Righteous among the Nations

September 13, 2012 by Henry Benjamin
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Frits and Jo Hakkens lie side by side in a cemetery not far from their home in Wellington…but a long way from their native Amsterdam and a long way from Sao Paolo, the home of the woman who was saved by the Hakkens spending her infant years as one of their family.

In February 1941, Avraham Szanowsk, left his Amsterdam home on an errand and never returned. He had been captured by the Nazis. His wife needed flee but not before placing her two young daughters in safe hands. Lea was sent to the Dutch underground but the family housekeeper Jo Hakkens took in baby Elli and for eighteen months treated her as one of the family. At the endof the war Jo and Fritz tried in vain to find baby Elli who had been taken from them when their son, and Elli’s adopted brother, developed diphtheria.

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

Jo and Frits emigrated to News Zealand after the war and tried once again to find Elli when their daughter-in-law Gloria saw the Anne Frank film and was told the family had saved a Jewish baby.

Their search was in vain. One generation later, Gloria and Marcel took their 9-yd-old grandson Caleb to see a film about Eric WInton’s Kindertransport. Caleb was taken with this story about Jewish children during the war and it became his turn to initiate yet another search for Elli.

Elli, who only discovered in 2010 that she had been saved by the Hakkens family, was found and the story of the successful search and reunion with those who saved her life can be found here…

Yesterday in Wellington, Jo and Frits Hakkens were posthumously awarded from Yad Vashem in Jerusalem the honour of being “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Elli could not make the trip from Brazil…but she wrote this touching message:

“Thank you all for being here today, and many thanks to the Ambassador of Israel Shemi Tzur for representing me and organizing this event.

Unfortunately, not being able to participate personally in this important commemoration I want to express my gratitude even from a distance.

On this special occasion I would like to share my feelings with you and the Hakkens family.

Last year’s encounter with my sister Leni in New Zealand with our “new family” made me realize why Jo would tell her children she once had a daughter.

While at the home of the Hakkens family in Waikanaei we had love and generosity, I felt just like a sister!

Today I am happy to participate in this reunion to honor the memory of Godofridus and Johanna in thought and with great emotion. They are being paid this tribute for their bravery, altruism and kindness.

Fritz and Jo saved my life. They sheltered me in Amsterdam during the tragic years of war in Europe.

To me this fact was revealed only in September 2010. I knew nothing until then. I was just a baby at the time.

My mother had to flee the country and my father had been killed in Mauthausen.

For many years the Hakkens family tried to find me…..but without success.

Fritz and Jo died very young in the 70s.

The recognition as Righteous Among the Nations fills me with joy and gives me the opportunity to demonstrate my gratitude for what was done for me.

Were it not for the persistence of Caleb, the grandson of my rescuers, who was only 8 years old at the time, this celebration of the courage of Fritz and Jo may not have happened. Caleb would hear his grandparents tell about a jewish girl that was sheltered by his great grandparents during the war. He certainly could not understand though that they had done something very important, heroic and extremely dangerous.

His grandmother Gloria, daughter in law and very good friend of Jo, continued stubbornly, in spite of difficulties, on Jo’s search for many years herself, but the possibilities to find me were null.

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

Until one day…… Caleb went with his grandfather Marcel to see the film “The power of Good” being shown by Vera Egermayer from the Holocaust Center of New Zealand. Seeing this film and talking to Vera afterwards, gave him the feeling of hope that maybe the girl searched so long by the family could still be found and he asked:

“Nana” try once more?

This last try took “Nana” to Yad Vashem, an advertisement was placed in a Dutch magazine and finally with the help of “technology” we have come to meet and reunite with great emotion.

It was the hope of this little boy, that hope that children have and that adults should never lose, that made this reunion possible. This boy, who would have made his greatgrandparents so proud, learned that perseverance leads you to make incredible discoveries.

What should have been of me, my children and grandchildren had not Fritz and Jo taken me in with them?

Even after leaving Holland and settling in New Zealand, Fritz and Jo believed it was important for their children to hear about those years:

Richard, Cees and Marcel, the sons of Jo and Fritz know my story. They are like my brothers now. We are not linked through blood, but we are linked by the love and memory of this brave couple.

They heard stories about this girl who had to be tied up and hidden under the floor of the house – the only way to take Richard to the hospital……..unknown stories………unknown photographs……

Just like me they grew up knowing that war is cruel and inhuman, but they had a model for what it meant to be good people.

I here express my gratitude to them.

I shall leave you with the words of the writer Elie Wiesel, also a survivor of the Holocaust and recipient of the Nobel Price in 1986:

– The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference

– The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it is indifference

– The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference and

– The opposite of life is not death but indifference between life and death.


Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand Shemi Tzur represented Eli .

Ambassador Shemi Tzur presents the award to Marcel, Gloria and Richard Hakkens

In announcing the award he said: “The granting of the Righteous Among the Nations Award by the Government of Israel is an extraordinary honor. The state of Israel does not extend awards in general. This is the only award extended by our government, and is only to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.

Since 1963, a commission headed by the Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel has been charged with the duty of awarding the honorary title “Righteous among the Nations”. The commission is guided in its work by certain criteria and meticulously studies all documentation, including evidence by survivors and other eyewitnesses; evaluates the historical circumstances and the element of risk to the rescuer; and then decides if the case meets with the criteria.

The decision to give the medal is made after receiving a recommendation and is followed by a long procedure of document verification and the presentation of evidence by the community members of Yad Vashem and Supreme Court judges.

After the decision is made, it is published in the State’s documents. The names of the saviours, as will be now the case with the name of the Hakken’s family, are then engraved on Yad Vashem’s Memorial Wall in Jerusalem and a tree is planted in the avenue of Righteous Among the Nations. The medal of the Righteous symbolizes the recognition of their actions, an example of the spectacular act by which not only had they saved one life, but have allowed a person to raise their own family. I quote from the Tamlud this Jewish expression: “Whosoever saves one life, it is as if he had saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37, 71)

Dear Hakkens family, today you can be proud of your parents as your fellow New Zealanders can be proud of you, for your parents (who immigrated to New Zealand after World War Two) have decided to stand for the preservation of life and dignity.

As an official representative of the State of Israel, I have the honour and the privilege to extend to you the medal of the Righteous and the certificate.”

Gloria Hakkens responded saying:  “Thank you to all of you for coming to share with us this very special occasion to honour my wonderful parents in law. Yes….. tonight is all about Jo and Frits and YOU have been invited because you have been a part of our journey to find Elli…..you have encouraged us, rejoiced with us and many of you embraced her and her sister when they came to visit us last year.

I want to particularly take this opportunity to thank Vera Ergemeyer who cannot be here tonight. Vera has been such an encouragement to the family throughout the process.

And I want to publically thank my grandson Caleb who, when I had given up my long search for Elli, told me to “Nana…just try one more time” and as many of you know his persistence led to find Elli and hence, we are honouring Mum and Dad tonight..

But as I said… tonight we honour my parents-in-law….Can you imagine….they were so young when they made that courageous decision to hide Elli……so very young when they became  involved in dangerous resistance activity…..

…..so  young…… and even before their wedding day Jo had decided to care for Elli….we know this because Gita, Elli’s Mum wrote that their lovely housekeeper Jo, who had a fiancé Frits took baby Elli.

As people have heard our story they have been amazed and so surprised that they did this…

Elli’s baby photo

But …let me tell you if you had met them and got to know them ,you would have realized that it was just their natural reaction to injustice….a natural response to help someone no matter what the cost. Most of you know their heroic stories and we have heard details of them tonight. Praise God they listened to their conscience ….to what God wanted them to do…..They selflessly said yes to his calling and that’s why we are here tonight.

Three months ago Marcel and I went back to Amsterdam. I am writing a little book about this story, particularly for my children and Grandchildren. I wanted to visit the address where Mum and Dad hid Elli and I wanted to visit the Resistance Museum. There were two quotations/reflections on the wall of the Museum and they particularly moved me because of what Jo and Frits had done.

The first one…..”I didn’t believe the stories that you heard about what was happening to the Jews. It was so terrible that it couldn’t be true. But afterwards we discovered that even the worst stories didn’t come close to what was really happening. I didn’t do anything. To really do something, you had to have lots of courage. I wasn’t very brave.”

The second one……this is etched in my memory…..I think because I am also a Grandmother…(ask my 5 year old Grandaughter to come up to me)

This reflection was written by a waitress looking out on to the street during a razzia….

”One day they rounded up Jews on a square in Amsterdam. I can still see a little girl pulling a wooden horse on a string. The cobblestones on the road made the horse fall over. The little girl wanted to put it back on its wheels but a German soldier began to yell at her to keep walking. She was frightened and burst into tears. So did I”

That little girl could have so easily been Elli if Jo and Frits had not made the decision to save her. It also was the granddaughter of a Nana ….just like me.

Tonight may seem the end of a long journey, but for my children and Grandchildren I see it as a new beginning as they take hold of the legacy….the challenge that their Grandparents and Great grandparents have given them. (Look to my children and Grandchildren) Make sure that you continue to honour them in the decisions….choices you make and as the Auschwitz Memorial of Broken Glass in Amsterdam declares…..NEVER AGAIN…..”

Following the ceremony, Gloria Hakkens told J-Wire: “Words cannot express how our family felt about last night. We were so privileged to be honoured at a ceremony  to honour our courageous parents ….. the  grandparents and Great-grandparents of our children and grandchildren…..What a wonderful legacy so beautifully explained to our children  by the very people that Jo and Frits helped so many years ago. To have so many countries represented by their ambassadors and to have so many wonderful people who had been affected by the Holocaust present  was so very humbling. Our family and friends will treasure the friendships that are being forged with the descendants of those that Jo and Frits tried so hard to protect.”


Gloria Hakkens talks at the presentation…

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