One of our goals at Leben is to tell the stories of ordinary people whose faith causes them to do extraordinary things. Raised in a conservative Christian home, Johtje Vos would more than once question her faith, but in the end, its imprint proved indelible. What follows is Johtje’s story, told largely in her own words.1Header quote: http://motlc.learningcenter.wiese-nthal.org/text/x00/xm0030.html.Quoted from Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust byGay Block and Malka Drucker; Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1992
Johtje Vos was born in the town of Amersfoort, near Amsterdam. Her grandfather, statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, had been Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Raised in a devout Protestant home, she was the daughter of a mathematician father and a mother gifted in languages. As Johtje described it, “She translated fifty-two books from English, French, and German into Dutch. She had to do it secretly using my father’s name, because women weren’t permitted that kind of recognition then. So my father, who was brilliant in mathematics but couldn’t speak a word in any other language, got the credit for all her work.”
Johtje would prove to be trying to her Dutch Reformed parents on more than one occasion. “As a young woman,” said Johtje, “I went to live in Paris to be a freelance journalist, which was a scandalous thing at the time. My parents were horrified at the idea. I went to Egypt to cover the wedding of King Farouk for the Dutch press. I was already married then, to a painter I met in Paris,” a union that produced two children but ended in divorce in 1940. By then, Johtje and family were living in Loren, Holland, where she remarried, to Aart Vos in 1943.
“The first thing we did during the war was keep a Jewish couple, friends of ours, overnight. I want to say right away that the words ‘hero’ and ‘righteous Gentile’ are terribly misplaced because, first of all, I don’t feel righteous and, secondly, I certainly don’t feel Gentile. This is the wrong term for us. And we are certainly not heroes, because we didn’t sit at the table when the misery started and say, ‘Okay, now we are going to risk our lives to save some people.’ How it happened is that somebody asked us, ‘Listen, I have a little suitcase with some valuables and I have to go to the ghetto. Will you keep this suitcase for me?’ He was a friend, and to our amazement he was a Jew. We’d never even known that because nobody knew those things in Holland. We never talked about Jews. They were all just Dutch, that’s all. So, then you said, ‘Well, of course I’ll keep that suitcase for you.’ And then a week later, somebody would ask you, ‘Well, my child is in danger.’ So we said, ‘Of course, bring him here.’ Then two people said, ‘Well, we don’t know where to go.’ Then by and by we got more involved in the underground. Then we had to make a decision: do we do this, go on with this? That’s the moment when we made the decision. And we said yes; we couldn’t do differently than say yes. But some people who said no often had very good reasons, and people don’t respect that.
“More and more people came to hide in our house. We had mattresses all over the floor, and they had to be camouflaged in case the Germans came. The people didn’t have to hide, they could walk around freely, but of course they didn’t go outside. The Germans came many times, once during our wedding. They were looking for Jews. We just told them to get out, that this was our wedding. I wouldn’t say I’m a brave person. I’m afraid to be alone in the house. But I was never afraid of the Germans. And I was deathly afraid of the bombs.
“Only during a raid did the people in our house have to hide, and for that we had a secret tunnel. We lived on a dead-end road, which ended in an area that was acres of bushes, which was marvelous to flee to if you had time. But sometimes there was no time, so we made the tunnel. It went from the art studio, which was a shed on the back of the house, under a false bottom below the coal bin under our garden out into the open woods. It saved lives.
“We had a friend who was the chief of police, and he would phone to warn us in code when there was going to be a raid. We didn’t lose any of the people who stayed with us, but there was one Jewish couple, the Hilfmans, who refused to come to our house. They said, ‘We are Jews. This is our fate, and we have to accept it, whatever it is.’ I asked, ‘Are you cowards?’ They said, ‘We don’t know, but we can’t do it.’ I begged them at least to let me take their three-year-old daughter, Moana, but they insisted on deciding for her. But at the last minute, just hours before the Hilfmans were taken by the Nazis, they let an electrician bring her to us, and she has been our daughter ever since.
Moana was the same age as our youngest daughter, Barbara, and they were like sisters. When the war ended we wanted to adopt Moana, but we weren’t allowed to. The Jewish community said, ‘We have so few Jewish children left that they have to be brought up in Jewish families.’ She went to live with her mother’s sister, who had lived in Indonesia during the war….
“My father had died during the first year of the war, and when my mother came to visit me and saw we were hiding Jews, she was upset and said, ‘You shouldn’t do it, even though I agree with what you’re doing, because your first responsibility is to your children.’ I told her, ‘That’s exactly why I’m doing it.’ I thought we were doing the right thing, giving our children the right model to follow. We had no idea how hard it would be for them. We played a little game with them. For one hour each day we’d talk about food, and for the rest of the time food was not mentioned. Because when you talk about it continuously, you keep suffering. But during that hour, adults would talk about, ‘Do you remember that restaurant? Do you remember that dish? What was the best veal that you ever had, the best asparagus, or something, you know.’ And then we played games with the children. We’d ask, ‘Who remembers what a banana is?’ and then the first to get it, ‘Is it something to eat?’ We said, ‘Yes, it’s something to eat.’ They couldn’t remember. For a time, one of my children felt resentment for what we did. She said we risked her life as well, and that all the Jews in the house came first, before her and all the rest of the children. And she has a terrible memory of one night a friend of ours, someone she liked very much, coming to our house. He was a member of the underground and had been caught by the SS. They brought him to our house. My daughter remembers him begging for his life, and we had to deny that we knew him. He survived, and we’re still close friends. I couldn’t have done any differently because I had lists of all the Jews who were hiding in the neighborhood. I had to deny that I knew anything. That was difficult for a child to understand. But today my daughter is a lovely, radiant woman, successful in her profession, and understands perfectly why we had to do what we did. It all turned out so well.”
Johtje’s husband Aart, before his death, described those days.
“We had thirty-six people hiding in our house at one time. When you have a home, not a big one, and you have it filled up with Jewish people coming in and out the whole day, every day, not for a week but for four or five years, you can’t understand what that takes from a woman. I was out on my bicycle, but she had to keep everyone together.
“I was born very near the place where we lived in Holland. I knew every inch of it, every stream and field, so when I had to bring Jews at night, and we sure couldn’t use the roads, I could take them through the woods. I picked up a man one night who was very afraid, but I just told him, ‘Don’t worry, just come through the woods with me.’
“The biggest enemy was people talking. I went to visit at the home of van Gogh’s nephew one day, and he gave me an envelope. I asked, ‘What’s in it?’ He told me, ‘It’s money for the work you’re doing to save Jews.’ I said, ‘You have the wrong Vos. I’m not doing that. Look around, you’ll find the right person, but it’s not me.’ You just couldn’t trust anyone. From the moment the war started, your whole nature changed. I used to trust everyone before the war.
“One day after a bombing, I saw a wounded German soldier, so I put him on my bike and took him to his camp. Later everyone asked me, ‘How could you save a German?’ I said, ‘Listen, you don’t know what you’d do unless you were in that situation. My wife and I were brought up to have respect for life.’”
Johtje frequently described her strict Dutch Reformed upbringing and how she fell away during her years in Paris. Although her belief in God was renewed during the war, she confessed that it was years before she was able to fully return to the church of her childhood. Some may wish that there were no dark periods in Johtje’s trial of faith, no time of questioning or despairing amidst trouble, yet how unlike our own circumstances such a life would be. As it was, her life bore witness to the faithfulness of God, and for His promises we remain ever thankful.
Johtje Vos passed from this life on October 10, 2007, in Saugerties, New York. She was 97.2New York Times, November 4, 2007