A pensioner from Gwynedd has forged an emotional bond with the daughter of a little Jewish girl who was saved from the Nazis in wartime Netherlands by his incredibly brave grandparents.
Almost 80 years on, Joost and Anna Schoen’s grandson, Chris, a retired printer from Penygroes, has met Arleen Kennedy, the daughter of Suze van der Bijl, who escaped certain death in an extermination camp thanks to their courage.
The remarkable meeting happened two years after Chris cleaned a swastika painted on the wall of the Red Lion pub in his home village and spoke out against the scourge of racism.
The dramatic story is revealed for the first time on television in the first episode of a new series of Gwesty Aduniad (Reunion Hotel) on S4C at 9pm on Tuesday (September 6).
It has echoes of the tragedy of Anne Frank but, unlike the ill-fated diarist, five-year-old Suze lived to tell her own story in person.
Sadly, Suze’s parents and brother and sister were killed in the Sobibor death camp in Poland where it’s estimated that up to 250,000 jews were murdered, with the vast majority being gassed within hours of arrival.
The reason that Suze survived was that railway worker Joost and his wife, Anna, sheltered her and passed her off as their daughter during the chaotic days following the Allied invasion in June 1944 as Gestapo gangs continued to round up Dutch Jews – including Anne Frank who died in Bergen Belsen in early 1945.
Suze was reunited with other surviving members of her family in the Netherlands after the war and emigrated with them to the USA where she married and had two daughters, Arleen and Diane, but she never forgot the courageous family who risked death to save her.
Arleen was flown to the UK to meet Chris by Caernarfon-based television company Darlun who make Gwesty Aduniad.
The story of how the family came to look after Suze has been handed down and Chris said: “Joost and Anna were known for being very patriotic and were approached by the Dutch Resistance and asked to look after this little girl.
“Her mother had handed her over to the Resistance because she knew she and her husband and their two older children were going to be picked up by the Gestapo – they were shipped off to Sobibor and were murdered in the gas chambers there soon after arriving.
“My grandmother in particular was a very feisty woman – she would plant orange marigolds outside the house and the Nazis would rip them out but she’d re-plant them anyway.
“They were involved in sheltering Allied airmen shot down in the Netherlands and using a hidden radio and a printing press to pass on information – Suze even slept under the printing press in the loft.
“Their home was searched by the Gestapo but it had two lofts and they searched the wrong one – the other was blocked off and they didn’t search it.
“They asked Suze what was in the loft and she replied, ‘Mice’, so I don’t think they were very bright – she was the only dark-haired one in a family who were all blond.
“But it was dangerous. In a nearby village all the young men were taken as forced labour to Germany and not many came back.
“My father, Jaap, who was a young man in his early 20s, spent the rest of the war going from hiding place to hiding place to avoid something similar.”
Jaap joined the Dutch Army after the war and was sent for training to the UK where he met his future wife, Pamela, in Wolverhampton, marrying her in 1947.
They started a family and he worked for the Co-op and rose to be a manager, moving the family to Cardiff when he became a buyer for the food department at the David Morgan department store
In Cardiff Chris worked as a printer before moving to Gwasg Gwynedd Printers in Caernarfon in 1995 and then as an administrator at Ysbyty Gwynedd, learning Welsh along the way, but he was always proud of the family connection with the Netherlands and the little Jewish girl they had saved.
As a boy he had family holidays with their Dutch relatives, including Chris’s cousin family historian Ed Van Rijswijk, who were also visited by Suze and her daughters from the USA but it wasn’t until Gwesty Aduniad brought them together that he met Arleen.
They did receive a reel of film of Suze’s wedding from the USA and he remembers his father getting a projector and his mum putting a bedsheet up on the wall and seeing for the first time the young woman his grandparents saved from the Nazis when she was a child.
Chris remembers his dad always used to point to the bride and say, ‘That’s the little Jewish girl we hid’ but sadly the film has been lost.
Now he believes he and Arleen share a bond as if she is a step-cousin although they had never managed to have a close connection until the programme brought them together at former stately home Iscoyd Park, near Bangor on Dee.
It turned out to be a delight, said Chris: “The programme contacted me and said they wanted to organise a reunion and they managed to get everyone on board and earlier this year I met up with her.
“It was great. I was very nervous but she turned out to be a real character and lovely to get on with.
“We keep in touch now on Facebook and she has invited me to go over to Massachusetts. It’s just great that we’ve been brought together after all these years.”
The courage of Chris’s grandparents in sheltering little Suze from the Nazis has been recognised – their story was featured in the book ‘The Other Schindler’s List’, published in 1999.
His cousin Ed’s research has led to Joost and Anna being recognised by the Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, with a specially minted medal bearing their name, a certificate of honour, and their names on the Wall of Honour in the Garden of the Righteous in Jerusalem.
In 2012 a Yad Vashem ceremony was held in an Amsterdam synagogue to remember Dutch people who risked their lives to help persecuted Jews during the War when Chris’s grandparents were among those recognised with medals and certificates which Ed received on the family’s behalf.
Chris added: “There are still Holocaust deniers out there and people need to be reminded that this was a reality and should not be forgotten. It impacted my family and millions of lives.”
Series producer Gwenllian Griffith, of programme-makers Darlun, said: “It is a lovely story and it has been so little known until now but it was sad as well because Suze’s family offered their little girl to the Resistance because they knew their own fate was sealed.”
The first programme in the new series of Gwesty Aduniad, featuring Chris and Arleen telling the remarkable story, is on S4C on Tuesday, September 6, at 9pm and is available on catch-up.