Would you risk your life to save others?
For example, would you do what Dutch architect Jaap Penraat did when he risked his life to save 406 Jewish people from the Nazis during World War ll?
In May, 1940, the Nazis captured the Netherlands. Twenty-two year old Jaap [pronounced “Yop”] Penraat knew, as everyone else did, that the Jews there were facing death.
The Nazis quickly began to register the Jews and have them carry identification cards with a big “J” on them.
Penraat was a skilled artist but when he couldn’t make the “J” disappear he used his father’s print shop to produce false identification cards for Jewish people, to make them un-Jewish.
Then one day when Penraat was in the Jewish sector, the Nazis arrested him on charges he was helping the Jews.
For two months, they locked him in a tiny cell with four other men who shared a bucket as a toilet. He was often beaten by Nazi interrogators, and they deprived him of food and water and had him stand for up to 20 hours at a time. Penraat nearly died.
When he got out, the heavily armed Nazis were going door to door seizing Jews from their homes and shipping them to the death camps. Some compassionate neighbors hid the Jews and others turned them in and made a claim for their possessions.
Despite barely surviving the Nazi brutality, Penraat went into action. The Nazis were building an Atlantic Wall, a massive fortification on the west coast of Europe meant to stop an Allied invasion.
Through a friend, Penraat got a copy of a letter from a German construction company. He copied their letterhead and posing as one of their officials, he wrote a letter to the Nazi authorities asking permission to bring Jewish slave laborers to France to work on the wall.
His life was now in jeopardy. If the Nazis checked with the German company and learned of his deception, he was a dead man. But Penraat got the Nazi approval and began forging documents.
In an action that required nerves of steel, each time he brought about 20 Jewish “slave laborers” with him to French clerks and presented their phony paper work.
“You’re there, a woman walks away and either she comes back with papers or she comes back with soldiers,” Penraat told The Poughkeepsie Journal. “And they would shoot you right then and there, so other people could see what happens when you do anything against the German Army.” (New York Times, 7/2/06)
Once Penraat got these Jewish men through French customs, he turned them over to the French underground who smuggled them out. He made about 20 of these trips.
By the end of 1944, these trips became too dangerous for Penraat, and he had to go into hiding.
But what he had done for 406 Jewish people was a Godsend. Only 30,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.
After the War, Penraat married Jettie Jongejans and the couple had three daughters. He became a successful architect and among his designs were the Amsterdam trolley cars. In 1958, he and his wife and children relocated to the United States.
Jaap Penraat who recently passed away at the age of 88, for many years had said nothing about his extraordinary heroic measures to save Jewish people. Then about 10 years ago, one of his daughters asked him about it and finally, he began to speak of it.
In his latter years, Penraat and his close friend, author Hudson Talbott discussed the Holocaust at schools, synagogues and other public forums. And Talbott wrote, “Forging Freedom: A True Story of Heroism During the Holocaust.”
Seeking insight as to why Penraat risked his life to save people he didn’t know and what he was thinking when those French clerks might return with German soldiers who would shoot him on the spot, I asked Talbott through email. He responded:
1) “I think Jaap risked his life without too much thought to himself but just felt compelled to do something within his potential, or what he saw as his potential. He was a man of considerable self-confidence as well as a bit of a daredevil but I think most of all, he was just unwilling to go along with evil, to sit idly by and do nothing.
“Whether the people were Jewish or Christian or Hindu, I’m sure his response to the situation would’ve been the same.”
2) “What went on in his mind at his greatest moments of danger? I can only guess, of course, but what I remember him saying was always that he wasn’t thinking of himself but those in his charge. He had to believe he was who he was pretending to be and be convincing about it or it would’ve been fatal not just for himself but all the others as well.”
From this story, you can now put yourself in Jaap Penraat’s shoes. Picture heavily armed, steely eyed soldiers ready to shoot you if they suspect your humanitarian deception. Would you have such courage? Would any of us? Only a life threatening situation can tell us for sure.
Thankfully, throughout history, compassionate people like Jaap Penraat courageously risked their lives in dire circumstances and saved vast numbers of people.
Success Tip of the Week:
Uphold your principles. Whether it’s challenging what you believe to be the evil acts of your government or the evil acts of others, have the courage of your convictions to respectfully and non-violently take action.
In the next KazanToday:
In the next KazanToday: A woman who overcame racism, gender bias and poverty to become one of New York’s first African-American female attorneys.