A modified version of this story was published in the Jewish Holocaust Centre Melbourne publication Centre News in September 2012 and can be viewed here.
NOTE: Nell passed away on 16/10/2013. She was 101 years old.
Prologue: This story is personal for me. While writing and researching for this story, I was lead to believe that family members on my dad’s side were killed in Poland during the Holocaust. Many articles have been written about Mrs. Pieternella Van Rangelrooy; however, this feature story delves more into the personal stories and ideas of why people helped Jews survive during that period and why they should be honoured.
It is commonly known that 6 million Jews died tragically in the Holocaust. Many people have heard of Oskar Schindler – a German Gentile who owned a factory in Krakow, Poland. Schindler treated his Jewish workers humanely and rescued approximately 1,200 people from persecution. In 1993, Stephen Spielberg produced a film, Schindler’s List, portraying his story. But how much do we know about other less famous people who saved Jews in the Holocaust?
Sixty-seven years have passed since the Holocaust and as time goes on, more and more of the people who were alive at that time are passing away. According to Holocaust survivor advocate, Miriam Griver, 39 Holocaust survivors die per week. It is important to keep the memory of these survivors and the Gentiles who saved them alive.
One example of a Righteous Gentile is Mrs Pieternella ‘Nell’ Van Rangelrooy, 99. She now lives a quiet life at the Muse Gables Aged Care facility in Camberwell, Melbourne. However, during World War II life was hard as she was hiding Jews in her house.
According to, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the term Righteous Among The Nations refers to people who opposed the Nazis’ actions of mistreatment and killing of Jews. In most cases, these individuals were non-Jews.
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 harms way. If caught by the Nazis, punishment for these Gentiles ranged from execution to being sent to the concentration camps.
At the conclusion of 2010, Yad Vashem had identified 23,768 Righteous individuals from 45 countries.
Van Rangelrooy and her husband John housed at least half a dozen Jews. The family, including two sons, John Jr. and Kees, lived in a small apartment in Rotterdam together with the people they saved including a journalist, a nurse, and several children.
The couple belonged to the Dutch underground where a friend from the Dutch army asked if they could conceal some Jews; they agreed.
When asked today why she hid the Jews despite the threats of the Nazis, Van Ranglerooy shows empathy but doesn’t delve into detail about their situation. Her son John, 77, who now helps his ageing mother communicate, told me in a telephone interview that she rarely speaks about the Holocaust unless prompted.
“Felt sorry for them and never regretted,” she said of the individuals who took refuge in her house.
“No time to think about it, you know. You didn’t have time to think about these things, you just done them,” relayed John.
Helping the Jews to survive changed the way the family lived, emotionally and financially, during the war.
John’s father collected extra food coupons from work at an aged care facility in order to have enough food to feed everyone. The Jewish people were able to move around the house freely because sheets covered the windows. The sheets protected them from being shot at, and the lights weren’t allowed to be on at night.
Whenever Nazis inspected the house, the individuals hid on the roof, or under the stairs. The family was also able to follow the news thanks to a wireless radio that they illegally owned and was situated underneath the roof. They also found a doctor they could trust to look after the health of their guests since they couldn’t leave the house.
In 1942-43, due to the limited amount of food in the house, the family’s younger son Kees, at the age of five, was sent to a farm in Winterswyk for five years. This also prevented him from accidentally telling the Nazis about the hidden Jews. It took his mother three to four days to walk him there and then return home.
“They [the Nazis] would question him [Kees] and then he’d freak out ’cause he was younger than me.” John recalled.
Elder son John was eight when he was sent to the same farm towards the end of the war. He lived there for 12 months.
Not only was the family divided; Van Rangelrooys husband suffered additional hardship. Towards the end of the war, Mr Van Rangelrooy was sent to a concentration camp because he was suspected of hiding Jews. This incident made his wife feel “terrible.” She had no contact with him whatsoever.
At the concentration camp he served as a cook, and was beaten so severely a doctor suspected he had tuberculosis. The doctor who would visit the Van Rangelrooy home to check on their guests later concluded it wasn’t TB. He was released after eight to nine months because someone unknown to the family destroyed his arrest papers and therefore the Nazis couldn’t prove he was hiding Jews. Nonetheless, upon his return home, the family decided to keep looking after the residents of the house until the end of the war.
After the war, John’s father worked for an American ships company for which he travelled to Australia, Singapore and Canada. In 1950, he met some friends who decided to immigrate to Australia. They paid for his accommodations, and the family started a new life in Australia.
As a young kid, the now elderly John Jr. found life difficult and stressful with the extra pressure of his parents being caught.
“There were some heavy moments. There were some scary moments where they’d (the Nazis) come in and search the house.” John said.
The Van Rangelrooy family have received many awards for their bravery. In 1972, Mr. Van Rangelrooy died but years later one of the survivors registered the couple as Righteous Among The Nations. At 75, Mrs. Van Rangelrooy was awarded the Yad Vashem Medal of the Righteous Among The Nations and a Certificate of Honour during a ceremony at The Beth Weizmann Community Centre in St Kilda, Melbourne by the then Australian Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Zvi Kedar. A tree and plaque have been erected in honour of the couple at Yad Vashem. She has also received the Cross for Courage from the Dutch Resistance.
Only one woman saved by the Van Rangelrooy, Mrs. Henriette ‘Jetty’ Shartel, is still alive. She was and is very appreciative that the family put their lives on the line for people they didn’t know. She still communicates with the family on a regular basis. All of the ‘survivors’ died after the war, except for Fanny De Vries who passed away on January 3rd 2012.
Shartel came to live with the family at age 13 and lived with them for two years until the end of the war. Before the war, she lived not far from the Ranglerooy residence in Rotterdam with her father, her mother, and brother. Her father owned a business, Jetty and her brother attended school, and their mother was a housewife. The young girl aspired to become a nurse. Her family died in the Holocaust, she was all alone.
She recalls two narrow escapes while hiding in the Van Rangelrooy residence. The Ranglerooy’s, to this day, had become her family.
The first incident occurred on June 6,1944, when the occupants of the house were awaiting the delivery of a table for Mrs. Van Rangelrooy’s birthday. When the Germans knocked on the door, the guests climbed out a small window onto the roof where they sat undetected for six hours. The other narrow escape occurred when a Nazi came to the house and a nurse hiding in the house put on her uniform and told Shartel to lie in bed and pretend to be sick. She answered the door, telling the soldiers “you can come up here but be careful there’s scarlet fever.” They closed the door and left without inspecting the house.
Another woman who has been through a similar hardship is Holocaust survivor Miriam Griver.
Griver, 71, is a member of a Knesset committee that advocates for the rights of Holocaust survivors. Griver occasionally lectures to small groups and at events, about her experiences in the Holocaust.
Her family narrowly escaped the Holocaust because Jews and Gentiles gave them assistance. From this experience, she learnt about the importance of helping others.
One of the people who helped the family was a Gentile. A Presbyterian priest provided Grivers’ mother with a false birth certificate that stated she was a Gentile. This allowed her mother to venture out to search for food.
Griver refers to the camaraderie between the victims, and says that many of them helped each other to survive life within and outside of the ghettos and camps.
Grivers’ father was one of 4,000 people who were ordered to march barely clothed in the wintery cold from Auschwitz to Wodzislaw. Her father was so thin he collapsed and was thought to be dead and was thrown onto the mountain of corpses. Later on, after escaping and surviving, Miriam’s father asked some American soldiers to collect bodies from the piles in order to give them a proper burial. He also erected a monument in Pocking, Germany to honour these victims.
Help between Jews was not limited to the Holocaust period, continuing long after the war ended. Many survivors approached Grivers parents’ to talk to them about their Holocaust experience and to ask them for advice.
However, many of those that helped Jews as well as those who were victims suppressed the occurrences of the war out of their minds.
Van Rangelrooy didn’t talk much about the Holocaust post-war; she just went on with life. However, her son says that since they immigrated to Australia, the Jewish community, and local newspapers have been interested in her story. John believes there is just enough coverage of the Righteous Gentiles.
“They’ve been very appreciative [the Jewish community]. I mean, I don’t think it’s over done. And it’s not under done either.” John stated.
Mrs. Shartel is an example of someone who has always spoken of her experiences in the Holocaust. She has never stopped speaking about that tragedy, although her husband never wants to talk about it. Her children know exactly what happened, and when her grandchildren attended school, she went as a guest to talk to the children about it.
Griver didn’t start talking about the Holocaust until she was in her late 60s. As president of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organisation, the German government invited her to Pocking to rededicate her fathers’ monument.
Miriam’s help has extended to those who helped her family during the Holocaust. She encouraged the Israeli government to award five of the American soldiers who helped her father, with certificates and IDF medals.
“There are only five American soldiers that have been recognised by the Government of Israel and by the IDF.” Miriam said.