Meet the Catholic couple who risked their lives for others during the Holocaust

Frans and Mien Wijnakker. Photo courtesy of Marty Brounstein

We need to be reminded of the good in people.

Year by year, the Holocaust fades further and further from memory and finds permanent rest in the annals of history. There will be a point, certainly during some of our lives, when there will be neither survivors nor perpetrators of one of the 20th century’s most despicable atrocities. Now is a time where it is imperative to tell the stories of that horrible event, so that future generations might learn from the struggles of the past.

Marty Brounstein’s book, Two Among the Righteous Few: A Story of Courage in the Holocaust (Dorrance Publishing Co., second edition, 2017) concerns the story of a Dutch couple who, by serendipitous circumstances, found themselves involved in saving the lives of more than two dozen Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

It is a story which Brounstein has re-told many times now since the book’s publication, inspiring audiences in synagogues, churches, and schools alike. The book shows a personal passion for the subject. And that’s unsurprising, considering that his wife is intimately connected to the entire saga.

The story told in Two Among the Rightous Few is that of Frans and Mein Wijnakker, a humble, recently married Catholic couple living in a rural area of the Southern Netherlands at the outbreak of World War II. As the Nazis conquered Western Europe in 1940, the family of Frans and Mein Wijnakker found themselves living in an occupied nation with four small children no older than 5.

Frans and Mien Wijnakker. Photo courtesy of Marty Brounstein

While circumstances were dire, the Wijnakkers were a couple of great resolve, and Frans took it upon himself to support his family through whatever means necessary. This entailed bringing items such as cheese, milk, and meat from farms in the country into cities such as Amsterdam where they were sold in a black market, as wartime rationing had made such items difficult to acquire for most civilians.

It was during one of these routine visits in 1943 that Frans encountered a doctor with a strange request. Frans was requested to take a 14-year-old girl under the name of Freetje into his home in the countryside for a few weeks under the guise of getting her some fresh air. Perhaps naïve to the true nature of what he was doing, Frans nonchalantly accepted and brought the girl back with him, arriving home late with an unexpected guest for Mein.

One would expect any mother with small children in an occupied nation to be frustrated with her husband for bringing back another mouth to feed, but as Brounstein makes clear, Mein’s support for her husband was so strong that she was willing to take this girl in for a while, knowing neither her true identity or the true reality of the situation into which they had gotten themselves.

It was not long after this, in the summer of the same year, that Frans was contacted by a man known simply as “Long John,” a member of the Landelijke Organisatie voor Hulp aan Onderduikers, (The National Organization for Help to People in Hiding), or L.O. in brief. This was an organization dedicated to protecting people whom the Nazis would rather want dead, ranging from Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” to political opponents such as communists or other resistance fighters. The L.O. reached across all boundaries of politics, faith or blood, offering protection to anyone whom the Nazis wanted to get their hands on.

Long John asked Frans and Mien if they would be willing to help hide other Jews around the nearby villages. As the Wijnakkers lived in a rural area, it was an ideal place to hide small bands of people. After all, the Nazis could not be bothered to routinely check every house in every backwater hamlet for dissidents in hiding, certainly not by 1943 as the war in eastern Europe began to seriously shift in favor of the Soviet Union.

While the L.O. mostly concerned itself with the hiding of Gentiles, the Wijnakkers ended up saving two dozen Jews exclusively, hiding them with associates in nearby villages right under the nose of the Nazis. The Wijnakkers are unique among the many who helped the L.O., in that they hid only Jews, a precarious task which they still managed to complete without a single person being caught before the area was liberated by Allied forces in late 1944.

Marty Brounstein and his wife Leah Baars. Photo courtesy of Marty Brounstein

Among those saved was a newlywed couple pregnant with their first child, a child named Leah who would be born during this occupation and ultimately emigrate to the United States in 1959. This girl would eventually return in 2009 to the place where her parents were saved during her first visit to the Netherlands since 1984. She brought along her husband, a business consultant named Marty Brounstein who would be introduced to the children of Frans and Mein Wijnakker in the same house that had saved so many 70 years earlier.

Brounstein was gifted with a transcription of Frans’ testimony, recited on the latter’s deathbed, and was inspired to refine the rough autobiography into a coherent historical text, giving context and nuance to the amazing story of a humble family who risked so much to save the strangers in their midst.

Brounstein said that despite the grimness of the Holocaust there were people amidst this darkness who were willing to do the right thing, those who neither took part firsthand in the slaughter nor looked away and feigned ignorance at the atrocities going on around them.

Brounstein has often heard following his talks that “amidst the great tragedy of the Holocaust, I didn’t know there was anything positive. And that positive is something we can learn from.”

Though more were complacent with the crimes of the Nazis than actively resisted them, there were still some who not only knew what the right thing to do was, but actively risked their own lives to do it. These are the manner of people now commemorated at Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. It is important never to forget that while people are capable of horrendous things, so too, are they capable of impressive deeds of heroism, an important fact to consider lest we grow too pessimistic about our fellow man.

In times such as these, where we find ourselves increasingly divided politically and skeptical of whatever camp lies beyond our increasingly narrow tribes, stories such as the Wijnakkers demonstrate not only our common humanity, but the willingness to bridge differences in the face of a greater threat.

As Brounstein relates, he has found that throughout his touring in promotion of the book, “People are bothered by the climate of our country, by what for some seems like a loss of civility and respect … we need more of this, these are the people we need to be following.”

In times where we witness surges of refugees, homelessness, and despair around the world, we must be reminded of our own capacity for good, be it a part of our daily lives or an attribute which requires re-awakening. The willingness of the Wijnakkers to do the right thing speaks to a recognition that beyond our differences, be they of blood or creed, evil is evil, and should always be countered by those with the courage to do so.

Brounstein’s tale of Wijnakkers in Two Among the Righteous Few is a testament to the light hiding amid the darkness of the bleakest moments in our history. It demonstrates that those with an uncompromising ethic behind them are capable of remarkable things, even under very dire circumstances.

As Catholics, people such as the Wijnakkers should serve as an inspiration to ourselves whenever faced with situations as serious as these, and remind us that we all, as children of God, should not shy away from offering a hand to those in need, least of all the Lord’s first, chosen people.

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