Four generations saved

Righteous Gentiles visit Yad Vashem with Jews who exist because of their family

Four generations of those who saved and were saved: The Wennings and the Meijers.  (photo credit: WENNING/MEIJER FAMILY COLLECTION)
Four generations of those who saved and were saved: The Wennings and the Meijers.

The Meijer family had lived on their farm, in Musselkanaal, a village in the province of Groningen, in the northeast of the Netherlands near the German border. The area, part of the provinces, was fondly known as the Medina in Dutch-Yiddish. Simon and Ettie were the fourth-generation owners of their farm, where they and Simon’s brothers primarily raised, bred and sold cattle. As the area’s old-timers, they enjoyed good relations with their gentile neighbors.

One day a farmer, with whom Simon did business, approached him on behalf of one of his farm hands. The man, Marcus Wenning, Simon said, was both industrious and trustworthy. He had just been offered the opportunity he had always dreamed of, to buy and develop a farm of his own, in Harpel – a new project on reclaimed swamp land. Unfortunately he did not possess the means to realize that dream and needed a loan.
Simon Meijer agreed willingly to give Wenning a loan and later lent him some cows to start his own herd. By dint of hard work, Wenning together with his wife Tinie and their children prospered, and the loan was repaid in full.
In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and shortly afterwards the Jews began to suffer from Four generations of those who saved and were saved: The Wennings and the Meijers. (Wenning/Meijer Family Collection) | IN JERUSALEM 23 the occupation and from anti-Semitic persecution.
The Jews in the cities were the first to be rounded up and sent to work camps and then deported to concentration camps in Poland. By the summer of 1942, the Germans and their collaborators, the NSB (Dutch Nazis) began rounding up Jews in the provinces as well.
Jewish property was confiscated and Jews had to hand over their financial assets. When Marcus Wenning heard of the plight of the Jews, he went to Meijer’s home to offer financial assistance. Meijer told him that he still possessed resources but that he was looking for a hiding place for his family.
Wenning returned the next day, after consulting Tinie, and promised to take them in. It soon became necessary to implement a plan Meijer had devised, with Wenning’s cooperation. He was determined to save his family by taking them all into hiding.
At first the family was divided among three hiding places, but two of these proved unsafe, and eventually Simon, Ettie and their three teenage children were welcomed into the Wenning household. The Meijers were given a room in the farmhouse which had a trap-door leading to a hiding place between the floorboards and an earthen floor. A carpet covered the trap-door, and when there were searches by German or Dutch Nazis one of Wenning’s daughters would sit over it at her sewing machine, while the Meijers crouched beneath. It was only at night that the Jewish family could leave their room and go outside for fresh air and exercise.
ONE OF these searches was particularly memorable: An RAF plane, flying over on a bombing mission to Germany, was shot down near the farm. From the blast, all the windows in the farmhouse were shattered except for the room where the Meijer family lived.
This was considered a miracle on a par with the light that the Jews enjoyed in Egypt during the plague of darkness.
It was considered the house’s “lucky room” and is currently used by their daughter Lies (who was 16 months old in 1942) and her husband.
When Wenning went out into the night to get some cardboard to replace the shattered window panes that protected them against the bitter winter cold, he was confronted by the British pilot, who had bailed, and was asking for shelter. Wenning took him in and saw to it that he was transferred by the Resistance back to the Allied forces. However the pilot had not buried his parachute and it was found by the NSB, who soon organized an intensive search in the area.
Wenning, coached by Meijer, heartily received the search party, invited them in from the cold and gave them hot drinks. He even sold them a horse at a price neither too high nor too suspiciously low, after which they went on their way without searching his house.
During the two years and eight months that the Meijers lived with them, Lies knew the parents, Simon and Ettie, as Uncle and Auntie, and their three children, Alex, Gerda and Liny, as affectionate members of her family.
Lies was the youngest of Marcus Wenning’s six children. The oldest, Geesje, already had a boyfriend, a baker, who kept them supplied with much needed loaves of bread. At the age of two-and-a-half Lies was given the opportunity to prove her mettle. One day, well into the German occupation, a number of men in uniform came to the farm on a routine search for Jews. One of them, thinking he could get the little girl to reveal some secret information, offered her a candy, gave her a big smile and sat her on his lap. He asked her if she knew of any people hiding in the house.
She took the candy and told him she did not know of anyone in the house other than her immediate family.
Contact between the two families has continued over the years. In 1973, Marcus and Tinie Wenning were recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem and presented with a certificate and medallion in the presence of the Meijer family at the Israel Embassy in The Hague, the capital of the Netherlands.
TWO GENERATIONS of Alex Meijer’s family, living in Israel, have visited the farm on several occasions, but none of the Wennings had ever come to Israel.
Lies decided to travel to Jerusalem this past October to visit Yad Vashem with her son Gert, who is the village baker, and her nephew Marcus, who is named after his grandfather and runs the farm. They wanted to see the place where the memory of her parents’ heroic deed is honored with a plaque.
Alex Meijer was no longer alive, but he had bequeathed to his family the diary he wrote almost daily in those years in hiding as a teenager. This diary was lovingly translated into English by his wife, Donya Meijer, and read by everyone in the family.
Upon hearing of Lies’s plans, the family sprang into action and a wonderful week together was organized.
The visit included a tour of Jerusalem and a trip to the south of Israel to visit some of the fertile farms in the Negev where potatoes – so familiar to the Dutch – are grown. They were amazed to see fertile lands carved out of the desert sand. Their farm in the Netherlands is green from the vast available quantities of water.
The highlight was a visit to Yad Vashem, together with the entire Meijer family – Alex’s wife, children and grandchildren and their spouses, and even some great-grandchildren. It proved to be a most meaningful day for both the Wennings and the Meijers and a special tribute to Marcus Wenning and his family. Without their unbelievable courage, it was felt, the current four generations of the Meijer family would not have existed at all.
For the occasion, the Meijer grandchildren wore blue T-shirts bearing a picture of the Wenning farmhouse with two clasped hands and the text “Harpel 1942 - Jerusalem 2013” printed on the front, and the talmudic quotation “He who saves a single soul saves an entire world” emblazoned on the back in Dutch and Hebrew. Blue-shirted children piled out of the cars in the Yad Vashem underground parking garage when the family arrived there.
After a solemn tour of the museum and the Children’s Memorial with Tirza, a guide fluent in Dutch and Hebrew, there was a moving ceremony conducted by the Meijer family in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, beside the Netherlands Memorial Wall where the names of Marcus and Tinie Wenning are inscribed.
Esther, Alex’s oldest daughter, speaking for her generation, asked whether those present would have had the courage to do what the Wennings did – to hide a persecuted family and place their own family at risk as well.
Gert, who had previously visited Auschwitz, took up this question and said it was difficult to know ahead of time because it would depend on the situation; however, he hoped that the answer would be yes.
The day concluded with a festive meal at a restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. Some ditties from Groningen were sung as well as traditional Jewish melodies. Alex’s diary was opened to the same date in 1942. Listening to the entry of what had happened on that same day, 71 years ago, they all gave heartfelt thanks to the Almighty. •