As It Happens

Diet Eman, Dutch woman who helped save hundreds of Jews during WW II, has died

When Nazis started targeting Diet Eman's friends and neighbours in the early 1940s, the Dutch bank teller put all her life's plans on hold and joined the resistance.

Eman put her personal life on hold to join the resistance movement, says friend and documentarian

Dutch native Diet Eman, a western Michigan woman who authored a book chronicling her efforts that helped save hundreds of Jews in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation of World War II, has died. (Emily Zoladz/the Grand Rapids Press/AP)
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Transcript

When Nazis started targeting Diet Eman's friends and neighbours in the early 1940s, the Dutch bank teller put all her life's plans on hold and joined the resistance.

Eman died Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Mich., at the age 99. She is credited with hiding hundreds of Jews during the Second World War and preventing them being sent to concentration camps. She even spent some time in one herself. 

She is survived by her two children and a granddaughter. 

Filmmaker John Evans chronicled Diet's work for his documentary The Reckoning, and the two became close friends. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

The story of this Dutch woman is extraordinary. How did you come to know her?

I was working on a project. It was actually a documentary during World War II of the Dutch resistance.

She was referred to me, we got together, and before you knew it, we were spending five weeks together in Europe.

She was [so] passionate about helping us tell the story that she was willing to go and walk through a lot of the same places that she had worked while she was in Europe with the resistance efforts.


She was living in The Hague when the Nazis invaded. What got her involved?

She was a bank teller in The Hague when the war broke out, and her co-worker was Jewish. And the weeks actually went on [and] Herman didn't show up.

And then she realized that he had been taken.

So she and her fiancé Hein [Sietsma] decide to engage in trying to help him.

And then when they helped him, so many people started coming out of the woodwork that they ... put their wedding on pause [and] got into the efforts with the resistance. 

What did Diet and her fiancé ... do in order to help the Jews? 

It was a small cell as far as their group, their team. There was about seven folks. Diet was falsifying some ration cards and ID papers. She was also responsible for finding ... the safe places that would take the Jews.

There's the pragmatic things that they were responsible for — but for them, there was just the spirit of who they were that really propelled them into some of these really tough situations. But their faith prevailed in a lot of them.

Documentary John Evans works with Diet Eman, a Dutch Christian who joined the resistance and who hid hundreds of Jews during the Second World War. (Submitted by John Evans )

She was not only helping Jews and hiding them, but she had gotten quite involved with the resistance. Can you tell us some of the other things that she was doing at that time?

She did a lot of deliveries. She used to hide papers inside of her handlebars on her bike, or she'd hide them on her person somewhere.

And the story of her arrest that happened May 4th of 1944 was that she had some papers, some falsified papers, underneath her sweater.

Two German officials were approaching her and stopped her. And as they were about to talk with her, a third officer walked up and he had on a jacket that had some new material. It was a higher-end coat.

The two German officials that were talking with Diet all of a sudden turn their attention and they were talking about this other guy's jacket.

Well, that gave Diet just enough time to pull the papers out from underneath her shirt and toss them behind a bush behind her.

Then they turned around and they looked at her ID, and it was falsified and they were able to tell that, so she was arrested for that.

But she was not arrested for having all those stolen documents under her shirt.

People gather to take photos Eman after a Dutch ballet performance at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2015. (Taylor Ballek/The Grand Rapids Press/AP)

So what happened to her after she was arrested?

She went to a concentration camp.

She had to prove who she was. Now, she speaks a lot of different languages. After her arrest, she only spoke French and she fabricated a story of why she was where she was and what was going on.

After six months, she got them to believe that her story was true. And so they released her.

But during her time there, that was probably the toughest part of the war for her just because she couldn't help. Not that she was concerned with paying the price of being caught, but there were still more efforts that had to be done. There were a lot of things that were going on that she wanted to be involved in.

She just felt extremely helpless. When you've got somebody like Diet who's got such a passion for justice and is willing to be on the front line, to be held back, it's quite maddening.

And what did happen to her fiancé Hein?

Hein was on ... a mission, but they were caught.

He was taken in a boxcar and was taken to a concentration camp where he ultimately gave his life.

He was able to send her one last message. Can you tell us about that?

Hein was on a boxcar heading towards the German border. And he was probably about 200 miles away from The Hague, which is where Diet was.

He wrote her a note on a small little piece of paper with a pencil, and it was reassuring that he was sure that they're not going to see each other again this side of Heaven, and that they are never going to be sorry for the stand they took, and that out of all the women, he loved her most.

He folded it up and he put it between the slats of the boxcar and it just hit the ground and rolled around a bit. 

Somebody came across this note ... the person who picked it up actually knew her father.

So here Hein slips this note to the wind out of a boxcar, and somebody who knows Diet's dad picks it up and delivers it to her.

Evans carries Eman during the filming of the documentary The Reckoning. 'She didn't want to get her shoes muddy,' he said. (Submitted by John Evans )

When she moved to the United States, she did marry someone else. But this was really the love of her life, wasn't it?

Oh yeah. When she passed, we were all around the bed, and we just thought, "She's with Hein. She's back with the love of her life."

She was reluctant to tell her story. When she moved to the United States, she wanted to leave it all behind. How did you persuade her to allow you to make the documentary?

I think we all have stories to tell. Our lives are a story. And I personally don't believe they're ours to hold onto. I think they're ours to share because there's so much wisdom and value that can come from them, from the good and the bad.

And when Diet and I were talking — as far as not just her telling the story, but going on the road and going back to these very locations — she realized with me as well that this is a story that we can't keep to ourselves.

She sees the importance of it. This isn't the Diet Eman story. It's the story of what happened and the reality of what we might be called to. It's really about, you know, what would you do?

Diet holds the letter her late fiance Hein wrote her when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp. (Submitted by John Evans)

How will you remember her?

I think I'll always remember Diet as a deliberate person. She had two things that were very paramount — and it was Jesus and justice. And it was the first that fed her to the purpose for the second.

She did it deliberately. There were no judgments with her. She was a very to-the-point lady when it came to her character and her morals and her calling.

Being able to spend the last 20 years with Diet, she has influenced me in that way greatly. Very much what is important for the day. Don't worry about tomorrow, because we're going to lose sight of where we might be needed today.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

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