The University Record, October 22, 1996

Pritchard, University Wallenberg lecturer, became a rescuer in 1942

 

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

Photo of Marion van Binsbergen Pritchard

 

Failing to acknowledge the heroic efforts of Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust "is a distortion of history that should not be," asserts Marian van Binsbergen Pritchard, this year's recipient of the University's Raoul Wallenberg Medal.

At the seventh annual University Wallenberg Lecture Oct. 16 in Rackham Auditorium, Pritchard shared a number of examples of Jews who helped fellow Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis.

Unlike Gentile rescuers, they have not been given credit for their efforts, Pritchard said, because people think that "Jews who rescued Jews were merely doing their duty."

Pritchard became a rescuer in 1942 when, at the age of 22, she agreed to care for a Jewish infant. The 2-year-old stayed several months with Pritchard and her family until a safer place could be found outside Amsterdam. From then until the end of World War II, Pritchard hid and cared for Jews, working to save the lives of at least 150 people, mostly children.

Pritchard told the story of Lientje Brilleslijper, the daughter of a Jewish family of circus artists, and her German husband, Piet, and their daughter, Kathinka. Lientje and Piet were determined to survive and decided that they would assist as many other Jews as they could, Pritchard said.

They invited all of Lientje's Jewish relatives to join them in a house in the village of Huizen. Fifteen to 25 Jews were living in the house at various times, Pritchard said. On July 12, 1944, the house was surrounded and searched by German police. During the search Lientje threw two very convincing fits and pleaded with the police not to send the children to prison. The parents, who were later taken to Gestapo headquarters, asked that instead the children be taken to the homes of local doctors who had to swear that they would release the youngsters only to the Nazi authorities.

The children were placed in the doctors' custody. However, before the Gestapo could retrieve them, Pritchard and Karel Poons, a Jewish ballet dancer who was passing as a Gentile, kidnapped Kathinka and whisked her away to safety.

Without Poons' courage and willingness to distract the doctor and guard at the front door, Pritchard said she could not have rescued Kathinka.

Pritchard talked about another hero, Walter Suskin, a German Jew who had come to Holland before the war. Children under the age of 12 were placed in a center across the street from the theater that he ran and that was being used by the Nazis to register Jews. Suskin devised a way to save 600 to 1,000 children by avoiding registering the children when they arrived. Later, when the children went out in groups for walks, they would "disappear" and be placed in foster homes.

Resistance doesn't always involve guns and acts of violence, Pritchard noted. She told about Esther, a 16-year-old Jewish woman in hiding who intentionally became pregnant so she could leave the world a Jewish baby. She arranged for the infant to be cared for by Gentile parents until the baby boy could join a Jewish Orthodox community. Esther and her boyfriend were killed in the death camps, but the baby lived, Pritchard said.

Pritchard, associate professor and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Violence at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, said the motivations for rescuers are as varied as they are for any group, and include money, religious convictions, identification with role models and special circumstances.

She told of one German baroness who rescued out of spite. The youngest of eight children, the baroness felt unloved by her mother who also was anti-Semitic. The woman rescued a number of Jews and eventually married one.

For Pritchard, "it was my parents' unusual way of child-rearing that provided the motivation for me to behave the way I did during the war. I was never punished and always encouraged to express my feelings, both the negative and positive ones, in words. I was treated with respect and consideration from the time I was born. I grew up treating people the same way."

As part of the evening's program, members of the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation recounted the life story of Wallenberg, a U-M alumnus who served as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest in 1944. He helped save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews by bargaining with Nazi officials, establishing safe houses, distributing false passports, disguising Jews in Nazi uniforms and setting up checkpoints to avert deportations. He was imprisoned by Soviet troops when they captured Budapest in 1945 and is believed to have died in a Russian prison.

On behalf of the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation, Ann Arbor Mayor Ingrid Sheldon presented a memorial plaque honoring Wallenberg to interim President Homer A. Neal. The plaque will hang in Lorch Hall, where Wallenberg studied architecture. He earned a bachelor's degree with honors in architecture in 1935.