Mark Klempner’s Speech to Members of Congress and their Staffs

Bottom Up Bravery: Learning from the Holocaust Rescuers

I'll never forget how anxious I made my grandmother when, as a child, I innocently drew a design that resembled a swastika. My mother, seeing my bewilderment over this unexpected reaction, explained to me that my drawing reminded Grandma of something terrible. At that age, I could hardly understand how a mere set of lines on a page could so upset her.

Later I learned that she had emigrated from Hungary several years before the Nazi threat became really ominous. Her ten brothers who stayed behind, all on their way to becoming rabbis, were murdered by the Nazis. That was on my mother's side of the family.

My father escaped Europe on the last boat out of Poland. On August 25, 1939, he and his two brothers, one sister, and his parents, boarded an ocean liner bound for New York. One week later the Nazis invaded, and all sea travel became verboten. My father's mother once sat me on her lap, and, turning the pages of photo albums from the Old Country, showed me wedding pictures, sepia-toned young couples, smiling women, and plump children in their little white shoes. “Hitler took them all,” she said.

If my father and his family hadn't made it onto that ship, their only hope would have been to run across some non-Jewish people willing to risk their lives to save them. I've come to think of these people as the radiant specks around the black hole of the Holocaust.

You’ve probably heard stories about such rescuers as Raoul Wallenberg and Oscar Schindler. So I'm only going to read you a three brief stories from my book The Heart Has Reasons to remind you as to just how amazingly kind and courageous people these people were. I use the past tense because most of them have now died—although a few of them, I’m happy to say, are still very much with us.

This is Clara Dijkstra:

“Let me tell you how Nettie came into my life. One spring day in ’42, I went to visit some friends and there was a woman there named Sylvia Bloch. She was very shaken up because early the next morning, she and her husband had to report to the Zentralstelle, the big Nazi office on the Adama van Scheltemaplein, to go to work in Germany. They had been given a chance to dive under, but the people who had offered to hide them wouldn't let them bring their little daughter. ‘Why don't you give her to me? I said. ‘I'll take care of her.Ù She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes. ‘What can I pay you to do this?’ she asked. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Nothing at all.’

“She'd been almost hysterical, but now she calmed down. She left right away, saying she would bring her child to my place as soon as she could. A little while later she appeared at my front door with two-year-old Nettie. She had brought her stroller and all her clothes. When Sylvia was leaving, the child was crying ‘Mamma! Mamma!’ But after a while she settled down, and took a nap.

“When my husband came home, he looked at Nettie asleep in the stroller, and said, ‘What's this?’ ‘She's ours,’ I said. ‘I'll take care of her; I'll handle everything. If the Germans come, just let me do the talking.’ My mother wasn't happy either. She said, ‘Don't do it! Don't do it! You worry me so!’ But I told her, ‘Mother, I love you, but it's already done. We have a child, a Jewish child.’ Then she said, ‘Good for you.’”

This is Kees Veenstra:

“There was a raid on our little village of Bussum in autumn of ’44, and a section of the town was closed off. But a man came bicycling down our street trying to escape. He rode up to me, panting, ‘I'm a railway man, and they'll shoot me if they find me.’ I said, ‘Come with me.’ My father and I had dug out a makeshift hiding place beneath the floorboards in the hallway of our kitchen. There was a big cupboard there, and you had to go through the lower door of the cupboard to get down below. We had sawed the floorboards, so they could be lifted up at that spot.

“When we heard the Germans approaching, we opened the cupboard, pulled up the floorboards, and crawled under. Then my mother put the boards back, threw a piece of linoleum over them, and put a vacuum cleaner on top of it all. A few slivers of light came through the slats, but besides that, it was pitch dark. That railway man and I lay beside each other on the clammy ground, listening to the sounds from the street; we could hear German soldiers yelling, and every now and then, a burst of machine gun fire.

“Soon the Nazis were at our house, banging on the door with the butts of their rifles. My mother let them in—six or seven soldiers. At that moment, she remembered that there were some illegal newspapers on the dining room table—stupid, for we never left those lying around. The Germans were about to search the house, but my mother said, ‘Here, let me make you something to drink.’ So she crumpled the illegal papers and lit the wood stove with them. We had no gas anymore, so that was perfectly plausible. Oh, she was clever, and not afraid!

“Meanwhile, we were lying under there with nothing between us and the jackboots of the Nazis but the floorboards. We listened as the commander questioned my mother.... All the while, that railway man’s heart was pounding like a hammer in his chest--boom, boom, boom. Could they hear it? Thankfully, no. But I must say, my mother was very brave, don't you think?”

And finally, a story told to me by Ted Leenders:

“In 1942 the raids began. One day a policeman came to our door and told Tilla that the Germans were coming to our street. He was a good man; he went to each house to warn everyone. Tilla got a message to me at the mine and I came home right away. We were hiding a Jewish family in our house—a couple with a young boy....

“Tilla started to put away all their things. She sandwiched their clothes between our clothes in the drawers. She hid their personal items. But in the cellar was a cache of about forty weapons that had been left by the policeman who used to live in the house. He wanted me to get them to the Dutch Resistance, but I hadn’t had time to move them. And now, the Gestapo were coming, and I had a cellar full of weapons. What to do?

“Then an idea came to me: we had an old vacuum cleaner that used a canvas bag to collect the dirt and dust. I attached the dirt bag to the air intake. Then I brought it to the top of the cellar stairs and turned it on. You should have seen the dust! After it had settled, it made it look as if no one had been down there for years.

“We'd already gotten false papers for the people we were hiding so that they could not be identified as Jewish. We gave the boy a note and sent him to stay with someone we knew on another street. The mother worked as a nurse at the tuberculosis sanitarium, and she could stay overnight there for a week. But the father refused to leave. ‘It's a false alarm,’ he said. ‘They wouldn't come here.’ We tried to reason with him, but our time was running out. Finally, Tilla said, ‘If you won't leave, then we're leaving.’ And he was barely one hundred yards out the door when the Gestapo arrived.

“Ten, fifteen Nazis surrounded the house shouting ‘Sie! Komm her!,’ and all the things more. They came in fairly rude and rough, and started searching. They didn't ask where, what, or how. And then the man in charge, Commandant Müller, stomped in and started accusing us of everything. And I kept on saying, ‘I don't know what you're talking about. We've lived here many years. I work in the mines.’ They said, ‘Yah, we know where you're working.’

“They treated Tilla very rough. She was scared, and I was too. I thought it might be the end for us, that they would shoot us before they left. Then Müller started interrogating us. The questions he asked would make you so confused that you didn't know what to say anymore. But Tilla was very brave.

“I knew that they would go down in the cellar. But I acted first, to turn it to our advantage. I said, ‘Herr Müller, I know you want to search the house. Go ahead and search. Let's start with the cellar. Let me take you down there.’ He glared at me. I went on, ‘Müller, you are accusing me of all kinds of things, but I am going to show you I have nothing to hide. Follow me down to the cellar.’

“Now, you have to understand, the SS hated to be told what to do by civilians. He went over to the cellar door, looked at the dust on the stairs, and didn't want to bother. He shined his flashlight and said, ‘Aach, there's nothing there.’ Then he shouted to his men to clear out. But just as he was going, he grabbed me by my hair, and pulled my head back. ‘I'm going to get you someday. I'll get you while you're sleeping.’ and crack!—he slapped me in the face.

“After he left, Tilla, who we didn't even know was pregnant, started to bleed very heavily. Then everything came out, and the doctor who examined her told us that she'd had a miscarriage. He said, ‘You will never have children.’ And that is the price we paid--she and I.”


I should add that Ted later accepted a position as a mining engineer in Liberia, Africa and while he was there, someone left an African baby on Ted and Tilla's doorstep. They adopted the baby, and raised him—even sent him to medical school in the U.S. He's now a doctor in Kansas City.


Unfortunately, the bravery and compassion of people like Clara, Kees, and Ted was not typical of either the general population or the country's public servants.

Less than five months into the occupation, the Germans required all government employees to fill out an “Aryan attestation.” This form called for detailed information about the applicant's family background, especially any Jewish ancestry. Though there was some protest—not just from the government employees, but also from several churches and universities—in the end, all but 20 of the 240,000 Dutch civil servants dutifully signed and returned the form.

Dutch historian Peter Romijn reports: “From the German point of view, the registration went as planned. Anyone who was of two minds about signing the attestation, and who sought guidance from their superiors, found none. The Supreme Court refused to sanction refusal to sign, most members arguing that in view of the state of war the Germans had the right to take such measures. Because of the position taken by the Secretaries-General and the Supreme Court, any chance of making a collective protest was lost.”

Soon after demanding the Aryan attestations, the Germans began to issue the first of hundreds of regulations aimed at denying Dutch Jews their civil liberties. These got increasingly worse until Jews could not drive cars, make telephone calls, or practice their professions. And that was only the beginning. Pretty soon nearly all the Jews in Holland were on their way to concentration camps.

I asked the rescuers how they had become the people they were, when so many around them were bystanders—or worse. As I spent time with them, I was always trying to figure out what they had in common. Here are three of my findings:

First of all, nearly all of the rescuers told me that, as they were growing up, they had known someone who went out of his or her way to help other people. Usually it was a parent or relative. So part of the answer is simply that the rescuers learned altruism through the example set by their parents, or by others who were close to them. Home was also where they learned to not draw the kind of lines between “us” and “them” that would exclude certain groups from their circle of concern. This later immunized them to the attempts of the Nazis to devalue and demonize the Jews.

A second factor is that the rescuers had developed the capacity to think for themselves and to act independently on their convictions. Very few Dutch people were engaged in hiding and helping Jews; such a decision was so dangerous that it often had to be made without a word of advice from family or friends. People who were looking to other members of their social circle to decide how they should respond to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews would have thought that everyone else seemed to be minding their own business--if not collaborating with the Nazis. The instinct to conform would have led them to do the same. Often, it wasn't until an individual became involved in helping Jews that he or she came in contact with other people who were also taking action. This meant that those who helped tended to be people capable of disregarding public opinion, and making their own decisions.

Catherine Klumper was ninety-eight at the time I met with her. When I asked her to tell me about the war, she asked, “Which one?” for she was already a teenager during the First World War. She recalled lively family discussions around the dinner table while she was growing up during the first decade of the twentieth century; each family member would argue his or her own point with guests of all kinds of religious and political persuasions. Mrs. Klumper believed that having been raised that way helped her to decide for herself when World War II came along that she would not tolerate the way the Nazis were treating the Jews.

A third point is that although the rescuers had developed the ability to think for themselves, they had also learned not to think too much. Many of them told me that if they had thought too much about what they were doing, they might have talked themselves out of it. It was as if they were able to act from their hearts without dwelling too much on the risks of doing so or the dire consequences should they be caught.

This ability to act from the heart in accord with their personal values and convictions really seemed like the common denominator among all of the rescuers, and that is why I called my book about them The Heart Has Reasons, from Pascal's famous observation that, “the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.”


Although I am not sure that this ability to act from the heart can be taught, at least no more than traits such as courage can be taught, I do believe that the other two things I mentioned—being exposed to people who go out of their way to help other people and learning to think and reason independently—can definitely be cultivated and encouraged by forces beyond the family.

Community service—whether organized by our schools, our places of worship, or other institutions—is a great way to expose children to adults who go out of their way to help other people, and it also enables children to experience for themselves the joy of helping others. If they engage in these kinds of altruistic efforts under normal circumstances, their capacity for altruism will develop and during times of crisis they will be more likely to be the ones who step forward and lend a hand.

In my interviews with the rescuers, I was surprised to learn that many of them had been touched by a particular humanitarian program that had gone into effect in the aftermath of the First World War—one that brought malnourished little boys and girls from war-torn countries like Germany and Austria to the Netherlands, where they were fed and cared for by the Dutch families who had volunteered to take them in. It did not seem coincidental to me that a high proportion of the Dutch rescuers grew up in families that had participated in that very program. Let's listen to a short excerpt from my interview with rescuer Hetty Voûte in which she remembers her own family's participation in this program:

Hetty Voûte on the post-WWI humanitarian aid program:

MK: ...and there was a program where families in the Nederlands had volunteered to take children from Austria—.

HV: Yes, we had them, from Germany and from Austria, children after the war.

MK: You? Your family? Tell me about that.

HV: For years afterwards they became, of course, those girls became our friends. And I was still very small, but my mother always told me there came a train with starved little girls and boys, and they were in a big room, and then Mother could choose who she wanted to take home with her. There was a small black-haired girl, and my mother asked her, ‘Do you like playing with dolls?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you like embroidering?’ ‘No.’ Then my mother said, ‘You're exactly like my own children. Come with me.’ [laughs] And she became a big friend, and afterwards her family also came.... We had other girls; yes, we often had children out of those groups.

MK: They stayed for months?

HV: For months, yes. Yah. And we were seven, so it was very easy that there came some more. It made no difference.


So although the rescuers had been exposed to altruism through the example of someone close to them, this single humanitarian program also had a big impact on shaping their characters. I'm not sure if it was a government program or something started by a church, charity, or some other kind of NGO, but, it taught those children who were exposed to it the importance of giving, sharing, and helping.

In fact, one rescuer I interviewed had been directly served by that program—a girl who came from Austria and became so close to the Dutch family who took her in that she never returned to her home country: her name was Miep Gies, the woman who tried to save Anne Frank and her family. When I interviewed Miep, she made a direct connection between the generosity of her Dutch benefactors and her later decision as an adult to help the Frank family.

As for children learning to think independently, that is certainly something that can be cultivated at school, provided that teachers aren't forced to merely “teach to the test,” but can instead teach their students how to reason and question.

Finally, I'd like to close with a bit of public policy advice based on my many conversations with the rescuers:

Don't expect the next disaster/crisis/threat/catastrophe to be the same as the last one. We've all heard that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, but I learned from the rescuers that the lessons of the past must also not be interpreted narrowly. Instead of drawing literal conclusions from history, we must recognize that although certain basic moral principles will be violated and certain larger patterns will recur, all this will occur under different and unexpected circumstances.

As I write in The Heart Has Reasons, “Even those who know their history will probably misread current events if they are not prepared to broadly interpret the lessons of the past and to expect the unexpected. When the rescuers' generation was facing a possible Second World War, the Netherlands had historically been a neutral country--how did it serve the Dutch to remember that? Never before had genocide occurred on the scale of the Holocaust--what use was their knowledge of history in facing it?

“Furthermore, they had been raised to mistrust the fabricated atrocity tales of the First World War--how did that help them to recognize the real horrors of WWII? The Nazi occupation required the Dutch to find their bearings on a new set of historical coordinates and most were not up to the task.”

And, of course, we've seen this proved again in our own country as we have attempted to deal with new and unprecedented threats. In Lawrence Wright's history of Al Queda he writes, speaking about the organization's early years, “The most frightening aspect of this new threat . . . was the fact that almost no one took it seriously. It was too bizarre, too primitive, and exotic. Up against the confidence that Americans placed in modernity and technology and their own ideals to protect them from the savage pageant of history, the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and even pathetic.” How wrong we were.

And many people had the exact same reaction to Adolf Hitler when he first came on the scene in Germany in the early 1930s, both Germans and those observing from other countries: they thought he was a buffoon, a coarse, poorly educated demagogue who certainly didn't have what it took to lead a nation. How wrong they were.

In contrast to the vast majority of us, however, the rescuers' approach towards understanding what was going on in their life and times was dynamic, even creative: they were able to think outside the historical box, as well as the Nazi propaganda box that was telling them, for instance, that Jews working in “labor camps” like Auschwitz had hot and cold running water, plenty of blankets, and good food. But the rescuers looked at what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people right before their eyes and saw through the lies.

This ability to see the reality unfolding before them was crucial. Many Dutch people had decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to see, for seeing would necessitate action. Then there were those who were trying to be optimistic, but their optimism blocked out their view of reality. The rescuers I have told you about were capable of admitting what was going on without being overtaken by a need to believe that “things can't really be that bad.” Even as they hoped for the best—and were, in fact, characterized by a remarkable degree of positive thinking—they were able to take long, full, look at the worst, and did not feel compelled to deny it, ignore it, or explain it away.

So I can't help but wonder...what are the threats that we are facing now that we might not fully recognize, perhaps because they are unprecedented, or because our conditioning has blinded us to the dangers they pose?

[slides flash by that depict various images: graph showing the Earth's rising temperatures, American flag with corporate logos instead of stars, grid indicating the location of long-range nuclear missile silos throughout the world, overpopulation, and more, ending with a pair of dice that contain question marks instead of dots.]


As wonderful as the rescuers were and as inspiring as their stories remain, their extraordinary heroism would not have been necessary had they simply lived in a just society. The further we get from justice the more we have to depend on bold and daring people who recognize that their society or government has, for whatever reasons, lost its way or otherwise betrayed its own most cherished principles, and are not afraid to defy the status quo and oppose unjust authority.

So, in addition to needing brave citizens willing to do the right thing even when society's moral compass has gone haywire, we also need brave lawmakers who will stand up for the rights and interests of society's most vulnerable, and resist the myriad forces that would seek to bend the legislative process to benefit the few while shortchanging the many. In other words, lawmakers who are committed to crafting and upholding just laws. And of course, we also need brave public servants in the judicial and executive branches.


I started out by recounting how my father and his family fled persecution in Poland and had the good fortune to obtain passage to the United States of America, a democracy where they would not have to depend on the kindness of strangers to protect them, but that offers each of its citizens what David K. Shipler describes as, “a durable framework of Constitutional protections.” They were not disappointed by this fabled land: in it they found safety and freedom as well as opportunity, and, eventually, prosperity. It was a home worth fighting for, and, in fact, my father entered the Army and served in World War II.

If I were to lobby you on behalf of survivors like my father and rescuers like the ones I've told you about today, I would implore you to not only keep this country a safe haven, but also one in which, unlike Nazi Germany, the government is an open window not a closed door; where dissent is expected, even welcomed, not suppressed and punished; where citizens need not fear the intrusion of those who would search their homes and seize their property without probable cause; where those suspected of wrongdoing are not harshly interrogated, or brutalized; where, upon arrest, one need not fear being detained indefinitely without recourse to legal representation and a fair trial; where one need not fear being tortured. Where there are no scapegoats and no second-class citizens, where the same laws apply to all, where, to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr., people are not judged by the color of their skin—or by their religion, ethnicity, social class, gender, or sexual preference—but by the content of their character. In short, a country worth fighting for.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing you here today.

©2017 Mark Klempner. All rights reserved.