Righteous Among the Nations
Dear little children, with eyes large and staring,
Black with dark devastation enfolding,
Eyes full of fear, full of terror conveying
Despair, disaster beyond comparing.
-from poem, Moyshelekh Shloymelekh
By Alan Simons
APRIL 19, 2009 (Toronto) – This Monday evening, April 20 in Toronto, Israel’s Consul General Amir Gissin will bestow the distinction of Righteous Among the Nations. The distinction, which is given by Yad Vashem on behalf of the State of Israel to those individuals who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, will be given posthumously to Catharina Develing for saving the life of John Sanders, a Dutch 4 ½ year old Jewish boy from Amsterdam. Mr. Sanders, who was born in 1938, now lives in Toronto and will be attending the ceremony.
Catharina Develing died some 30 years ago in Leiden, which is located 46 km south-west of Amsterdam. But her immediate family, who have lived in Canada for many years, will be present to accept the distinction on her behalf at this year’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony (Yom Hashoah V’Hagvurah).
Co-sponsored by UJA’s Holocaust Centre of Toronto and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem with the support of many community organizations, the event is regarded as the largest commemoration outside Israel. Last year’s commemoration attracted over 2,000 people. This year’s theme centres on remembering the children of the Holocaust. The first community commemoration for children took place in 1989.
A few days ago I spoke to both John Sanders and Mrs. Develing’s grandson, Bill Knetsch.
Mr. Knetsch told me how his aunt, tante Janie, described to him the day John arrived at their family house in Leiden accompanied by a female member of the Dutch underground. For security reasons, the underground had changed contacts three times before delivering John.
The underground handed over John’s legal documents and 600 guilders, a princely sum in those days, to Mrs. Develing. “If anything happens . . . this is to take care of John,” she said. Mrs. Develing’s brother, in the meantime, had made a false bottom in a family clock and for safe keeping they inserted into it the 600 guilders and John’s papers.
Mrs. Develing, who had become a widow before the war with five young children, one boy and four girls, never once used the 600 guilders to buy food for her family. She felt that the money didn’t belong to her. Instead, as times became harder and especially as the Canadian liberation forces entered the country, she attempted, without success, to sell her wedding band in exchange for food.
Bill Knetsch said that during the war, his grandmother through her underground contacts, always found a way to write to John’s father who was himself in hiding with his wife. She told him how John was doing. “My grandmother adopted John as her son. He became part of our family. They all went to church and to family gatherings,” Knetsch remarked.
At the end of the war, John’s father, Ben Sanders, bicycled to Leiden from Amsterdam to find his son. Ben had no idea where to look for him. However, he finally found the street and neighbours pointed to Mrs. Develing’s house. Mrs. Develing was shocked. She hadn’t realised her neighbours had known all along that she had hidden a Jewish boy for nearly three years.
“Tina my mother is now 82. She’s not too well, so I hope she will be able to join us at the commemoration,” remarked Knetsch. “As for John, he’s still very much part of our family. My mother regards him as a brother.”
John Sanders explained to me that as a young Jewish boy with brown eyes and dark hair, a Dutch family had to be found for him that had similar characteristics. Mrs. Develing’s family fitted the mark. And, just in case inquiries were made by the Germans or their Dutch collaborators about John, a story was concocted that John’s father was in a German labour camp and his mother was in a sanatorium with TB.
Besides John, both his parents and a younger brother, born during the war survived. His baby brother had been taken in by a pastor of the Dutch Protestant Church. Two other brothers were born after the war, and in 1953 the Sanders family decided to emigrate to Canada. “Because of the Cold War period, my mother no longer wanted to live in the Netherlands. She felt there was going to be another war,” Sanders told me.
Today, John Sanders continues to remain in touch with Catharina Develing’s family. “After all, I regard them as my family,” he said.
It is estimated that Jewish children under the age of 16 accounted for one out of every four of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust – 1.5 million children.
(Photo credits: The Develing family and Elliot Sylman)