Dutch migrant honoured for family’s heroics in hiding Jews
THIS is Gerry Zwart's story. His parents received a prestigious award, but it really belongs to the whole family who willingly harboured Jewish children and dozens of resistance fighters.
It's been a long time since World War II, but the defining moments of Gerry's youth remain crystal clear.
The youngest of 12 children, Gerry was just 11 when the war started for the Netherlands, and his family's world turned on its end.
As the 90-year-old sits in his cosy loungeroom at a retirement village in Nambour accompanied by his doting wife, Valerie, Gerry shares a haunting picture of how the war impacted on all the family, who became accidental heroes by turning their home into a "safe house'' for people hiding from the Nazis.
As the weather cooled, many of the Zwart family of 12 were relaxing inside their small house in the Dutch village of Blaricum, listening to the radio.
"I remember the first day of the war: it was May 10, 1940," Gerry said. "All of a sudden we heard on the radio that the Germans had invaded."
Nobody expected this news. Before then the Germans had come as far as France. But on that fatal May date the German army invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Gerry said the family's first response was to head to a neighbour's cellar. Only a week later the Dutch army capitulated and the German occupation forces arrived in town taking over public buildings and schools.
Initially life didn't change too much, Gerry said. The children went about their normal activities. But when the general army was joined by the SS, that's when things did change.
Gerry, who was the youngest of the Zwart children, learnt very quickly to keep quiet when confronted by the Nazis.
"When the SS came, you had to make sure you didn't say the wrong thing," he said.
He watched as the SS rounded up any local men and women aged from 16 to 45 to move them by train to Germany to work in the factories. His artist father missed the cut; he was too old. His mother was also left alone.
Gerry remembers the Jews within the Blaricum community were hardly noticeable until early 1941, when the word came through that the Germans had started rounding them up in Amsterdam.
With that news, Gerry's sisters came home from school and asked his parents if two of their Jewish friends, both named Bela, could hide in the house, which was already home to eight of the Zwart family. His parents readily agreed.
In the next village his much older brother Hank had also taken in a whole Jewish family.
Soon after, "as things got tougher", Gerry said his brothers built several hiding places in the Zwart house, in the roof, under the floor and behind false walls.
They also started keeping the doors to outside locked at all times. His mother, Maria, also told everyone to use a particular knock when they came to the front door.
If the knock was different, it meant there was a German soldier outside. Gerry was 13 when he watched Hitler youth, with rifles slung over their shoulders, raid a home nearby where they found an illicit radio.
The family was arrested. Gerry remembers the young soldiers walking away from the house laughing.
"Next thing you know, they threw a hand grenade on the thatched roof and the house burnt down completely," Gerry said.
"The people were taken away to a concentration camp. Of the three, only one made it back."
The Blaricum villagers stayed strong and together, and silent about what the Zwarts were doing.
Gerry's sisters brought their schoolwork home so the two Belas could keep up their study. The teachers were not told, nor did they share their suspicions.
Early morning was when the village was cut off and raids occurred. The villagers quickly passed the news to the Zwarts, who hid the two Belas.
About six months before the war ended, while Gerry was visiting one of his brothers, there was a raid.
His brother hid in the ceiling but sent Gerry to see what was happening.
Out on the street a German soldier called him over.
"I said, 'I'm not 16 yet, I'm only 15'. He said, 'You look old enough'," Gerry said. He was sent down the road, past other soldiers, to the assembly place with 30 other boys. They were marched off to the next village, where the boys were locked in the schoolyard.
"It came to dinnertime and half the Germans went off for a dinner break. It was winter and dark. We knew the area very well.
"I said to my mate, 'When we get the chance we can leap over the fence and go into the apple orchard'.
"When half the staff were gone, we jumped the fence and ran. I never ran so fast in my life.
"The Germans were yelling for us to come back and then they started shooting. You could hear the bullets hitting the trees around you."
Gerry figured the Germans didn't know where he lived so he headed for home. If Gerry hadn't escaped, he knew he would have ended up working in a Germany factory.
Between the raids, village life continued almost normally. There was no electricity, gas or fuel for stoves, so improvisation was a must. Food, when available, was rationed.
"There was one stage where you couldn't buy food," Gerry said.
"You walked around with a pocket full of money, but it wasn't worth a cracker."
Valuables became currency for food.
When the war ended in 1945, the two Belas finally emerged as the 16-year-old Gerry joined the villagers dancing in the streets.
By his early 20s, Gerry said he had "had enough of Europe" and wanted to get out. He headed to Australia, following one of his brothers, met his wife and settled into a rural working life.
It was only recently that one of the girls, Bela van Praag, who now lives in Israel, decided the Zwart family should be honoured.
After an extensive search through Holland, she and her son Lex turned to Facebook to track down Gerry in Australia. It was the secretary of the Horticultural Media Association of Queensland, of which Gerry and Valerie are life members, who saw the post and then helped Bela to make contact with Gerry.
"One day the telephone rang," Valerie said. When she cautiously answered, the male voice at the other said, "Please don't hang up. This is Israel calling.''
Lex went on to explain his story and how the then 92-year-old Bela had nagged him to find the Zwart family.
Seventy-eight years later, Gerry last year accepted Israel's posthumous gift of the Righteous Among The Nations award on behalf of his parents, Marinus and Maria Josepha Zwart.
It is Israel's highest honour, which pays tribute to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jewish people during the Holocaust when six million lives were lost.
Gerry acknowledges it is an award for his whole family, who in their various ways were all champions of protecting and saving many lives.