During World War ll, if the Gestapo raided your home, you were in great danger. If they brought German soldiers with them, picture heavily armed men with steely looks in their eyes ready to fire their weapons as directed.
If the soldiers brought dogs, envision aggressive German Shepards straining on their leashes, the echo of their bark filling the air. It would be a frightening scene and not one anyone would want to bring on themselves.
In German occupied Holland, Gestapo raids happened repeatedly to Johtje Vos and her husband Aart; for rumor had it they were hiding Jewish people in their home. If Jews were found Johtje and Aart and their children faced the same fate as the Jews, shipment to a concentration camp.
But the Vos’ might even be dragged outside their home and shot on the spot to show other Dutch families what would happen if they hid Jews. The explosion of gunfire and people dying in pools of blood would discourage others.
But not the Vos’. They couldn’t just let the Nazis round up the Jews for execution and do nothing.
How did the Vos’ get involved? One night, a Jewish couple running from the Nazis asked if they could be hidden overnight and the Vos’ willingly sheltered them. Then an old friend asked them to hide a suitcase containing his valuables because he was about to be forcibly shipped to a Jewish ghetto and they did.
Soon a Jewish couple facing shipment to a concentration camp begged them to take their 3-year-old son which the Vos’ did, before the Jewish underground reunited the family elsewhere.
But as the Germans rounded up more Jews, Jewish people became desperate and word spread among them they could come to the Vos’ among many Dutch people who wanted to help.
After awhile, mattresses were spread across the floors of the Vos’ small 3-bedroom home, which became a safe house for fleeing Jews some of whom desperately begged to stay. In all, the Vos’ housed 36 permanent guests, with as many as 14 at a time
Yet each time the Gestapo raided the Vos’ home, they found no Jews. How could this be? It was because the local police chief would call just before the raid was to begin. After his call, everyone in the home went quickly out the back of the home and hid in the woods. Meanwhile all signs they lived in the home were hidden.
Sometimes there wasn’t enough time to move them into the woods before the Gestapo arrived so they crawled into a tunnel that went from a shed in back of the home, under a false bottom below a coal bin and under a back yard garden.
Feeding so many people was always a problem because of war time food shortages and because the Vos’ could not buy enough food without triggering suspicion. But Johtje had been married to a German previous to her marriage to Aart so the Germans gave her double food stamps.
Ironically, this meant the Germans were helping her to feed the Jews. But in receiving additional food stamps, some Dutch people not knowing why angrily saw her as a Nazi collaborator and a few of them cursed her and some even spit on her.
Meanwhile, in the Vos household, food was in such short supply, and what they had was to feed so many in the home, it meant Johtje’s children also were often hungry. This was a sacrifice they agreed to make as a family, just as they had made a family decision to hide the Jews.
Not only did the Vos’ have to remain on constant alert against the Gestapo, later in the war they had to live with the bombings that rocked their home as the allies fought to drive the Germans out of Holland.
During one of the bombings, Aart found a wounded German soldier. His sense of humanity and respect for life wouldn’t let him ignore this poor soul, despite this man being an enemy of Holland. He placed him on a bike and peddled him to a German camp to receive medical care.
In the end, the Vos’ saved all 36-Jewish people who lived with them. And those 36-people lived with them not for a week or two but in many cases, for more than 4-years. Of that 36, one was a girl who stayed with them even after the war was over.
Her parents had been friends of the Vos’ and as the Nazis closed in on them, the Vos’ pleaded with them to move-in to their home with the others. But they refused. Just before this couple was seized by the Gestapo, they gave their 3-year-old daughter to a friend to give to the Vos’.
Never would this little girl see her parents again. They had become two of the 6-million Jews lost to the Holocaust. But the Vos’ fell in love with this little girl and wanted to adopt her. After the war however against long odds the Jewish community found a family survivor, her mother’s sister who was living in Indonesia.
The Jewish community told the Vos’ that so few Jewish children were left, that for the survival of the Jewish people, it was important for Jewish children to be raised in Jewish families. The Vos’ understood and with heartache and anguish, for they were surrendering a child who had become a daughter to them, gave her to her mother’s sister.
In 1951, Johtje and Aart and their family moved to America, to Woodstock in New York. There in an effort to make this a better world, they ran an international camp that welcomed children from all over the world, where in a beautiful, peaceful setting the children could swim, horse back ride and participate in other sports in a loving, non-competitive environment.
To educate others on the Nazi genocide and the ordeals the Vos’ witnessed, Jewish people had long encouraged them to talk about their experiences during World War ll. But for the Vos’ it was quite an ordeal to relive.
At first hesitantly, they began to speak in schools and synagogues and in other public settings in the 1980’s. They said they were not heroes but had simply acted in good conscience.
But because of their courage during World War ll, 36-people survived and later many had families of their own, as did a large number of people who stayed briefly in their home, part of the Jewish underground on their way to other safe havens.
Aart passed away in 1990 and last October, Johtje did as well at the age of 97. The Vos’ leave us with a legacy of humanity and hope, as even in the worst of times, their bold and bright beacon of light showed mankind a way to a better, more compassionate world.