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