A year ago, on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Levie Kanes of Kfar Haroeh, north of Tel Aviv, received a surprising email with a question that took the 75-year-old lawyer back to his infancy: “Are you baby Jantje de Ridder, who was taken off a train in mid-journey that departed The Hague on April 23, 1943?”
Kanes couldn’t believe his eyes. Jan de Ridder was the name he was given when he was hidden from the Nazis with a Dutch family that had adopted him. Jantje was his nickname. Choking back tears, Kanes called the phone number listed in the email. His call was answered by Nina Gilead-Roelofs of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, a half-hour’s drive north of his home. The information that she provided required him to make some changes to what he had thought he had gone through during his childhood.
He had lived his life with the mistaken belief that he had been saved from the Nazis by an unidentified Dutch Christian nurse who had snatched him at the last moment from a Nazi deportation train and then turned him over to the Dutch underground. Now 75 years later, the woman who actually saved him had a name, a biography of her own and a picture. She wasn’t a nurse, wasn’t Christian and was no longer anonymous.
It turns out she was a Jewish physician named Nelly Roelofs and she was the mother of Nina Gilead-Roelofs of Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael. “I was in shock – a nice kind of shock,” Kanes recounted last week.
Kanes’ prospects of survival during the Holocaust were slim. The Jewish child, born at a hospital in The Hague in January 1943, was destined for extermination from the beginning. His parents, Solomon and Caroline Kanes, were deported to the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands and then to Auschwitz, leaving Kanes alone in the hospital at first.
On April 23, 1943, when he was three months old, Levie Kanes himself was put on a transport train headed for Westerbork. It’s at that point that Kanes’ life and that of the amazing physician Nelly Roelefs intersected.
Born in Vienna, Roelofs immigrated to Holland in 1938 to pursue the love of her life. A short time earlier, on a tourist visit to Paris, she’d fallen in love with a painter named Giele Roelofs, who had been born into a famous family of artists that had provided art lessons to the Dutch royal family. Nelly and Giele, the Viennese Jewish woman and Dutch Christian man, were married in the Netherlands and started a family. In Nelly’s case, the fact she was married to Roelofs spared her the fate of most of the Jews of Holland, who were deported to their deaths. Nelly’s parents, who remained in Vienna under Nazi rule, were also saved thanks to their Dutch connection. Through the intervention of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, they were allowed to cross into Holland, then they hid in Amsterdam not far from Anne Frank’s hiding place.
When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Nelly and Giele Roelofs joined an underground cell organized around a female artist named Henrica Ru Paré, later recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center as one of Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who, at great personal risk, helped saved Jews during the Holocaust. She provided a hiding place to 50 Jews. On April 23, 1943, Nelly Roelofs set out to accompany a train from The Hague to Westerbork.
A Dutch policeman on the train spotted the infant, Levie Kanes, alone on the train and spared his life. “He approached my mother and asked if she could find a hiding place for him,” Nina Gilead-Roelofs recounted last week. “They got off the train together at a stop along the way with my mother holding the baby in her arms,” Gilead added.
‘I grew up under Nazis’ noses’
Over the following two weeks, Dr. Roelofs cared for Kanes at her home in The Hague and even nursed him, which was possible because she was nursing a baby of her own at the time. She later turned him over to the underground leader, Henrica Ru Paré, who found him a home with a Catholic family in the south of the Netherlands with the help of a priest.
“They raised me as a Christian. Every Sunday, I went to church,” Kanes said. The family that adopted Kanes ran a hotel called the Gold Lion, where among the guests were Nazi officers. “I grew up there, under [the noses of] the Nazis, who came there every day to drink beer,” Kanes recounted.
Kanes’ father was murdered at Auschwitz, as were hundreds of others from the Kanes family, whose roots in Holland go back to the 15th century. Levie Kanes’ mother, Caroline, withstood the cruel medical experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz and survived the war. After the war, Kanes’ mother returned to The Hague, where she began to put her life back together. At first she worked as a prison warden at a jail for women who had collaborated with the Nazis. Later she married a Holocaust survivor who had also lost his family and they had a daughter.
She ultimately also located her son, Levie, with the help of the Jewish community. “I didn’t want to go with them. I was very angry. I kicked and screamed: ‘You’re not my mother. I don’t want to go,’” Kanes recounted last week. “I pointed to my adoptive parents and said that they were my Mommy and Daddy,” Kanes said.
It later became apparent that underground leader Henrica Ru Paré had seen to it after the war that all of the children whom she had helped save were provided for. She accompanied the 14 of them who remained orphans to Kibbutz Givat Brenner, south of Tel Aviv, where they were given a home.
In Kanes’ case, after he was reunited with his mother, at first they lived in The Hague and then moved to Canada. Kanes was also to live in Costa Rica before immigrating to Israel in 1975. He started a family in Kfar Haroeh, a religious moshav.
Story passed through generations
Nelly Roelofs, the doctor, didn’t attempt to relocate Kanes after the war even though for a time both lived in The Hague, where Roelofs practiced medicine until her untimely death in 1976. “I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to meet her after the war and that she is not alive today,” Kanes lamented.
Dr. Roelofs had five children, one of whom was killed in an accident. Nina is the only one of the children who moved to Israel. The story of how Nelly Roelofs saved the baby was passed on in the family from generation to generation. Nelly Roelofs told it to her daughter Nina, who in turn has recounted it to the succeeding two generations.
Over the years, the family attempted to locate “the baby,” although they only knew the name he had been given by the Dutch underground, Jan de Ridder. Their efforts through Dutch immigrant groups failed to turn him up.
“I ultimately became discouraged from looking for him and was sure that we would never meet,” Nina Gilead-Roelofs admitted. But a year ago, when her own granddaughters were asked to tell the story of their family’s rescue effort, a final attempt was made to find Kanes. Nina Gilead-Roelofs’ daughter Idit discovered that a Dutch historian was researching the children who had been saved by the Dutch underground, including Kanes.
From that point, it became relatively easy to track down “the baby,” who is now 75. “It’s funny. It turns out that the little baby who I imagined has become a big man,” Nina said with a smile, looking at Kanes.