Alberta man's parents honoured for bravery in harbouring Holocaust refugees
'Had the Dutch Nazi across from us been wondering what went on behind our curtained windows?'
Hartgert van Engelen trembled as German officers searched his family home, barely missing the hiding places he had helped his father build behind the walls.
Van Engelen was just a boy, Europe was in the grips of Second World War, and his family was harbouring five Jewish refugees inside their home.
"Had the Dutch Nazi across from us been wondering what went on behind our curtained windows, passing his suspicions on to the Germans?" said van Engelen, 86, who will accept a bravery award on behalf of his parents at a ceremony in Edmonton Tuesday night.
"We never knew."
The family had been warned of the raid and moved the refugees to the homes of trusted neighbours and in the nearby forest, but they failed to conceal a passport belonging to one of the Jewish children they were hiding.
It tumbled out from the bottom of a laundry hamper as officers ransacked their living room.
This time, we had crept through the eye of a needle.- Hartgert van Engelen
"If they had only turned the page of that passport they would have found a stamp impression of the Star of David," van Engelen recalled a written account of the war.
"If they really would have inspected our compost heap, they would have found a hidden radio.
"This time, we had crept through the eye of a needle."
Van Engelen's parents are being posthumously awarded with one of Israel's highest honours, the Righteous Among the Nations award.
Those recognized have their names engraved on the wall of honour at the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Israel.
Van Engelen, who immigrated to Canada in 1952, will accept the honour on behalf of his parents during a ceremony in Edmonton's Beth Israel Synagogue.
Albertus and Gerrigje van Engelen concealed several people in their home in Soest, Netherlands, during the final years of the war.
Among them, Ilse Jacobsohn, a German Jew who fled Germany with her parents after Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish riot in November 1938.
She would eventually find her way to the van Engelen family, allowing her to escape the fate of her parents who were killed in a concentration camp.
The Karpe family — Leo Karpe, his sister Beppie, her husband Martin Bremer and their son Bob — also found refuge with the van Engelens. Leo arrived first, after escaping deportation to a concentration camp.
As a boy of 12, van Engelen was sworn to secrecy. His friends were forbidden from the family home.
His father began to build hiding places behind the wall in an upstairs bedroom and inside a closet.
The curtains on their front living room were drawn tight. They would not open again until the country was liberated by the Allies.
The family and their wards lived under a cloud of paranoia. The Germans occupied a building down the street. A local policeman lived next door.
'No relief was in sight'
Beyond the constant peril of a death sentence or incarceration, the threat of starvation was growing.
The Dutch were starving. Caravans of desperate people poured out of the cities and into the countryside, often trading cherished family heirlooms for a sack of potatoes.
Even so, the family's generosity was unyielding. They coped with critical food and fuel shortages by logging and foraging for food in the forest.
The family heard reports of a looming Allied victory, but the advance of the troops was agonizingly slow.
"No relief was in sight, people were dying at a rate of thousands a day," van Engelen recalled. "How long would they have to wait, how can they survive with no relief in sight?"
By April 1945, Allied troops had advanced to Hoevelaken, about 25 kilometres from Soest.
The front line was drawing closer. The whizzing of bombs brought a unsettling hope to the young van Engelen.
"We could now make use of the bomb shelter in our garden when we heard the whistling sounds of explosions of projectiles that were fired from both sides. And there was an eerie silence. What was happening?"
Finally, in May 1945, relief.
Van Engelen remembers standing along the main street of his sleepy village as the Canadian troops marched in.
We did not want any honours to be bestowed upon us.- Hartgert van Engelen
He remembers finding his father, his uncles and Leo dancing.
"With people climbing on the tanks and trucks and piling into the many jeeps, throwing flowers, girls kissing and embracing the soldiers, people dancing on the street.
"This parade just kept coming and coming with no end in sight. We were finally free."
Now, decades later and his health failing, van Engelen remains humble about his parents bravery. He only wishes more of his countrymen would have provided refuge to the Jewish people.
"We did not want any honours to be bestowed upon us, we did not want any," he said.
After the war, the van Engelens remained close with the families they rescued, as did the generations of children that followed.
Coming together for Tuesday's ceremony was emotional for the descendants of both the rescuers and rescued.
"It's pretty overwhelming," said Claudia Kobayash, granddaughter of Albertus and Gerrigje van Englelen
"It's beautiful. It feels like something is becoming whole again."
With files from Edmonton AM