NOTE: Nell passed away on 16/10/2013. She was 101 years old.
This feature was published in Jewish Holocaust Centre Melbourne publication Centre News in September 2012. The story can be found on page 20-21 in volume 34 part 2. here. The story was written while I was living in Israel in 2011-2012. The original version of this story, which delves into the reasons why Jews and non-Jews assisted others in surviving the Holocaust and why these people should be honoured can be viewed here. My other Holocaust related stories can be viewed here, here, and here.
It is commonly known that 6 million Jews died tragically in the Holocaust. Many people have heard of Oskar Schindler, the German who owned a factory in Krakow, Poland, and who rescued around 1,200 people from persecution. But how much do we know about other less famous people who saved Jews during the Holocaust?
Sixty-seven years have passed since the Holocaust. As time passes, more and more of the survivors and those who saved them are passing away, and it is important to keep the memory of these people alive.
The Israeli Government has bestowed the honour of ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ on those non-Jews who saved Jews from Nazi persecution. Help from these people came in the form of concealing Jews, providing them with false documentation, helping them to flee from the grasp of the Nazis, and smuggling children out of harm’s way. If caught by the Nazis, punishment ranged from being sent to the concentration camps, to death. At the conclusion of 2010, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, had identified 23,768 Righteous individuals from 45 countries.
Mrs Pieternella ‘Nell’ Van Rangelrooy, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. She now lives a quiet life at the Muse Gables Aged Care facility in Camberwell, Melbourne. However, during World War II, her life was hard as she was hiding Jews in her house.
Van Rangelrooy and her husband John lived in a small apartment in Rotterdam with their two sons, John Jr and Kees. During the war they sheltered at least half a dozen Jews, including a journalist, a nurse and several children.
The Van Rangelrooys belonged to the Dutch Underground, and when a friend asked if they could conceal some Jews, they agreed. Helping the Jews to survive changed the way the family lived, emotionally and financially, during the war.
Food was not plentiful, so John Van Rangelrooy collected extra food coupons from work at an aged care facility in order to be able to feed everyone. The Van Rangelrooys covered their windows with sheets to reduce the risk of being shot at, and the lights were not allowed to be on at night. This also enabled the Jewish people they were hiding to be able to move around the house without being seen.
The family was able to follow the news thanks to a radio that they owned illegally, which was hidden underneath the roof. Whenever Nazis arrived to inspect the house, their Jewish guests hid on the roof or under the stairs. As the Jews could not leave the house, the Van Rangelrooys found a doctor they could trust to look after them if needed.
In 1942, Kees was five years old. As food was limited and his parents were concerned that he could accidentally speak to others about the Jews the family was hiding, they decided to send him to live on a farm in Winterswyk. ‘They [the Nazis] would question him [Kees] and then he’d freak out,’ John Jr. recalled many years later. It took Nell three or four days to walk Kees to the farm and then return home. Towards the end of the war, when John Jr. was eight, he to was sent to the same farm, where he lived for one year.
Not only was the family separated, but towards the end of the war, they suffered additional hardship when John was arrested on the suspicion of hiding Jews. He was sent to a concentration camp and Nell had no contact with him whatsoever.
John worked as a cook at the concentration camp and was beaten so severely that a doctor suspected he had tuberculosis (which after the war was found not to be the case). He was released after eight or nine months as someone unknown to the family destroyed his arrest papers, leaving the Nazis unable to prove that he was hiding Jews. Despite the hardship of his imprisonment and the enormous risk to both their lives, upon John’s return home, he and Nell decided to continue to look after their Jewish house guests.
The Van Rangelrooys were reunited after the war and John began working for an American shipping company, travelling to Australia, Singapore and Canada. John Jr. had found life difficult and stressful as a child, especially when his father was arrested and sent to concentration camp. Recalling that time, he said: ‘There were some scary moments when the Nazis would come in and search the house.’
In 1950, with the help of friends, the Van Rangelrooys decided to migrate to Australia to start a new life. The family subsequently received many awards for their bravery. John Van Rangelrooy died in 1972, but some years later a Holocaust survivor nominated John and Nell as Righteous Among The Nations. At the age of 75, Nell received official recognition – the Yad Vashem Medal of the Righteous Among The Nations and a Certificate of Honour by the then Israeli ambassador to Australia, Mr Zvi Kedar, at a ceremony in Melbourne. A tree and plaque have been erected in honour of the couple at Yad Vashem. Nell has also received the Dutch Cross of Resistance.
Mrs Henriette ‘Jetty’ Shartel is the only woman saved by the Van Rangelrooys who is still alive. She remains very appreciative that the family put their lives at risk for people they did not know. She still communicates with the family on a regular basis and came to Australia in June to celebrate Nell’s 100th birthday.
Shartel had come to live with the Van Rangelrooys when she was 13 and stayed with them for two years, until the end of the war. Before the war, she lived not far from the Van Rangelrooys with her father, mother and brother. Her father owned a business and her mother was a housewife. Jetty and her brother attended school, and Jetty aspired to become a nurse. She was the only member of her family who survived the Holocaust. She recalls two narrow escapes while hiding in the Van Rangelrooy’s home. The first occurred on 6 June 1944, when the family was awaiting the delivery of a table for Mrs Van Rangelrooy’s birthday. When the Nazis knocked on the door instead, the guests hid, including Shartel, by climbing out a small window onto the roof where they sat undetected for six hours. The second incident also occurred when Nazis came to the house, but there was no time to escape. A nurse who, like Shartel, was in hiding, put on her uniform and told Shartel to lie in bed and pretend to be sick. The nurse answered the door, telling the soldiers: ‘You can come up here but be careful, there’s scarlet fever.’ The Nazis closed the door and left without inspecting the house.
Miriam Griver is another Holocaust survivor whose family narrowly escaped death because they were assisted by Jews and non-Jews. Now aged 71, Griver is a member of an Israeli Knesset committee that advocates for the rights of Holocaust survivors. Griver was born in Hungary in 1941. Two years later she was sent, together with her mother and sister, to the Budapest Ghetto where 70,000 Jews were incarcerated. Three months later they were fortunate enough to escape before the last transports were sent to Auschwitz.
During this time, a Presbyterian priest provided Griver’s mother with a false birth certificate that stated she was a Gentile. This allowed her mother to venture out of the Ghetto to search for food.
Griver’s father was one of 4,000 barely clothed prisoners who were ordered to march in the wintery cold from Auschwitz to Wodzislaw as the Allied forces were advancing. Her father was so thin that he collapsed and was thought to be dead. He was thrown onto a mound of corpses, but survived. After escaping, he asked some American soldiers to collect bodies from the piles in order to give them a proper burial. He was also responsible for erecting a monument in Pocking, Germany, to honour these victims.
From her family’s experience, Griver has learnt about the importance of helping others. She refers to the camaraderie between the victims of the Holocaust, as many helped each other to survive life within and outside the ghettos and camps.
Whilst the designation ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ can only be given to non-Jews, Griver believes the Jews who risked their own lives to help others should also be officially recognised. Help between Jews continued long after the war ended, but many people suppressed their wartime experiences and focused on rebuilding their lives – as did many non-Jews who helped Jews during the war.
Nell Van Rangelrooy rarely speaks about the Holocaust and when asked today why she hid Jews despite the threats of the Nazis, she shows empathy but does not go into detail. ‘I felt sorry for them, and never regretted what we did,’ she says. Her son, John, adds, ‘There was no time to think about these things, you know. You just did them.’
In contrast, Jetty Shartel has always spoken of her experiences during the Holocaust, whereas Miriam Griver only began to speak about her experiences when she was in her late sixties. She has also worked to have those people who helped her family during the Holocaust officially recognised. As a result, the Israeli Government has awarded certificates and Israeli Defence Force medals to the American soldiers who helped her father.
Postscript: While researching and writing this story, I was lead to believe that family members on my father’s side were killed in Poland during the Holocaust, so this has become a personal story for me.