“Doch dyn plicht en lit de lju mar rabje.” (Do your duty, and just let people talk)
Late 1943 was a dangerous time to be a German Jew in occupied Europe, but Flora Heinrich was one of the lucky ones. Surviving up until that point meant she had already beaten long odds.
November 11, 1938: the day after what came to be known as Kristallnacht, Flora’s mother Emily had put her and two brothers on a train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam. Nazi thugs had destroyed a nearby synagogue and ransacked local Jewish businesses and Flo’s mother feared the worst (Emily later perished in the gas chambers).
On the run in a continent being torn apart by war, the young girl arrived in Kootstertille, a small village in northern Holland, and became “Truus de Jong.” A young couple named Jacob and Klasiena Hamstra took her in, pretending she was a niece visiting relatives to get away from food shortages in southern Holland.
Jacob and Klasiena Hamstra were my grandparents – my “Pake and Beppe” in the Frisian language.
When Flo arrived on their doorstep, Pake was a baker whose hobby was the Dutch underground. He hid the hunted and fought the occupiers using whatever means were available, when he wasn’t baking bread and delivering baked goods on his bicycle. Beppe looked after a growing brood of children, including my mother.
Flo had more freedom in the small farming village than Anne Frank had in the big city. She explored the town, roamed the dikes, worked in the bakery, and undoubtedly babysat my Mom, who was 2 when Flo joined the family.
But those were treacherous times, doubly so because of the presence of Nazi sympathizers among the villagers. During impromptu house-to-house searches by the Nazis, Flo would hide in the attic with my great-uncle, who was trying to avoid being recruited as forced labour for the German war effort.
My grandmother was slow of foot but quick of mind. One day, after being tipped that the Nazi overseers were doing a sweep through town, Beppe slapped a “Diphtheria” sign on the front door, correctly surmising that the Germans would bypass the house out of fear of the highly infectious disease.
Flo survived the war, moved to North America and made her home in New York. When my mother’s family immigrated from the Netherlands to Canada in 1950, Flo picked up Beppe, my Mom and her four young siblings after their ship pulled into New York harbour following a 10-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Flo never forgot, and she later submitted my grandparents’ names to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial society. At a 1997 ceremony in Toronto hosted by then-premier Mike Harris, Pake and Beppe were honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. I think there’s a tree planted in their honour somewhere in Israel.
Flo passed away in 2013, days after her longtime husband Sol Lirtzman died. She was 83 and survived by two sons, one daughter and six grandchildren, as well as several stepchildren and stepgrandchildren.
I visited Flo and Sol in 1999 at their Lake Peekskill, New York home and enjoyed some good conversation and fierce Scrabble games with her. She was generous with some memories of the war years – including one encounter with a uniformed German soldier while she was on the run in the Netherlands. She was getting onto a train to a Dutch destination, and the soldier reached down and helped her up. “I remember thinking at the time, if only you knew you were helping,” she told me.
Growing up, I just assumed that resistance was the dominant impulse to Nazi occupation among the Dutch. Then I learned in a European history course at university that Holland had a higher level of collaboration than other occupied countries, and that most of the country’s Jews perished in concentration camps.
Last summer, I visited the Netherlands and stayed in a small village in Friesland, not far from the town where Flo hid at my grandparents’ house. It helped me to “walk a mile” in my Pake’s shoes – a young man trying to run a business and raise a growing family under the shadow of a Nazi occupation force – and appreciate his actions.
A museum in Leeuwarden, Friesland’s capital, has a display featuring my grandparents’ story, as well as those of many others who “did their duty” and responded with courage and bravery in the face of barbarism.
Leeuwarden was liberated from the Germans on April 15, 1945 by Canadian soldiers with the Royal Canadian Dragoons, who disobeyed direct orders in doing so. Every April 15, the city of Leeuwarden flies the camp flag of the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the Dragoons, wherever they are stationed, fly the flag of the city of Leeuwarden.
Today, I remember all those who put on a uniform to serve their country — particularly our Canadian veterans, who were key to liberating the Netherlands (their bravery has not been forgotten).
I also remember my grandparents. They were an ordinary couple whose extraordinary actions helped save Flo’s life. They were heroes to me, but certainly didn’t consider themselves such. They were just doing their duty.
I have a Delft Blue plaque that bears the saying atop this article. It belonged to my Pake and speaks to making a difference whoever and wherever you are.
My grandparents weren’t too different from millions of ordinary people today whose lives are being uprooted, torn apart, shaped by war. To me, they are all “war heroes” too.