Saving Jewish Lives: What Would YOU Do?

This week marks the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, so I'm updating a post that I wrote last year.

The Scheffer family hid a Jewish couple for two years in their home in a small town in Holland, saving them from certain death. The Scheffers had six children of their own. If caught, the entire family would have been sent to a concentration camp or executed. When I heard this remarkable story, I asked myself: what would I have done?

This is a photograph of the Scheffers with their six children. After the war, the family emigrated to Canada and the eldest son Casey, standing at the right, lived here in my town -- Invermere, British Columbia.

In May 2014, I wrote a column about his family's experiences. A month later, Casey died at the age of 93.

When I interviewed Casey, I asked him what motivated Cornelus and Hendrikje Scheffer to risk their children’s lives. He said his parents, who were members of the Dutch Reformed Church, had a strong Christian belief in helping the persecuted Jewish people.

“My mother said the Jews are the chosen people of God, and if they are blessed and kept safe, then so God will keep us safe also.”

The photo below shows Betje and David Samuel, the couple who owed their existence to the Scheffers. Before reading any farther, I urge you to visit the original post about this amazing story by clicking here: Heroic Family Hid Jews From Nazis.

 

Now I have new information to share, about the award itself and the lasting relationship between the two families.

During the war, the Jewish couple had two young daughters, Nannie and Wiesje, who were also safely hidden by other Dutch families. After the war, they resumed their clothing business in the town of Nijverdal, Holland, and had two more daughters – Ruth and Cobi-Danielle.

I recently made contact with Dr. Ruth Samuel Tenenholtz of Haifa, Israel. Born to the Jewish couple in 1946, she indirectly owes her life to the Scheffers.

In 2007 the Scheffers were awarded the highest honour that Israel can bestow on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. 

The designation “Righteous Among the Nations” is the same award bestowed on Oskar Schindler, made famous by the movie Schindler’s List.

Securing the award was an exhaustive eight-year process undergone by Dr. Tenenholtz and Casey’s younger sister Henny, who lives in Nanton, Alberta.

Dr. Tenenholtz explained to me in an email how it came about.

The story behind the award

“My mother was living in a geriatric facility in Nijverdal, Holland, the village of our origin, and I visited her every year. This was around 1998.

“I remembered Henny Scheffer, the youngest daughter, and asked for her address in Canada. Then I wrote a simple note to say that we had never forgotten what the Scheffers had done for our family, and that now there were close to fifty of us -- the four daughters of our parents, our children and grandchildren -- and that all those people were in the world because of what her parents had done for mine.

“Henny wrote me an enthusiastic letter, and I realized that she might have memories I knew nothing about. We wrote back and forth, sharing what we knew about that period.

“Then I turned to Yad Vashem. They refused recognition for the Scheffers as Righteous Gentiles, because there were no living witnesses, and the Scheffer children and I did not know enough details."

Note: In 1953 the government of Israel established a procedure to honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. They were named Righteous Gentiles. An organization called Yad Vashem, which is the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, meticulously studies documentation, including evidence by survivors and eyewitnesses, to determine if the case meets the criteria. One of the criteria is that the risk must have been taken without any financial reward.

“Yad Vashem asked for proof that the Scheffers had not taken in my parents for profit, which, although I knew this to be a fact, I could not prove.

“However, I remembered that after the war my father had planted trees in a special forest in honor of those who helped him, my mother, and my two older sisters during that terrible time, and I asked Henny if she had any letters left over from my father, or anything else.

“My father had died in 1975, and both her parents died before that, and yet, miraculously, Henny's sister Ina had a package of papers, photos, newspaper clippings -- things my father had sent them over the years, and the Tree Certificate, whose meaning she did not even know! They had saved all that for over fifty years!

Note: Until 1989, trees were planted in Jerusalem in remembrance of the Righteous Gentiles, and each received a Tree Certificate. Then it was determined that there wasn’t enough room to accommodate all the trees – more than 2,000 at that point -- so a memorial wall was created instead.

David Samuel planted the trees for the Scheffers before Yad Vashem was formed in 1953, but this old Tree Certificate provided enough proof to award the Scheffers their designation as Righteous Gentiles.

Here is an image of the tree certificate naming the Scheffers. Around the border is a quote from the psalms: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon.”

Dr. Tenenholtz described the ceremony itself, held in Calgary, Alberta.

Presentation of the award

“Arrangements were made for the Israeli Consul to fly to Calgary and present the award to the surviving Scheffer family members. A week beforehand, he had a ski accident and broke his leg. The Consulate wanted to cancel, but I had tickets and everything was in place. I insisted they send someone else.

“And so I flew to Canada, and in the presence of an Israeli Consul, several Canadian dignitaries, a former Dutch consul to Canada, many members of the Jewish community of Calgary and the media, we had this amazing ceremony.  

“I felt I had completed something for my father, who called the Scheffers ‘Papa and Mama,’ and loved them all the days of his life. He never talked about the war, but about the Scheffers he told us many times.”

More than fifty members of the Scheffer clan attended the Calgary ceremony, including Casey, left, and his wife Toni, right. Between them is Dr. Ruth Samuel Tenenholtz.

Who are the Righteous Among the Nations?

When I went searching for more information, I was shocked to find that more than 25,000 people have been awarded this honour!

Poland has produced more than 6,000 Righteous Gentiles, followed by the Netherlands, with more than 5,000. You can see the complete list of countries by clicking Righteous Among the Nations.

However, Yad Vashem warns people not to draw conclusions about the different countries, because each country’s situation was different. (Although only 525 Germans received the award, just imagine the risks they took!)

And the organization also emphasizes that this number represents only the proven cases. The number doesn’t include, for example, people who helped in a minor role, perhaps by providing food and clothing and false identity papers. Or people who simply knew where the Jews were hiding and kept their mouths shut.

(Dr. Tenenholtz said that after the war, her father met the postman who had seen them the night they entered the Scheffer home, yet never said a word – not even to his wife.)

If you would like to read a few of the stories about these brave Righteous Gentiles, you can see them by clicking: Featured Stories. The first story I read was about an Arab man who saved a Jewish family and was executed by the Nazis. Tragic, but at the same time uplifting to know that there were some people who didn’t just stand back and watch it happen.

And it raised the question: what would I have done?

Would I have been strong enough to stand up for my beliefs? Would I have been clever enough to deceive the Nazis, over and over again, for years?

As a mother, wouldn’t I have put my children’s safety first? Wouldn’t I have chosen to believe the popular fiction that Jews were being relocated to the east?

In the letter of invitation that Ruth sent to Casey, she wrote: “I hope you will come with your family – children and grandchildren, neighbours and friends – because truly this is a day we shall shout from the rooftops! I hope to see you and yours there, so we can look into each other’s eyes and say: “See – we are striking a blow today for the good folks in the universe!

Thank you, Dr. Tenenholtz, for honouring the Scheffers, who were indeed among the good folks of the universe. And thank you for sharing this story with us today.

(A transcript of her moving speech is reprinted at the bottom of this page.)

*****

This is the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a 45-acre complex including the Holocaust Memorial, Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, synagogue, library, art gallery, and other features. It is free to the public and hosts one million visitors a year, second only to the Western Wall in Israel.

This is the Garden of the Righteous Among Nations, where David Samuel planted trees to honour Cornelus and Hendrikje Scheffer.

And this is the Memorial Wall, where all the names of the Righteous Among the Nations have been inscribed.

Dr. Tenenholtz sent me the speech that she gave at the 2007 award ceremony in Calgary. It's long, but I'm reprinting almost the entire speech because it describes not only the risks taken by the Scheffers, but how their sacrifice had a powerful and lasting impact on both families.

Speech by Ruth Tenenholtz at the Award Ceremony

"In a small village in the East of Holland, farmers and small businessmen lived side by side. Each carried out their trade, handed down from father to son, and each was free to live according to his beliefs and precepts. Two families who did not know each other, were born, grew up, raised their children and buried their dead in the village.

"They might have never met, these two families, who on the surface appear to be cut from the same cloth. But one family was Christian, and the other was Jewish, and after 1940 this difference meant the difference between life and death.

"As the noose tightened around the Prins family, their future became darker and darker, while the Scheffer family could have lived its life in a bubble of family business as usual, but it did not.

"Cornelius and Hendrikje Scheffer Flim knew that they could not teach their children according to the scriptures, if they did not set an example. It was justice that would give them life, they believed, as it says in the verse in Deuteronomy -- justice shalt thou follow so thou might live -- and they believed that they could not put their own lives above those of innocent victims.

"Reaching out into the maelstrom that was inexorably taking David and Betje Samuel Prins-Pagrach to a certain death, they extended their hand and lifted them up, rescuing them as surely as a drowning victim is saved by a lifeguard. But this act erased the safety zone for the Scheffers. Now they could no longer expect to live under the occupation and wait simply for the war to end. In taking in my parents, they put themselves in harm's way.

"My father told me that he talked about this terrible risk with Ome Kees --- your father, grandfather, great-grandfather -- and he said that it was not he who was keeping my parents safe, it was exactly the other way around. Safeguarding one of God's people, he said, would keep him and his family safe, and he quoted from the Bible to underscore his words. This was his creed, and he never moved from it.

"You may think that this was an innocent, and even naive way of looking at the world, but I can tell you that religious faith was the moving power behind the Scheffers' every action. They were willing to endanger themselves and their children, knowing that in a world where values were of no meaning, there was no place for any of them and so they did not see the danger in the way so-called normal people might have.

"This was not a time for normal. It was a time for people who were able to transcend beyond the events and look into the future, I believe. I believe that your parents, and you were able to grasp, perhaps beyond words, that you were soldiers no less than those in the hated uniform. And your task was a holy one -- namely, preserving some goodness in the world.

"For two years your family hid my parents in that house, and they were not exactly your average house guests, even in those times. My parents were people who had seen their own parents and siblings dragged away, had been forced to relinquish their own children, and managed to run for their lives when it was almost too late. And yet -- you not only did you take them in, you embraced them and gave them strength to live through the days.

"I know that you all followed the war effort with great intent, and that it was my father's job to listen to the BBC broadcasts, as he knew English. Somehow you survived frequent house-to-house searches. Henny told me that even the younger children stood guard to warn their mother in case German soldiers came down the street. And when the Germans used your trees to hide their trucks, you cut down the trees so as to prevent that.

"The Scheffer family had to keep up a pretense of living with the occupation, but the truth is that the entire family was deeply involved in the resistance. Moreover, neighbors were collaborators and some of the friends that walked into the house were children of such collaborators, but in order to maintain their innocent facade, tante Henk did not forbid her children to bring playmates into the house. Henny wrote that one day my mother was spotted by such a child and an elaborate charade was organized to convince her that she had been mistaken.

"At night, the two families gathered in the central hall of the house where they would sit around the kitchen table and talk.  I know that at very difficult times you'd read psalms and the favorite was the 91st psalm. This psalm, called the Refuge and the Fortress, is also part of the Jewish prayer service. It became the motto of our family after the war, and it is inscribed on my parents' headstone. My father left specific instructions that this was to be done. And so we are forever tied together beyond life.

"I was born in 1946 and yet my memories of the Scheffer house and family are vivid. My two older sisters who returned from their ordeal, also rescued by good and loving Christian families, of course remember your house and family very well, too.

"I asked them to arm me with some of their memories, so I could bring them into this event. The scent and taste of your currant bread has never been paralleled by any other bakery. The kindness of your father is inscribed upon our souls, as is the beauty of your mother -- this is what Nannie writes about.

"Wiesje -- my big sister, and the writer of the family -- writes about the amazing outcome of your heroic deed. She says, quite rightly, that our children and grandchildren are here, thanks to you. Danielle-Cobi, my little sister, was born in 1950, and has no conscious memories of you. There is only the name that did remain part of our household. She writes: 'Scheffer means hero to me. In my view the Scheffers are true heroes, and I am alive because of them.'

"When you all moved to Canada in the fifties, my father was heartbroken. You were the closest thing to family he had left. His own parents and sister were gone, as were my mother's parents, sister and brother. All had been murdered in the camps. This only underscores how close to death they were themselves, and what might have happened if you had not stretched out your arm and rescued their bodies and souls. I mention soul, because in some mysterious way you had contact with the people who were hiding Nannie, and a photo arrived of her in 1944 to show that she was alive and growing.

"In the final winter of the war Holland was bombed, food was scarce, and life became more and more difficult. In the West people actually died of hunger. The Scheffer house, near the railroad tracks, was so close to the bombings that their windows shook and often shattered. While most people around the tracks simply boarded up their windows, Ome Kees replaced the window in the room where my parents lived each time it was broken by the shock wave, until someone pointed out to him that he was a fool: for the village knew that that room "was not in use."

"And again, forced by the circumstances, he boarded up the window, and my parents had to live with the darkness from that moment on. But my father told me that during the bombardments, the people ran for shelter to the church nearby. And of course, they could not go there. And so, Ome Kees stayed with them inside the house. In my eyes, this shows the true nobility of a man who understood the depth of despair my parents must have felt each time the house shook and they were absolutely without protection. I imagine this was a time for psalms. Yet, like the good Lord, their earthly savior spread his wings above them time and time again.

"When the Scheffer family moved to Canada, I was five or six years old. Papa took me to see the storage area where your bags and boxes were waiting to be shipped out. I remember this as though it is today. He cried, holding my hand. It was the end of the world for him. Nannie reminds me that we all took you to the bus, and she thought --  being only 10 years old -- that you were taking that bus all the way to Canada. We cried all that day.

"A year later, we heard that your life here in Alberta was difficult. Papa went crazy with worry. It was cold, the Scheffers were living in their basement, and there was snow. To me this was a graphic picture of a family sinking into a snow bank. I did not understand how awful and cold it all was.

"And my father, who had never missed a day of work because of sickness, and who never closed his store if he could help it, simply dropped everything and left. In the fifties flying was quite a new thing, yet there he was, holding his KLM bag and standing in front of some propeller plane, smiling between Ome Kees and Tante Henk.

"I believe my father stayed in Canada for six weeks, but I am not sure. While he was gone my mother took care of the business, something she never did before that or since. In any case he came back somewhat better informed of your living conditions, and we resumed a connection through letters and packages. And you started visiting back and forth.

"When I was sick in the early sixties and hospitalized for a long time, I received a letter with a real Canadian dollar inside -- from the Scheffers. This shows that papa told you of everything that happened and you cared. But more than that, I never ever spent that money because it had come from you and I simply wanted to save it, like come kind of good-luck charm.

"While my father was alive, it was rare for Jews saved by Gentiles to turn to Yad Vashem for recognition of families such as yours. He did what most Dutch Jews did after the war, he planted a tree in your honor in a forest in Israel and sent you a certificate with a special inscription attesting to the existence of this tree and a note saying how your bravery had saved him and my mother during the "dark days of the German occupation."

"This certificate was the voice from beyond the grave which made it possible for me to get the recognition for your parents. But the fact that you saved this certificate also shows how meaningful this small token had been to you and how highly you valued the connection between our families.

"Do the math and you will see that by saving two souls, you made possible life for 49 souls. This proves the Biblical saying of remembering the deeds of the fathers and visiting the good unto the tenth generation of the tenth generation, for all times, because the good multiplies down the ages.

"I want to say that neither myself nor my younger sister would have been born, and the lives of my older sisters, had our parents not survived, would have been completely altered. You made it possible for them to return home.

"When I look at you today and I see your generations, I simply want to say that in a world which is so often hostile and unwelcoming, filled with evil, a power-hungry struggle for money, and endless killing, you are a light that will not diminish. Your interest in this ceremony today, sponsored by the government of my country, says it all. In a world where so few, so few are willing to stand up and be counted, you are standing straight and tall. I embrace you all, and thank you all.

"And I want to end with another Biblical quote. In the book of Numbers, Chapter 22-24, we hear of Bilaam and Balak. When everyone wanted to curse the Jewish People and look down on their tents and bring down the most horrible fate on them, you did not join the crowd. You shouldered through, and standing in front of the angry throng, you believed in the blessing: "how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel."

"And today – I -- granddaughter of Jacob, who was murdered in Sobibor -- supported by the official recognition of my government -- the government of Israel and the Jewish people, and applauded by the members of the community here in Calgary, I can finally push forward and look at you, dear Scheffer family, and I repeat to the world the Biblical verse as it relates to you:

"How goodly are your tents and your dwelling places, for you made room for Israel when there was none, and are forever included in her."

"May HaShem, the God of us all, keep you, guard you, and shine His countenance upon you. Amen."

                                                           * * * * *

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