At the Dutch Resistance Museum, a Greenwich man accepts a medal in honor of his mother
Last October Ruurd Leegstra made a memorable journey to the Netherlands for a ceremony honoring his mother, a woman small of stature and huge in courage. A woman whose husband escaped to England in a German plane in 1941, leaving her with three children under the age of four. A woman who cut off the blonde curls of an eight-year-old Jewish girl to better match her children and took her into their home until the war ended. A woman who outwitted the Nazis.
Ruurd, the baby, was one when his father left. He had been born in Holland at the start of World War II, and left when it was over to come to America. He has been back many times since, but this visit last fall was very special.
His is an unusual family saga. Ruurd’s father Hidde Leegstra, a test pilot for Fokker and a member of the Dutch Air Force Reserve, was confined to his barracks at the air force base after the Germans invaded his country on May 10, 1941.
“In those days, there was what you might call a little chivalry between the fliers on the opposing sides,” says Ruurd. “My father said, ‘Look, I’m a flier like you guys. I’d like to do a little flying.’ So the German pilots let him fly this old airplane but gave him only fifteen minutes’ worth of gas.” Hidde would go up for exactly fourteen minutes each flight, eventually saving up enough gas to get to England. Along with a friend sitting in the back, he took off “on a day so foggy that even the birds were walking,” says Ruurd, “in this plane with German markings and wearing German flight gear.” Luckily, he crash-landed where he did — in a farmer’s field in an area protected by the Home Guard rather than by the regular British army — and wasn’t shot down.
As an air force officer, Hidde went on to work for the Dutch government in exile around the world, spending much time in the United States, which is probably why Ruurd, his sisters Sjoerdje and Tjalda and their mother Hella could be among the first people out of Holland in 1945. The family was reunited and settled first in New Canaan, then Rye.
When the Gestapo had come to their home in Hilversum, a distant suburb east of Amsterdam, looking for Ruurd’s father, his mother had pleaded ignorance (the Underground had already told her that he was safe in England). Meanwhile, when their downstairs neighbor in the two-family home decided to move to Amsterdam, Hella offered to take in a little Jewish girl who had been hiding out down there. Her name was Edith (pronounced A-dit) Halbertsma (a fictitious last name given her to hide her Jewish identity). She was eight years old, and with her cropped curls fit right in with the fair-haired Leegstra children. Edith’s cover story was that her house in Rotterdam had been bombed out and her parents had sent her to live with the Leegstras.
In actuality, one night in 1943, before Edith’s father returned from work, the Nazis had come pounding on the door of their home in Amsterdam. Her mother didn’t answer it and luckily the Germans didn’t kick it in, but the next day the Resistance took Edith and her mother into hiding. Her father was later arrested and sent to Westerbork transit camp; but he managed to escape, go into hiding in Amsterdam and become an expert at forging identity papers for Jewish children being held captive in a day-care facility. Her mother went into hiding in Almelo. A young Gentile friend of Edith’s family named Paula served as courier, secretly delivering messages between the girl in Hilversum and her parents.
“My mother knew I was doing it, but my father didn’t,” Paula told Ruurd’s wife Elaine Leegstra when they met last fall at the ceremony. “He would have stopped me.”
Paula, Edith and Ruurd, representing his two sisters, were all there — Ruurd to accept the medal for Hella Leegstra-Boereboom (her maiden name last, in Dutch tradition). It was presented by the Yad Vashem Foundation, an organization in Israel that has sought out and recognized people who at great risk to themselves hid Jews during the Holocaust. Hella’s name will be engraved on the memorial to the protectors — called the Righteous Among Nations — in Jerusalem. Ruurd has promised to visit it.
Also in attendance were Greenwich friends Netty and Peter Schieferdecker. Peter had survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands [see sidebar, page 140], and on a barge trip through Holland with the Leestras several years ago, he had shared wartime stories with Edith when she joined them for dinner aboard the boat. Ruurd says it was Peter who sparked Edith’s interest in pursuing Yad Vashem on his mother’s behalf. He also credits Peter with teaching him enough Dutch to enable him to address the crowd in his native tongue.
“What Ruurd’s mother did was something extremely brave,” comments Peter. “First, her husband had disappeared, leaving her exposed to German suspicion. Second, to hide this child. Think about it: Most towns in Holland are sort of like Byram. Everybody lives close together and knows what’s going on in all the other houses on the street. There was probably an understanding among neighbors that there was a girl there who they didn’t know too much about, but they didn’t ask questions.” “Ruurd’s mother had all kinds of Resistance people hiding in her home for a night or two,” remembers Paula. “It was one of those families where everything was possible.” “Hella was a gentle, sweet woman, and I was simply part of the family,” says Edith, who was reunited with her parents after the war. “I am quite certain that my life was saved by her extraordinary courage.”
“Ruurd’s mother worked hard (for awhile as a waitress), liked to knit and do the New York Times crossword puzzle,” recalls Elaine, noting that you never would have guessed that the small, unassuming Hella could have been so involved with the Resistance. She never talked about it. Sadly, Hella died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at fifty-two. “She had a very difficult life,” Elaine adds. “Moving to the United States, leaving everything familiar behind, was probably very hard for her.”
“My mother never once felt that she did anything extraordinary when she brought Edith into our home,” says Ruurd. His sister Tjalda agrees. “Mammie was so self-effacing, she would never think of herself as heroic, but we all know she was.”
As do a great many others. Ruurd was touched by how many people attended the ceremony, which in most cases honors a group rather than a single protector. “Most of them didn’t even know my mother,” he points out, but they had been part of the Resistance and came, some in wheelchairs. “I found that to be very profound.”
Ruurd was also moved by the way the head rabbi of the Netherlands talked to the schoolchildren there. “He spoke in such a concise way that they could really understand what he meant. It’s so easy to lose sight of that terrible time, and they don’t want the children to forget.”
Elaine was the only person who addressed the crowd in English, which the twelve-year-old students clearly understood. They went wild when she presented each of them with a Yankees’ baseball cap. What is Edith like now? “She’s delightful, petite, very bubbly, outgoing, charming,” says Ruurd. And her husband Jaap, now retired from Arthur Andersen, is “just a super guy.” The Leegstras stayed an extra day after the ceremony to walk through the forest and the streets of Hilversum with them, stopping by the house that once held so many secrets.