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Thank you for my life

Nadine Wojakovski visits the Dutch town where her mother was hidden in WWII, to pay tribute to those who saved her

    Aad and Fie Versnel and Renate in 1945
    Aad and Fie Versnel and Renate in 1945

    It was a crisp autumn day, fleecy clouds drifting across a blue sky, when I arrived in Wormerveer for the first time, straight off the plane from London. I had come to this charming, canal-lined small Dutch town to finally see where my mother, Renate, had been hidden as a little girl during the Second World War. Less than ten miles from Amsterdam, it seemed like a world away from the bustling city where she was born and lived for the first 19 months of her life.

    Wormeveer was the first stop on our two-day trip to posthumously recognise the brave couple, Aad and Fie Versnel, for daring to shelter my mother in Nazi-occupied Holland 75 years ago.

    There to greet us were the daughters of the Versnels, Els, 71, and Cobi, 69, along with their husbands Piet and Jaap. Just a stone’s throw away from the railway station we congregated on the Weverstraat, the peaceful street where my mother lived in the middle of the war. I couldn’t help but imagine how back in 1942, she was probably taken in her pram from Amsterdam Central Station to Wormerveer station by train. It chills me to the bone to think that, in the space of less than an hour, she was separated from her birth parents and handed over to her foster parents, her life transformed forever.

    Unfortunately, house number three, where she was hidden for around two and half years, no longer exists. In its place is a car park. In the next street still stands the original façade of a beautiful church, most likely the one she remembers praying at during the war.

    Visiting Wormerveer was the missing jigsaw piece in her story. Over the years we’d heard so much about this place, but seeing it on that beautiful day made my mother’s wartime experience more heartfelt, more real. Moreover, it gave us younger generations a chance to connect with the Versnel family.

    During the war, Aad and Fie were a childless couple in their thirties who showered my mother, not just with protection but with boundless love and affection. My grandmother handed over her baby in 1942. In June 1945 she was reunited with the four year-old daughter whom she no longer recognized.

    For the Versnels, handing back Renate, the only child in their life, was so very painful. On receiving her daughter back, my grandmother Cilla promised that she would pray for them to be blessed with their very own child. Exactly one year later, in June 1946 a baby daughter — Els Renate — was born, followed by Cobi in 1948.

    We never had the privilege of meeting this phenomenal couple who saved my mother’s life, but spending time in their home village gave us a small sense of who they were and how they had lived.

    The following day in Amsterdam, my mother took her children and grandchildren on a whistle-stop tour of where she grew up. We arrived at Plantage Parklaan, in the heart of the old Jewish quarter, once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the North”. There was the traditional brick-fronted house she had lived for the first year and a half.

    We were shocked to discover that literally around the corner, opposite the popular Artis Zoo, stood the impressive Dutch theatre, the Hollandsche Schouwburg, that was turned into a prison and deportation centre for Jews. More than 100,000 Dutch Jewish men, women and children were murdered in the Holocaust and many were first crammed into this building for days on end, before being deported to transit and concentration camps. It is now a permanent memorial to their lives, far less visited than the btter known Anne Frank House.

    The next day we travelled to the Library of Rotterdam for a ceremony to recognise Aad and Fie as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem, along with five other courageous families. The recognition of the Versnels has been a long time coming, and happened because of a Facebook post.

    The last time my mother had seen the Versnels was in 1962 at her wedding to my father, Arthur, in the Kraznapolski hotel in Amsterdam. It was attended by the couple and their daughters, who by then were teenagers. Their wedding gift was a silver plate, on the back of which was lovingly engraved: “To our foster daughter.”

    My parents left Amsterdam and built their home and life in London. As the years went by and my grandparents and the Versnels passed away, my mother lost touch with the family. Despite attempts to find them, she was unsuccessful. Then, in 2014 I wrote a memoir about my grandmother’s war experience, and dedicated it to the Versnels and the Dutch Resistance.

    It seemed bizarre to make a dedication to a couple, whose family we had no contact with. Redoubling our efforts to find their children became paramount.

    On December 29th 2014 my sister posted a photo of the Versnels on Facebook, with the message: “Looking for children and grandchildren of Fie and Aad Versnel from Holland circa 1945. Please please share.”

    I didn’t hold out much hope for a result. Nevertheless I shared the post with some Dutch friends, who shared it on. Unbelievably, just four days later the post reached a man called Hans Versnel, who turned out to be the great nephew of Aad Versnel. He put us in touch with the families of Els and Cobi. The excitement we felt was indescribable.

    Next, we applied to Yad Vashem to have Aad and Fie recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”. Now that we had found the family, the desperation to get the couple honoured promptly did not prepare me for the lengthy process ahead. The title, overseen by a special commission and chaired by a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, can only be awarded if sufficient survivor testimony has been collated. I was asked on more than one occasion to be “patient”. The war had ended over 70 years ago. But how could I be patient now that we had found Els and Cobi?

    Collating the testimony was time consuming. First was that of my mother, as remembered through the eyes of a small child. “I do remember hiding behind a curtain when the Nazis were patrolling, and remember going to church and putting money in the collection box,” she recalled. “I was also very close to their dog Kesje. The Versnels were very good to me and treated me as if I belonged 100 per cent to their family.”

    The Versnel’s daughters Els and Cobi also provided fascinating and emotive statements. One document issued by the Claims Office on May 11 1945, confirmed that Renate Bitterman had been hidden at Weverstraat 3 in Wormerveer. Another by the Food Distribution Office stated that “due to special circumstances” four year-old Renate Bitterman didn’t have a basic food coupon and thus could receive 800g bread and 100g dried potatoes (puree). But most heart rending was a letter sent by my grandmother Cilla Bitterman to Fie Versnel on 10 February 1948, just a few days after Renate’s 7th birthday. In it 34-year old Cilla wrote: “We have received your letter and we are very happy that you will come on Saturday. We miss you very much as well. Little Renee was dancing with excitement when she learned that you are coming.”

    Finally, around a year after the investigation began, we received a letter saying the Commission had approved the award, and that the Israeli Embassy in The Hague would organise the ceremony. Relieved and delighted, we looked forward to the impending event.

    When I spoke at the Rotterdam ceremony, I was honoured to be given the opportunity to proudly share the story I now know so very well, not least about the immense courage of Aad’s brothers. He was the youngest of four Protestant brothers, the others being Johannes, Klaas and Leonardus. Johannes, the eldest, also hid a Jewish child, a teenage girl who they told everyone had been adopted by them. And Hans’ grandfather Klaas worked for the Dutch Resistance. He owned a lithography studio, and forged identity cards and food stamps. He was arrested in 1944 for his acts of resistance and died in a German prison, just a few weeks before the end of the war.

    At the end of my speech my mother was called onto the stage to present Els and Cobi with her gift to each one of them, a symbolic silver plate, like the one she received from their parents at her wedding. The inscription, which she read out, said: “In memory of Aad and Fie Versnel, your beloved parents my foster parents, Righteous Amongst the Nations. Eternally indebted to them for risking their lives to save my life during the Holocaust.”

    Els and Cobi proudly accepted their gifts, before later receiving the Yad Vashem medals in honour of their beloved parents.

    In a moving tribute Cobi said: “We think that our parents would find it unnecessary [to receive the award] because it was just the right thing to do. The few times we talked about it they said to us, when they come to your doorstep with a little girl you just do what you have to do.”

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