeared that over two hundred people a day were calling at this house! It was no wonder the Germans had found out it was a Resistance residence. Mother told them that one of her maids who lived there had borrowed a playpen from her and as her niece had twins now, she wanted it back. Fortunately for her, a playpen was found on the top flour that seemed to confirm her story. She heard later it was there for a Jewish couple and their young son. Her story was pure fantasy, of course, as my mother had no idea if there was a playpen when she invented that story! My mother kept repeating her story in her head all the time they kept her there. The Germans took her to the Police station and put her in a cell with twenty others.
She had to stay there for 3 days while they kept interrogating her. The first night she asked a Dutch Policeman to inform the Police station in her district and to ask her neighbour if he could look after me as I was only eight years old at the time.
He did so, and our neighbour made arrangements for the Jews to go into hiding with someone else. We feared our house would be raided by the Germans too.
Because so many people were involved calling, that did not happen, and my mum returned home the fourth day. When nothing had occurred six weeks after the event, it was then thought it was safe so they could return to our home.
My sister came back to live with us because of the Great Railway Strike. The Dutch employees refused to let the trains go to and from Germany any more. The Germans tried to find the people on strike, but as she officially lived in Amersfoort, they did not look at our home in Utrecht.
In the beginning of 1944 there was another Jewish couple, originally from Germany, in need of a place and we had them with us till the end of the war. I was still very young and had to sleep in their room because we did not have enough room in my mother’s bedroom as my sister now also lived with us.
These people had a 5 year old son who lived with Catholic people as their temporarily adopted son during the rest of the war. The parents had a hard time because they could not see him all this time.
Another bloodcurdling event happened later on. The entire district was cordoned off and in every street the houses were searched by Germans. Our lot was under the floor, but if we had been searched, they would have found them for by now they knew all the tricks, and of course their presence upstairs must have left traces. They stopped for lunch after searching our neighbour’s house on the right. We were bundles of nerves, but a miracle happened: they resumed the search at our other neighbour’s house on the left and did not search our house! We were so relieved, we all started crying.
From one of our friends, a GP, mother borrowed a sign saying we had “Scarlet Fever, Contagious Disease” and this decorated our window for many weeks. The Germans were very afraid of this as it happened in a time were antibiotics were yet unknown!
In 1944 the schools were closed, and the food situation became very bad.
The shops had not enough food for all their customers, and you could only get a tiny bit each time if any food at all. Many people ate flower bulbs and sugar beets grated and cooked, they tasted awful.
One day my mother came home from school and was met with disquiet because everyone who passed our house stopped and looked at it with interest, what had happened? Mother went downstairs to investigate and burst out laughing. Her beautiful Red Amaryllus bulb was flowering at a time when you could no longer buy any flowers in the shops!
There was no longer gas or electricity available to cook and we had to do with a mineral oil slow stove or a small woodstove we had made ourselves. We cooked bread in an old upright tin in a pan of water and it tasted wonderful.
Because there was so little food available my mother decided to go on her bicycle with panniers to the north of the country in search of food. There was more food on the farms than in the cities. Mother always had a large supply of clothes, linen and bed linen and she took some new things with her to trade for food. She made trips of 150 km. to the north and asked the farmers if they wanted to trade food for fine lady’s underwear and linen. She slept in barns and only one time was allowed a bed on a farm.
She returned with half a goat, butter, potatoes, wheat, and lard. It was a hard trip and she had to avoid the German control points, as they would confiscate the food. She made five more trips in the next months, on a bicycle with wooden tires, which is very hard to ride! On the last trip I went with her. Harry, our first Jew, had a fiancé in the north who lived there as a housekeeper. She did not look very Jewish because she had red hair and she had false papers. The people she lived with agreed to keep me there till the end of the war. In November 1944 my mum took me there on her old bicycle.
This family owned a coach building firm. They had three young boys and I had to go to school with them. I had always been to a modern Montessori school, but this was a very strict Christian school and I had to read the bible at school with all the fascinating stories to be able to answer their questions about it.
We were freed in April 1945, but the middle of the country was still occupied. My brother came home from Germany in June 1945, and he decided to come and try to get me and bring me home. To the horror of the people I lived with I had picked up head lice from the two girls living next door, who had beautiful long curls. My mother was freed on 5 May 1945. Shortly after that, she started school again and was supplied with ingredients to treat all children’s heads at school for lice, also mine at home and I got soon rid of the tiny critters.
Mum told me the people in our street could not believe their eyes when they saw five Jews coming out of our house when the war ended. They had never suspected anything. It was a great accomplishment for my mother! She was later rewarded for saving lives and decorated by the Jewish Foreign Minister Yigal Allon. “Our” Jews planted trees for her in Israel.
Our first family of Jews had twenty seven more children and grandchildren. They all perished in the concentration camps. They became very depressed when that was found out.
Their son Harry married his fiancé and had two sons. Four years ago we visited Harry, and he was still in good health.
Two sisters of his fiancé were couriers for the Resistance. One was captured and shot by the Germans during the war but the other survived.
The second family was reunited with their son, but it took them all a long time to recover from the loss of most of their family and friends.
Jeanne, rest in peace.
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