November 4, 2007

Johtje Vos, Who Saved Wartime Jews, Dies at 97

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Johtje Vos, a Dutch woman who with her husband hid three dozen Jews in their home during World War II, shepherding them through a tunnel under the backyard and into the woods whenever the Gestapo pounded on the door, died on Oct. 10 in Saugerties, N.Y. She was 97, and had lived in Woodstock from 1951 until a year ago.

Johtje Vos in the 1990s.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Barbara Moorman.

During the war years, Mrs. Vos and her husband, Aart, lived in a three-bedroom house on a dead-end road in the town of Laren in the Netherlands, with acres of forest behind it. Mr. Vos, who died in 1990, grew up in Laren and knew every stream and field in the area. That allowed him to lead Jews through the woods to the house at night and back into the woods when the Nazis were coming. Each time a German raid was imminent, a sympathetic Dutch police chief in Laren, a friend of the Voses, would dial their phone, let it ring twice, hang up, then repeat the code.

In all, 36 people were saved by the Voses, with as many as 14 hiding in their home at any one time after the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940.

Evelyn Loeb Garfinkel and her mother, Ilse Loeb, were among the three dozen.

”If Johtje hadn’t done what she did, my mother wouldn’t have survived and I wouldn’t be alive,” Mrs. Garfinkel, of Delmar, N.Y., told The Times Union of Albany after attending Mrs. Vos’s funeral on Oct. 16.

Mr. and Mrs. Vos resisted the notion that they had done something out of the ordinary. Interviewed for the 1992 book ”Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust,” by Gay Block and Malka Drucker (Holmes & Meier), Mrs. Vos said, ”I want to say right away that the words ‘hero’ and ‘righteous gentile’ are terribly misplaced.”

”I don’t feel righteous,” said Mrs. Vos, who, like her husband, was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, ”and we are certainly not heroes, because we didn’t sit at the table when the misery started and say, ‘O.K., now we are going to risk our lives to save some people.’ ”

It started one night in 1942 when a Jewish couple asked to be sheltered for just that night as they ran from the Germans. Soon after, another friend asked them to keep a suitcase containing valuables before he was sent to a ghetto.

The Voses were surprised to discover that their friend was Jewish. ”We never talked about Jews,” Mrs. Vos recalled. ”They were all just Dutch, that’s all.”

A 3-year-old boy, Mark de Klijn, was later taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Vos as his parents faced deportation. Word filtered through the Jewish community, and other escapees began seeking shelter. Soon, mattresses covered the floor. Unless they were trying to flee even farther, the guests would never leave the house.

Except when the phone rang twice, then twice again. Then Mr. Vos would lead them into a shed attached to the back of the house, down through a camouflaged trapdoor under a coal bin and into a 150-foot tunnel through which they would crawl before slipping into the woods.

Every time the Gestapo came, Mrs. Vos said, ”I would take questions from them and lie and lie and lie.”

Johanna (she preferred the nickname Johtje, pronounced YO-tya) Kuyper was born on Dec. 29, 1909, in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, the second of three daughters of Guillaume and Henrietta Storm van Leeuwen Kuyper. Her father, a retired army officer, was the mayor of Amersfoort. Her grandfather Abraham Kuyper had been prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905.

As a young woman, Johanna Kuyper went to Paris to work as a freelance journalist, ”which was a scandalous thing at the time,” she said. There, she married a young German artist, Heinrich Molenaar, who hated Hitler, she said. The couple left France and moved into the family-owned house in Laren, where their two children were born: Mrs. Moorman, of Glenford, N.Y., and Hetty Crews, who died in 2001. The marriage ended in divorce.

In 1942, Johanna Kuyper and Aart Vos were married. They had four sons, three of whom survive: Dominique, of Woodstock; John, of Saugerties; and Sebastian, of the Netherlands. Their son Peter died in 1973. Mrs. Vos is also survived by 15 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

As far as Mrs. Vos’s children are concerned, they have another sibling: Moana Hilfman Brinkman, of Amsterdam.

When Mr. and Mrs. Vos were living in the house in Laren, they regularly beseeched Moana Hilfman’s parents to take refuge with them. The Hilfmans refused.

”They said: ‘We are Jews. This is our fate,’ ” Mrs. Vos once recalled. ”I begged them to at least let me take their 3-year-old daughter, Moana.”

Only on the night that the Gestapo came did the Hilfmans hand over their daughter to a friend, who spirited her to the Vos home.

”She lived with us for years after the war,” Mrs. Moorman said on Friday. ”We consider her our sister.”