SYDNEY – A remarkable survival story that began with the bravery of a Dutch couple 70 years ago will draw to an emotional close in New Zealand’s capital today when Yad Vashem presents its Righteous among the Nations award to Kiwi citizens for the first time.
At a ceremony in the Parliament House in Wellington, Ambassador of Israel to New Zealand Shemi Tzur will hand the official certificate to the children of Godefridus “Frits” and Johanna Hakkens, who hid a Jewish baby in their Amsterdam house for two and a half years during the Holocaust.
Elli Mantegari (then Szanowski) was barely two years old when her father was murdered by the Nazis and her mother fled to Switzerland. Johanna, who was the Szanowski’s housekeeper, took custody of the baby in 1942.
She and her husband Frits, who were members of the Dutch underground, hid Elli from the authorities, putting her under the floorboards or in a cupboard when necessary.
The couple also resisted the Nazis in other ways. Johanna reportedly sewed diamonds into the coats of other Jewish children who were fleeing the Nazis and Fritz worked to sabotage Nazi aircraft.
After the war, Elli’s uncle reunited her with her mother and sister, Lea, in Argentina. Frits and Johanna never saw her again. They moved to New Zealand in 1960 and died there in the 1970s, leaving three sons, Richard, Cees and Marcel Hakken and two sepia-toned photographs of Elli as a baby.
Marcel’s wife Gloria Hakken became fascinated by Elli’s story, especially after traveling to Europe in 2001. It took another decade for her to track Elli down in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Last year, Elli, then 70, and her "lost brothers" met for the first time in 68 years at Frits and Johanna’s gravesite in New Zealand. It was an emotional reunion.
“We are very thrilled that the parents are to be honored,” said Gloria, who will accept the title of Righteous among the Nations along with Marcel and Richard.
She said Frits and Johanna should be the focus of Wednesday’s ceremony.
“It’s to honor them; it’s not about us,” she said. “It’s not even about Ellie. It’s to keep their memory alive especially for our grandchildren.”
In reflecting on the award he will give the Hakkens family in front of New Zealand Members of Parliament, Jewish leaders and dignitaries, Ambassador Tzur referred to the Talmudic dictum, “Whoever saves a single life saves an entire universe.”
The family found out that Johanna and Godefridus would be awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations when they received a letter from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in February. The letter said the couple would be honored “for help rendered during the period of the Holocaust at the risk of their lives.”
Although Elli cannot be at the ceremony, the Hakkens family plans to hold a Skype call with her in Brazil.
“You really have reasons to be proud of your parents,” Elli wrote in an email in late 2010. “I listened to a tape my mother recorded about her life and the years of war. She describes how your mother and father took risks taking care of me and helping me to survive. I intend to contact Yad Vashem and start the process of honoring them.”
But this week’s ceremony would probably not be happening were it not for Gloria’s grandson, Caleb. Armed only with two sepia-toned photos of Elli as a baby, Gloria had been fruitlessly searching for her for years. Whenever she gave up, something would push her to try again.
“I went to Anne Frank’s house about four years ago and that was one of the catalysts that really inspired me to look for her again,” she told Haaretz this week.
It was only later that she found out why her efforts had failed.
“I had two letters wrong in her surname,” she said.
The final push came in 2010, when Caleb, then nine, saw a movie about the Kindertransport – a mission by British Jews that rescued nearly 10,000 Jewish children from the Nazis – organized by the Holocaust Research and Education Center in Wellington. Inspired, he begged his grandmother to try one more time to find Elli. So she fired off another letter to Yad Vashem “just to make Caleb happy.”
This time they advised she place an advert in the Dutch magazine Aanspraak.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Gloria recalled. But it worked. “Even with the wrong name her sister read the story in Los Angeles.”
Then a spine-tingling email arrived on September 17, 2010: “My name is Ester Mantegari but known as Elli. I live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was born in 1941. Our father was a tailor and taken away by the Germans. My mother fled to Switzerland. Please send me the picture you have of me as a two-year-old in case I am the one.”
The Hakkens called Elli on Skype and held up the discolored photo of her as a little girl, ending their 65-year international search. This week’s ceremony is the outcome of their efforts.
Vera Egermayer, a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, said the Holocaust Research and Education Center was delighted to have played “a small part” in helping the Hakkens family locate Elli.
“We heartily congratulate them all on receiving this prestigious award,” she said.
Gloria said her family would love to visit Yad Vashem and see the names of Johanna and Godefridus Hakkens listed alongside the other 25,000 or so Righteous among the Nations from about 50 countries.
“That would be wonderful,” she said. “It would be really special, and as Christians we’d just love to visit the biblical sites in Israel.”
Although four other people have received Righteous among the Nations award in New Zealand, the Hakkens are the first Kiwi citizens.
“It really does make it more special,” Gloria said.
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