Ms. Hans Dresden

by Richard Vanderkloet from Brampton, ON
Nov 7, 15

My wife’s family is from the Netherlands. And she receives a newsletter from a Dutch foundation established to support people who suffered during World War Two. I browse through it from time to time. Something caught my eye last summer that I would like to share with you. It is the transcript of a speech given during a ceremony in a small seaside cemetery. 

The cemetery, in the dunes of the North Sea, has 422 graves. All 422 were members of the resistance - captured and murdered by the Nazis. Their bodies were originally buried in desolate stretches of the dunes. After the war, they were recovered and reburied. Two of my father-in-law’s comrades are among the people buried there. 

The ceremony I read about was held on May 10th last year – the anniversary of the Nazis' invasion of Holland.

At the ceremony a 73-year old woman named Ms. Hans Dresden gave the speech I want to share. It recalls her war-time experience as a very young child. When I read her speech, it moved me to tears. I am a teacher. I read the speech at our school’s Remembrance Day Assembly. Then I asked - and received - permission to share it with Vinyl Cafe listeners. 

Here is what Ms. Dresden said.

We are standing next to the graves of a large number of courageous people from the Second World War. These are people who did not submit to the yoke of Nazism laid on the necks of our country by Adolf Hitler’s troops. These are people who clung to their standards of right and did so at all costs. Such people are rightfully our heroes and heroines.

I, owe my own life to two such heroes, two people I still think of as my daddy and mommy Veenendaal. In this place of honour, I would like to honour them.

I was born in 1940, the oldest child in an “undeclared” Jewish family. “Undeclared” meant that my mother and father had not self-identified as Jews - a violation of the Nazi requirement. In the Spring of 1943, when I was not yet three years old, my parents decided to send me and my baby sister into hiding. I have often tried to imagine what this decision meant for them. Two young parents giving their children to total strangers. They did not know when – or even if – they would see us again. But they decided to do whatever they could to save their two little girls. What they did was brave – heroic even – and full of endless pain. 

My parents did survive the war; in fact, my elderly mother is still alive. Time and again she has told me how, after she had given her little girls away at the Rotterdam train station, she bought two baskets of strawberries – so that she had something to hold in each of her hands and how she went home to make jam.

A man in the resistance took me and my sister to the house where she would stay. From there I was brought to my new home, that of my foster parents, my daddy and mommy Veenendaal. They had three children, their youngest son a half-year younger than me. They were a Protestant family, who lived in a modest townhouse, on a quiet street in the town of Heemstede. I lived with them until the liberation, over two years later.

My foster father was a high school history teacher. He had been approached by a colleague and asked if he would take someone into hiding in his home. Later my foster parents told me how much they struggled over this request. If someone was caught giving refuge to people in hiding, your entire household, children included, was sent to a prison camp – not a soul would escape. Despite the risks to their own family they took me in. 

In my new home it was customary for my foster father to conduct daily family devotions after supper by reading a passage from the New Testament. During the years that I lived there, he read from the Old Testament instead. It was right for me, he decided, and not bad for his children. I totally forget anything he read, but to this day I can hear his voice, and recall the peace and security of that daily moment. I believe that those readings were an act of incredible integrity. Without sacrificing his family’s values, he was protecting my integrity as a Jewish child. 

These people, my daddy and mommy Veenendaal, are my heroes. They saved my life. And though it may sound strange – for what more can there be than to have one’s life saved? – there is more. They passed on to me my life’s most important lesson. They overcame their own dread, and did not let themselves be ruled by their fears, fears that were by no means unfounded - the Germans made good on their threats. 

They did all in their power to protect me. It was as if they had said: “we are committed to saving this little girl and will allow nothing to risk her safety.” It is ironic how much danger they put themselves, and their own children in, to protect me from danger. Today I see their choice as the ultimate act of love. They fulfilled their commitment to the highest degree.

They never wanted to be publicly honoured for their actions. They regarded their deeds as a sacred mission that they were privileged to fulfill. But I want to honour them by telling my story.

And, through them, I want to honour all those who had the courage to resist evil. All of them had so much courage, that they risked paying the highest price for it, the price of their own lives. Truth to tell, I stand in awe of them. I have no words to give back to them. It makes me humble to reflect on them. I can only hope that there will always be people like them to stand up against evil, to have the courage to act on ideals.