His­tory class project leads Wa­ter­down teen to find the Jewish boy his Dutch fam­ily shel­tered from the Nazis

Great-grand­par­ents hid Jewish brother, sis­ter from Nazis in Hol­land

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MARK MCNEIL mm­c­neil@thes­pec.com 905-526-4687 | @Markatthes­pec

It was one of those fam­ily sto­ries that no one was cer­tain about the de­tails.

The ba­sic nar­ra­tive went like this: Some­time late in the Sec­ond World War in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied Hol­land, an­ces­tors of the Lang fam­ily in Wa­ter­down — at great risk to them­selves — hid a young Jewish boy and his sis­ter in their home for a pe­riod of time to shield them from the Nazis.

But imag­ine the trou­ble of ver­i­fy­ing the Holo­caust story to­day, all th­ese decades later, long af­ter the heroic cou­ple died.

What be­came of the pro­tected sib­lings who would be close to 80 years of age if they were still alive?

That’s the chal­lenge that 17-yearold Matthew Lang — the great­grand­son of Jo­hannes and Ca­te­rina van Roon — took on for a Wa­ter­down High School his­tory project this year.

The Grade 11 stu­dent needed a topic for the class that looked at geno­cide. So he asked his mother if she could think of any­thing. She re­called hear­ing about the Sec­ond World War story in­volv­ing her rel­a­tives in Amers­foort, Hol­land, but didn’t know much more.

“When I found out my great­grand­par­ents did this act and were never rec­og­nized, I felt I needed to look into it for my fam­ily,” said Matthew.

With as­sis­tance from his grand­fa­ther Tom van Roon and great en­cour­age­ment from his teacher Rob Flos­man, Matthew man­aged to find an even more com­pelling tale than his fam­ily knew.

“I had the boy’s first name (Ralph) and the sis­ter’s name (Mar­ion) from my mom’s cousin who had searched for them be­fore,” Matthew said.

He thought he knew the last name but it was wrong. Three weeks were wasted chas­ing that lead.

He probed fur­ther afield. One of his grand­fa­ther’s broth­ers thought the name was Berets, or some­thing like that.

A Google search — then bingo. They found a Ralph Berets fea­tured in a video in­ter­view at a web­site run by the Mid­west Cen­ter for Holo­caust Ed­u­ca­tion. Among the mem­o­ries he men­tioned was staying at a home in Amers­foort with a fam­ily that ran an ice cream shop on the first floor and lived on the sec­ond.

Berets did not men­tion the fam­ily’s name but it was clear to Matthew that he must have been talk­ing about his great-grand­par­ents. They sold ice cream as well bak­ing breads and had seven chil­dren of their own.

In the com­ing days, work­ing with his grand­fa­ther, they man­aged to find a phone num­ber on­line, and Matthew found him­self di­al­ing the num­ber of Ralph Berets.

“I in­tro­duced my­self. Ralph Berets was quite ex­cited to hear from me be­cause our fam­ily had lost com­mu­ni­ca­tion with him. It had been a long time.”

Berets turned out to have a re­mark­able mem­ory of the time, even though he was only four years old. His sis­ter was six.

Af­ter the war he im­mi­grated to the U.S. and be­came an English pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri at Kansas City, and re­tired in 2002. He now lives in Ar­ling­ton, Va. He’s now 77, and his sis­ter Mar­ion, 80, lives in the Nether­lands.

Berets said the van Roon house in 1945 at 21 Ju­lianaplein had a se­cret trap door in a sec­ond-floor closet that gave ac­cess to a lad­der to reach the rafters.

The chil­dren were given drills about how to slip away quickly and qui­etly through the pas­sage. The idea was to pull up the lad­der be­hind them and close the latch com­pletely.

One day, he re­mem­bered, two Ger­man sol­diers came in to look around. The chil­dren’s mother was vis­it­ing and the three scram­bled into the at­tic through the se­cret pas­sage. Mother was so ter­ri­fied she wet her pants and it dripped down the sec­ond-floor wall, Berets said.

“We could hear the Ger­mans talk­ing and prob­ing around,” Berets said in a tele­phone in­ter­view with The Spec­ta­tor.

The sol­diers headed for the closet, and a cat lunged out. It must have been the cat, they thought, and left.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, Berets got sick and needed to be taken to the doc­tor by Matthew’s great-grand­mother. Not so fast, said a Ger­man of­fi­cer they met down the street. Luck­ily, a phoney iden­ti­fi­ca­tion card made by the Dutch re­sis­tance con­cealed the child’s true iden­tity.

Berets said they only stayed for three weeks at the van Roon house in Amers­foort. It was the nicest of all the places they hid. But af­ter the close calls, they fig­ured it was time for the chil­dren to move on and con­nect back with their par­ents.

Fa­ther Otto had been liv­ing in some­one’s garage and mother Hilde had been staying at a butcher’s house.

The four ended up at a for­mer chicken coop at a nearby farm — with oth­ers — “that smelled ter­ri­ble. It was aw­ful.”

There was also a bunker that they would hide in when bombers ap­peared in the sky.

“I re­mem­ber when we were fi­nally lib­er­ated ... There were Canadian sol­diers march­ing through. They were hand­ing out cho­co­late and chew­ing gum, nei­ther of which I had ever had be­fore. I re­mem­ber tak­ing the chew­ing gum, chew­ing it and swal­low­ing it be­cause I didn’t know any bet­ter.”

The story of Berets — and the role of the van Roon fam­ily in keep­ing them safe — is part of a pop-up mil­i­tary mu­seum Flos­man’s class put to­gether at the high school. It was open to the pub­lic for a while, but this week it is be­ing dis­man­tled.

Flos­man says the an­nual mu­seum has been built and taken down each year since 2013.

They have amaz­ing ar­ti­facts, ev­ery­thing from medals to uni­forms with one of the most in­ter­est­ing ex­hibits be­ing the yel­low Star of David worn by Holo­caust sur­vivor Na­dia Rosa while she was a pris­oner at the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp.

Flos­man says the mu­seum is a chance for stu­dents to get their hands into his­tory. “I just wasn’t sat­is­fied with books. Books don’t con­vey the story. You have to do his­tory. You have to live it as much as you can,” said Flos­man.

And that’s ex­actly what hap­pened with his stu­dent Matthew Lang, he said.

“And I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

PHOTOS BY CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

In­side the pop-up mil­i­tary mu­seum cre­ated at Wa­ter­down High School.

Above right: A life-size model of a Sec­ond World War trench, part of the pop-up mu­seum. Above left: Jo­hannes and Ca­te­rina van Roon, who hid Ralph Berets and his sis­ter Mar­ion. Left: Matthew Lang in the Anne Frank room of the pop-up mu­seum. Lang tracked down Berets with help from his grand­fa­ther.

PHOTO SUPPLIED BY RALPH BERETS

Ralph Berets, now 77. He was hid­den by the van Roons as a boy.

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