As a young child, Hannah Steynen didn’t realize her life was odd. There was no way for her to know that most households didn’t host a succession of strangers, or that fathers weren’t supposed to disappear without explanation.
But for Steynen, who was born in 1942 in the small Dutch village of Zaandijk, that was all she knew for the first three years of her life. Her parents, Bart Rijpstra and Wystke Keverkamp, hid Jews and other refugees during the Holocaust. And in 1944, her father was imprisoned in a German POW camp, after he was captured trying to return an injured airman to the United Kingdom.
When the war ended, Rijpstra walked all the way home to be reunited with his family. He was honoured by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his actions.
On Sept. 24, the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada and the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem honoured the late Rijpstra and Keverkamp, who were recently bestowed with the Righteous Among the Nations designation. That designation is given by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to gentiles who saved Jews during the Shoah. Steynen, who now lives in Lethbridge, Alta., came to Toronto to accept the award on their behalf.
Steynen only learned the truth about who she had been sharing a home with a few years after the war ended. She doesn’t remember exactly how old she was, probably around eight, but she does remember that the news came as a shock.
“I was not blood related to them, and they were not blood related to me,” she said. “That was very hard for me to digest … that we did not belong to one another.”
Even though Steynem grew up thinking her parents’ actions were par for the course, she eventually realized how extraordinary they truly were. From the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, when the family began sheltering German Jews, through the end of the war, Rijpstra and Steynen saved 25 people, Steynen said. Everyone who passed through their home as a refugee survived the Holocaust.
(She and her parents remember saving the following people: Doris (Dorothea) Berliner, Erna Berliner Schwarz, Lore Zilly Durlacher, Karel Fonteijn, Rita van Rijn, Boela Wackers-Schwarz, Eva van Thijn-Loonstijn, Erna Keulen, Esther Helena Knap, Heinz Martin Silbermann, Levie (Leo) Cohen, Joop Wasterweel, Leo Wasterweel and Els Hamburger.)
That’s why Steynen eventually decided to nominate her parents for the designation of Righteous Among the Nations. For decades, she’d been holding onto a note from Yad Vashem about it.
“Every time I had it in my hand, I thought, ‘I need to do something about this, I need to follow this through.’ Well, there was immigration and raising kids. My parents actually passed away in the ’80s,” said Steynen, who moved to Canada from the Netherlands with her husband Leo and twin daughters in 1968, and gave birth to two sons after she arrived.
When Steynen took some time off after her husband died in 2013, images of her parents kept popping up in her head. That’s why she started the process of getting them recognized for the lives they had saved.
“All those who hid or gave assistance to Jews during World War II did so at extraordinary personal risk. As the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I feel deeply privileged to take part in this celebration of courage and humanity. The State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, sees honouring these remarkable individuals as an almost sacred duty. The people of Israel and Jews the world over will forever be grateful to them for bringing light and hope during mankind’s darkest hour,” wrote Galit Baram, the consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, in a statement to The CJN.
Steynen’s family stayed in touch with many of the survivors who passed through their home. One of them, Karel Fonteijn, was drafted into the Dutch army in 1945. He was sent to the East Indies to rescue residents of former Dutch colonies who were being detained in Japanese-occupied territories.
Leo Steynen had been born in one of those colonies. He was three and a half when the camps were liberated and he returned to the Netherlands with his family. Two decades later, he married Steynen.
“It is a small, small world,” Steynen said, reflecting on the fact that one of the people her parents had sheltered would have been part of the company that liberated her future husband. “When you do good, it comes back to you. That’s life, isn’t it?”