Tales of Courage Changed His Life: Mark Klempner's Meetings With the Holocaust Rescuers

This article, written by Yonat Shimron, was orginally published in the Raleigh News & Observer.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Mark Klempner applied for a research fellowship in Europe because, well, he wanted to go to Europe. But the research project he did there turned into much more than a junior year semester abroad.

It changed his life, renewed his faith and inspired him to strive for a more compassionate society.

Klempner, who went on to earn a master's degree in folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed 40 Dutch men and women who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust. These ordinary middle-class Dutch citizens taught Klempner, who is Jewish, the value of resisting evil and taking action.

The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage, is a collection of 10 oral histories of people who hid or helped Jews in the Netherlands beginning in the summer of 1941. It is also a story of his own personal transformation.

Klempner will be speaking at a Durham bookstore and a Hillsborough church next week as North Carolinians mark the annual Holocaust commemoration. Klempner said his interviews with the rescuers had such a deep emotional effect on him that he returned to college no longer sure of anything except that he wanted to write a book about his research.

“When I came back I could hardly function,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was so powerful to have met the rescuers that when I started to think about coursework and grades, I could hardly relate.”

The stories he heard from the rescuers, who were in their 70s, 80s and 90s when he talked with them, forced him to consider why some people took personal risks to help people in need, while others were preoccupied with their own problems or too scared to do anything.

He interviewed people such as Rut Matthijsen, who in 1942 was asked by a fellow student at the University of Utrecht if his dorm room could be used during the day as a resting place for people “coming from Amsterdam.”

Sensing that his friend was referring to Jews, Matthijsen agreed, and soon he got involved forging identification cards for Jews. Starting in 1941, one year after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Dutch Jews were rounded up and sent to transit camps, then taken to concentration camps such as Auschwitz. By forging ID cards, Matthijsen could give Jews new identities as non-Jews.

Another rescuer was Heiltje Kooistra, a homemaker and a devout member of the Dutch Orthodox Church, a strict Calvinist denomination. For three years, she and her husband hid eight Jews in their home in Utrecht. It was a tremendous burden on her family, including her three daughters, but she said she would do it again.

“One helps where there is a need,” Kooistra is quoted as saying in the book. “The main thing to keep in mind is that it is not a sin to have problems. People who are in trouble are not to blame for their circumstances. They need to be treated with compassion, not wariness.” Klempner absorbed all the stories, coming back for repeat interviews and recording 84 hours of cassette tapes. Of the 40 people he interviewed -- all in English -- he wound up using 25 stories for his research project. The book contains 10, and it is interwoven with his own personal history.

Klempner’s father, a Polish Jew, escaped Europe in 1939 on the last boat from Poland to New York. His parents’ distress at losing relatives instilled in him a sense of fear about the Holocaust -- a fear he carried with him in his adult life, including 10 years as an acoustic guitar player. He was able to conquer it after talking to the rescuers.

“When I met with the rescuers, I sometimes sensed that they were looking at me as a child or grandchild of someone they had rescued,” he wrote in his book.

While some of the rescuers were deeply religious, others were not. All shared a spirit of loving kindness, which Klempner said they extended to him.

They also shared another trait: Ordinariness. Christopher R. Browning, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill who wrote the foreword to Klempner’s book, said the rescuers “did not stick out in society. Their behavior was not predictable.”

Still, there was nothing ordinary about what they did.

Klempner said all the rescuers learned habits of altruistic behavior from their parents. Indeed, many of the rescuers had siblings or parents who were working to shelter Jews too.

The rescuers were independent-minded. They didn't care what other people thought and weren't too concerned with social status or achievement.

Finally, the rescuers were people of action who listened to their hearts and didn't let their heads interfere.

“Often they told me that if they had thought too much about what they were doing, they might have talked themselves out of it,” Klempner wrote. “Not that reasoned determination didn't sometimes play a part, but so did sheer courage.”

Today, only five of the rescuers Klempner interviewed are still living.

The majority of the Dutch people cooperated with the Nazi occupiers. About 60,000 Dutch citizens -- or fewer than 1 percent -- resisted the Nazis. Of those, an even smaller fraction dared to rescue Jews.

That impressed Klempner, because at least initially, the rescuers had no one to guide them.

“Until you yourself made the decision to take action, you didn't meet other people who took action,” Klempner said. “In the Netherlands, it was a solitary choice.”

Or, as he wrote, a tug of the heart.

Clara Dijkstra of Amsterdam, who took in a Jewish girl during the war, lent Klempner the title of his book.

“Why did you help?” Klempner asked her.

“It was only human,” she is quoted as saying.

“But so many others did nothing.”

“Well, you know, the heart has reasons.”

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