Heroic Family Hid Jews From Nazis

A Jewish couple spent two terrifying years hiding inside the Scheffer household, in a small town in Holland. Casey Scheffer, who moved to Canada after the war, told me how his courageous family pulled it off without being caught and executed by the Nazis.

Note: I updated this story in January 2015, with new information from the Jewish couple's daughter Ruth Tenenholtz. After you have read this post, visit: Saving Jewish Lives: what would you do?

(Update: This was posted on May 7, 2014 -- and on June 20, 2014, Casey Scheffer passed away peacefully at the age of 93.)

This week marks the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Holland by the Canadian Armed Forces, so it’s an appropriate time to remember the courage shown by one Dutch family, who risked their own lives to save two Jews from certain death.

The Scheffers emigrated to Canada after the war and Casey lives here in Invermere, British Columbia. I was fortunate enough to interview him a few years ago about his family’s experiences during the war.

Casey was nineteen years old when the Germans occupied Holland in 1940. He was the eldest son of six children – three boys and three girls. Here’s a photo of this handsome family, Casey standing on the right in the back row.

The Scheffers lived in the town of Nijverdal, where his parents operated the local bakery out of their spacious brick home. Along with the eight members of the immediate family, three unmarried aunts also lived in the house.

It's a charming town, about fifty kilometres from the German border. Here’s an aerial photograph of the countryside around Nijverdal today.

Imagine the horror felt by the Dutch people when the Nazis marched into the Netherlands, into every city and village, including peaceful little Nijverdal. Here’s a chilling photo of Nazi soldiers in a Dutch town, escorting a contingent of Jewish prisoners.

Deportation of Jews begins

“At first the Germans didn’t bother us too much, and life went on as before,” Casey told me. “But in 1942 they started rounding up Jewish people around the country and sending them away on the train. We knew about it, because we listed to the BBC on our secret radio.”

It was a terrible scenario that was being repeated all over Europe. Here’s a photo of Jews boarding a train, carrying all their worldly possessions, without an inkling of the fate that was in store for them.

Then one day in May 1943, the dreaded order finally came: all Jews in Nijverdal had to be ready to leave the following Saturday morning.

Only eleven Jewish families lived in Nijverdal. One couple, David Samuel and his wife Betje Pagrach, owned a clothing store and had two little girls.

They were initially taken in by the minister of the church the Scheffers attended, in the street where they lived, but at some point they could not stay there, and the minister asked the Scheffers for help.

They were supposed to keep the Jewish couple for only a few days – until the coast was clear again. However, Mrs. Samuel collapsed and could not face another move, and so the Scheffers let them stay.

Although the Scheffers knew what this would mean if they were caught – death for themselves and their children -- they didn’t hesitate.

What motivated Cornelus and Hendrikje Scheffer to risk their children’s lives?

Casey 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.”

Two other Dutch families volunteered to assist. They each took one of the little Samuel girls, while the Scheffers agreed to hide the parents.

The other ten Jewish families in Nijverdal were loaded onto the train and never seen again.

This is an old photograph of the train station in Nijverdal where the Jews left their home for the last time.

David and Betje Samuel go into hiding

The Samuel couple were picked up by Casey Scheffer on his bicycle and smuggled to the Scheffer house.

This was a long, low, sixteen-room house made of brick with a tile roof, similar to all the other houses on the pleasant, tree-lined street. The bakery was attached to the house.

The couple was given two rooms at the front of the house. Their windows overlooked the street, but these were concealed by two large oak trees. The huge overhanging branches prevented anyone from seeing inside.

I don’t have a photo of the house, but this present-day photograph of a Dutch village shows the trees that keep the homes fairly private from passers-by.

Incredibly, David and Betje Samuel stayed in their rooms for two entire years, until the war ended.

Casey explained: “My mother told everybody that she had too much housework, so she locked those rooms, and everyone believed they were empty.”

Friends, neighbours and even the three youngest Scheffer children did not know there were Jews hiding in the house.

“My parents were too worried the youngest children might say something. If the Jews had been found, that would have been the end of all of us, the children, everybody.”

The young couple never left their rooms, except to sneak into the Scheffer living room for a visit at night after the youngest children were asleep in bed.

Here is a photograph of the young couple. The reason Betje is smiling is because the photo was taken after the war, when the terrible strain of hiding has finally ended, and they know their daughters are also safe.

Nazis search the home twice

But there were a few close calls, Casey said. “Twice the Germans came and searched the house, but my father always laughed and spoke in a loud voice so the couple would hear and go into their hiding place.”

Mr. Scheffer would first take the Germans into the loft to search, giving the couple enough time to conceal themselves behind a secret panel in the wall, covered with the same wallpaper as the rest of the room. There were a number of rooms in the house with hollow walls, so ample places to hide.

Also, whenever there was a forewarning of danger at the Scheffer home, the couple would return to the church across the street, at the corner, assisted by a ten-year-old child, the son of the verger.

The couple did not see or communicate with their two daughters during the entire time they lived with the Scheffers.

“They didn’t even know where their daughters were. We told them the girls were safe, but it was better if they didn’t know their location.” That way, if either the parents or the girls were captured, they could not be forced to reveal where the others were hiding.

Casey was in hiding, too

The Scheffers didn’t only save Jewish lives. In fact, their house was a haven for refugees during the war, including Casey himself.

In 1942 the Germans began to recruit young Dutch men into their armed forces. Although some of Casey’s friends were forced into service, he spent the rest of the war hiding in his own house!

Casey had a special trap door under his bed that led to a closet, where he hid when the Germans showed up. Because his parents never registered Casey to receive food ration coupons, the Germans were unaware of his existence. During the darkest hours of night, Casey helped his father in the bakery.

And he also joined the Dutch Resistance.

“My parents knew I belonged to the Resistance, but I never told them all the things I got up to,” Casey laughed. A twinkle came into his eye as he recalled how he and his friends used to set fires and even managed to blow up a tunnel used by the Germans.

‘Really, we had fun,” he said. “We were young, we were never scared, we just despised the Germans and wanted to stop them as much as we could.”

Scheffers help Allied airmen escape

At that time the air war was raging overhead, and many aircraft were being shot down over Holland. If the airmen survived, they were sometimes lucky enough to be picked up by members of the Dutch Resistance.

"When I went bicycling in the countryside, delivering bread in my basket, I always wore two sets of clothing. That way if I came across an airman whose plane had been shot down, I would take off his uniform and bury it along with the parachute, then give him the extra set of clothes and take him to my house," Casey explained.

Casey personally rescued downed airmen on four separate occasions. Most of them passed quickly through the Scheffer household on their way back to England, smuggled from house to house and then onto a boat that would ferry them across the English channel after dark.

But Casey recalls that one of them, a young American named John Zolner, spent a long time living with the Scheffers and even helped out in the bakery at night, before he could finally be smuggled away.

Then there was the young German-born Dutchman who was conscripted into the German army, but he deserted and made his way to Nijverdal where he was hidden by the Scheffers.

And if the house wasn’t full enough, the Scheffers also took in a Dutch teacher who was a fugitive from the Germans, for reasons that he refused to explain.

“For two years we played bridge every day – the German, the teacher, my Dad and me,” Casey said.

It seems incredible that so many people could have hidden in the house, yet Casey believes they got away with it because the house also functioned as a bakery, with customers coming and going all day.

The Samuels lend a hand

The Scheffers tried to find tasks for David and Betje Samuel, who must have been terribly restless, but that almost got them into trouble.

“It was David’s job to stick all the food coupons that people had turned into the bakery into a coupon book, but he did it so carefully that someone got suspicious and asked: ‘How do you have time to make your coupon book look so neat?’ After that, he had to do it less carefully.”

And it was Betje’s job to unravel old sweaters and knit them into new sweaters for the children. One day a neighbour asked Mrs. Scheffer how she found the time to knit all those sweaters! She quickly replied that the three maiden aunts in the house did all the knitting.

Liberation at last!

During the final year of the war, food supplies dwindled and people were starving. Fortunately the Scheffers were able to feed themselves and their hidden guests, thanks to the bakery. Their property was large enough for a huge vegetable garden, and they killed scores of rabbits in the surrounding countryside.

Casey remembers the day that war finally ended. “People were singing and dancing in the streets, and the Canadians were rolling into town in their trucks.” It was the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division that liberated Nijverdal after fierce fighting, earning them a special place in Dutch hearts to this day.

You can see the joy on the faces of both the Dutch civilians, and the infantrymen of the West Nova Scotia Regiment, in this photograph taken on May 9, 1945. (Photo Credit: Barry Gilroy; Library and Archives Canada).

The Samuel family finally reunited

Casey said it was another three or four days before David and Betje could be coaxed from their hiding place. They had lived in fear for such a long time that they wanted to be absolutely sure the Germans weren’t coming back. When they finally emerged, they were reunited with their little girls, whom they hadn’t seen for two years.

And the people of Nijverdal helped them make a fresh start. The family returned to their old home. The Canadians gave them some surplus army clothing and blankets to sell, and that is how they reopened the clothing business.

The four members of the Samuel family were the only Jews from Nijverdal who survived. The other ten families all died in Nazi concentration camps.

(A total 107,000 Jews were deported from Holland to the extermination camps. Only 5,000 of them returned after the war. More than 75 percent of Dutch Jews perished.)

Scheffers move to Canada

The connection between the Scheffers and the Samuels didn’t end there.

In 1951, Casey announced his intention to emigrate to Canada. His father was so distraught at the idea of the family being separated that he decided that everyone should go with Casey. “My father said: ‘I can’t miss you so much!’”

The two parents and all six children, now adults, spent the first year working on a sugar beet farm near Lethbridge, Alberta.

The following year, David Samuel flew from Nijverdal to Canada to visit them.

“He heard it was really cold in Canada, and he just wanted to make sure we were all right!”

He also sent money to the Scheffers from the sale of their bakery in Holland, money that they weren’t allowed to take out of Holland when they left.

The following year Casey moved to Kimberley, British Columbia and worked in a bakery. There he married another Dutch immigrant, a beautiful girl named Toni.

The young couple purchased the bakery and operated it for 25 years while raising four children: Arnold, twins Pieter and Andy, and daughter Jami. After retirement, the Scheffers moved to Invermere, B.C. where they reside.

Here’s a photograph of Toni and Casey Scheffer that I took when I interviewed them in 2007.

The family connection continues

Casey was naturally very surprised in 2007 when he received a letter from Jerusalem, from an organization called the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous.

Casey’s parents, Cornelus and Hendrikje Scheffer, were being awarded posthumously the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for help rendered to the Jewish people during the Holocaust at the risk of their own lives.

The honour came about through the efforts of Ruth Samuel Tenenholtz, the third daughter of David and Betje, who was born in 1946 and now lives in Israel.

After the war the Samuels had two more daughters, for a total of four girls, all of whom had children of their own.

David died in 1975, at the age of 72. Betje lived to be an old lady of 95, and died in 2005. But Ruth remembered hearing them speak often about how the Scheffers saved their lives.

She flew to Calgary, Alberta in November 2007 where a ceremony was held at the Jewish Community Centre to honour the Scheffer family. Casey and Toni attended, along with their children and grandchildren. Also in attendance was Casey’s younger sister Henny of Nanton, Alberta, and his younger brother Tony of Edmonton.

In the letter 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!”

Here with Casey and Toni Scheffer is Ruth Samuel Tenenholtz, who would not be alive today were it not for Casey’s parents.

And the story isn’t over yet!

I had intended to finish the Scheffer story here. But while preparing this week’s post, I searched the internet for John Zolner, the American airman who was sheltered by the Scheffers. I was staggered when an article popped up from a small place called Ravena in New York State.

John Zolner was 85 years old when he died in 2006, but this story in his local newspaper confirms his experience being sheltered by the Dutch Resistance. To read the article in the Ravena News-Herald, click: John Zolner.

Here's a brief synopsis: John graduated from high school in 1939 in the village of Ravena, New York. He enlisted and trained as a fighter-bomber pilot on the P-47 Thunderbolt, and was assigned to the 350th Fighter Squadron with the Eighth Air Force.

On March 8, 1944 Zolner was shot down close to the western border of Germany and eastern border of Holland. His Thunderbolt took a direct flak hit to his fuel tank, causing rapid loss of fuel. Knowing he was not going to make it back to England, he bailed out and landed in a tree. Zolner made his way home with the help of underground organizations in the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

After the war John Zolner returned to his home town and worked as a manufacturing supervisor for a brickyard, and a mechanic. His widow and four children are still living, and I’m now trying to put the two families in touch with each other.

And here’s the newspaper photo of John Zolner: another soul whose life may have turned out very differently were it not for the efforts of the Scheffers.

God bless the Scheffer family, and all the other civilians who risked their lives to resist the tyranny of the Nazis.

Note: I updated this story in January 2015, with new information from the Jewish couple's daughter Ruth Tenenholtz. After you have read this post, visit: Saving Jewish Lives: what would you do?

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