Elli reunited with the family who saved her – after 65 years

March 24, 2011 by Henry Benjamin
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“Try one more time Nana”….she did and found the baby girl her husband’s mother had hidden from the Nazis ending a search which has lasted for 65 years.

Marcel Hakkens, Lea Radzinger , Monique Howell, Gloria Hakkens, Elli Mantegari, Caleb Howell, Richard Hakkens

And at a teary-eyed meeting in faraway Wellington in New Zealand, 70-yr-old Elli Mantegari from Sao Paulo met members of the family which hid her for almost two years in Nazi-occupied Holland…

Marcel Hakkens took his nine-year-old grandson Caleb to see the film “Power of Good” about the Kindertransport. The Hakkens family lives on the Kapiti Coast, an hour’s drive from Wellington and the film was being screened by the Wellington Holocaust Research and Education Centre in the tiny town of Paekakariiki.The documentary  told the story of Englishman Nicholas Winton who rescued hundreds of Jewish children from the claws of the Nazis in WW2. Caleb was deeply moved by it. The family told him how his great grandmother had hidden a tiny Jewish baby girl at Tidoresstraat, 66 Amsterdam and that the family had tried to find her since the war’s end without success.

He begged Gloria Hakkens to try again. Gloria’s husband Marcel’s parents Jo and Frits had emigrated from Amsterdam to NZ in 1960. Gloria had seen the movie Anne Frank, read the book and visited the house in which she had been hidden…and was totally fascinated by the Herculean attempts made in vain to save her life.  Jo and Frits told Gloria about Elli the little girl they had hidden in 1942.

Gloria joined the family hunt to find Elli…but every road led to a dead end.

Unsure about the correct spelling for Elli’s surname, the family eventually gave up the hunt.

In 2010, driven by Caleb’s curiosity, Gloria tried again. Another dead end. another blank. The only suggestion she received was from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem the central repository for Holocaust information. They were feeding her whatever information they could through the Holocaust centre in Wellington.

Running out of ideas, they suggested she should “try advertising in Aanspraak”. Gloria contacted the Dutch journal which is distributed to those receiving restitution and pensions as a result of the Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch Jewry.

Elli gets flowers from Caleb p: Henry Benjamin

Lea Radziner was feeling sorry for herself. The 72-yr-old Dutch-born Los Angeles pensioner had been looking forward to her holiday in Hawaii but it did not work out the way she planned. “I was hiking and tripped and fell, breaking my leg. They got me back to my home in Encino  but I was laid up and very bored. Aanspraak was delivered to my home and this time I read it from cover to cover. I saw the ad looking for Elli and I thought ‘this sounds very much like my sister’.”

Elli was at home in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo when the call came in from Lea. She agreed that the subject of the search could well be her. She had been hidden by a Dutch family which already had been awarded the Righteous Amongst Gentiles…the only award Israel makes for public service. She emailed the Hakkens family and set up a meeting on Skype. Marcel Hakkens said: “The whole thing could have gone horribly wrong at this point. I have often received spam emails from Russians offering sex services often using the expression ‘get in touch with me’ or ‘let’s make contact’. My finger was on the “delete” button but something stopped me from pressing it!”

Elli said: ” Marcel produced a photo of the little baby who had become part of their family and I immediately yelled ‘it’s me!.’ He asked me to hold on while he found another photograph. This time I gasped and told him to hold on. I had exactly the same photo.

Before she died my mother told me that Jo, our housekeeper in Amsterdam, had taken me in when my mother had to flee the country. But I had no idea that I had stayed hidden in her home for what was probably almost two years!  And now Jo’s family has found me!

At Wellington Airport yesterday, the bubbling toddler who is now 70, met Richard and Marcel Hakkens…the sons of the woman who saved her life together with Marcel’s wife Gloria who revived the search in 1969 and Caleb who would not let the search fade into oblivion. In war-ravaged Amsterdam Richard Hakkens had been Elli Szanowski’s secret foster brother.

Elli’s story

Elli's baby photo - "It's Me!"

Eli's baby photo both families had

On a Sunday morning In February 1941, Elli’s father Avraham Szanowski went out on an errand. He never returned. The previous day, a German officer had been killed and the Nazis trapped 400 young Jewish men in revenge. Lea, who joined Elli on the journey to Wellington said: “They closed off bridges and took the young Jews away. We were never to see our father again. After the war, we sought out information as to his fate. The Germans kept scrupulous records and we learned that he had died in Matthausen. The official record reads bronchial pneumonia but we believe he was worked to death in a slave labour camp.

Avraham’s brother Jacob had remained in Holland.  He had previously emigrated to Argentina and, although Polish like Avraham, Jacob was protected by his South American passport.

Jacob received information that Avraham’s wife, Gitel, was slated to be collected for forced labour and he begged her to flee. She did, but not before ensuring that her children were in safe hands. Lea was placed in the hands of an underground group which found families willing to hide Jewish children.  Jo and Frits had been loyal to the family. Frits, who would marry Jo, lived close by, found food for the beleaguered family and aided Gitel in her escape. They took in Elli.

Elli stayed with Jo until Jo’s natural child, Richard, developed diphtheria. To avoid her catching the disease, Elli was transferred to the Dutch underground child protection system. She had been separated from Lea for almost three years who at this time was living in a farm near the Dutch town of Horst totally unaware of her little sister’s whereabouts.

At the end of the war, Gitel returned to Amsterdam reuniting with Elli who had been hidden in Haarlem and was by now with her Uncle Jacob’s family. Following a long harrowing search showing everyone she met Lea’s photograph, Gitel located her older daughter in the farmhouse at Horst. Lea remembers the meeting with her mother…an absolute stranger in her eyes. Reunited with her daughters, Gitel and the girls moved to Argentina. Gitel and Lea finally settled in Los Angeles.

Elli and her husband made a new life for themselves in Brazil.

Jo and Frits married in Amsterdam in March, 1942 and died in New Zealand in their early 50s in the early 1970s…both from cancer at the ages of 54 and 52. They had told their daughter-in-law Gloria about Elli the little girl they had hidden in 1942. Richard said: “She is my sister…my mother who had borne three sons said she was the daughter we never had.”

Jo and Gitel told their families of the brave households who protected their children…but Gitel had always thought that Jo had looked after Elli for no more than a few weeks.

The meeting.

The two children who shared the home in Tidoresstraat both broke down when trying to express their feelings. With tears in their eyes, they both gave up the search for the elusive words to express what this reunion meant for them.

Elli and Lea lay the flowers Eli got from Caleb at Jo and Frits's graves

Elli did say: “I’m still above the clouds. I am yet to digest everything. I’m very, very happy and grateful to know that I had people who saved my life. I knew about the other family, of course…but the Hakkens family hiding me for so long was complete news to me.”

Richard froze when asked to describe the reaction he could have expected had Jo and Frits been spared to witness the finding of Elli. But he did talk about his memories saying they are embedded in the small family album. “They would look at the photos often and talk about Elli”, he said.

Marcel, born six years after the war, added: “We are very grateful for the parents that we had. You can be in the most difficult situation and the outcome is a story like this…about peace and love and kindness.

It was to be first time she learned that the family had created a hiding place no more than 60cm in height between the ceiling of the ground floor of their home and the floor of the upstairs section. Elli fought to find the words to express how she felt about the risks Jo and Frits had taken to save her…

Caleb (lower left) introduces Lea and Elli to his class

Today, Elli and Lea will join the Hakkens family touring the land so far from Holland…and the memories of Jo and Frits. Frits finding food. Frits stealing coal to bring warmth to a shivering family. Frits escorting Gitel to the border to aid her in her escape to Switzerland. Frits working for the Dutch Underground…and Jo keeping the little girl she treated as her own, safe from the ever-searching eyes of the Nazis.

Lea Radziner sat quietly throughout the meeting as her sister’s story  entered a new phase. But she did say: “We have so much to be grateful for. That two people can do so much to help so many. Addressing Marcel and Richard, she added: “If there were more people like your parents, this would be a much better world,. Our children and our grandchildren are miracles.” Gloria Hakkens replied: “When hearing Frits and Jo’s story, people say it’s amazing. But this would have been a normal thing for Jo and Frits to have done.  She would do the same thing today. That’s the sort of people they were. They did the right thing.”

On her first day in New Zealand Elli went to school. Not to learn. But to join Caleb’s class and tell them the story of the baby who survived the war and the family responsible for her being in their classroom. Elli embraced Caleb sating:”He is the one…he made his grandmother try one more time.”

….and nine-yr-old Caleb has seen the family reunited, generating a story he will be able to pass on to his children and grandchildren.


J-Wire produced this story on behalf of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles



One Response to “Elli reunited with the family who saved her – after 65 years”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Henry, thank you for this beautiful story.
    When one considers the children, rather babies, cast aside for lack of courage, where not even the Nazis as such exists. Due only to the circumstance of their birth and to save the face of “the establishment”.
    No roots, true identity or name.
    The world is full of them.
    They need to take another page out of the Jewish book.

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