A high school student’s history project has led to his great-grandparents being honoured by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, for saving Jewish children during the Second World War.
Matthew Lang grew up never knowing about the heroism of his Dutch ancestors. When he uncovered the story while preparing a class assignment for his genocide history class at Waterdown District High School in Waterdown, Ont., however, it became his passion.
Now, because of that passion, Johannes and Catharina Van Roon have been named Righteous Among the Nations and will have their names added to the Wall of Honour at Yad Vashem. It’s the same honour awarded heroes such as Oskar Schindler.
Lang’s research also led to an emotional reunion between Lang’s grandfather and Ralph and Marion Berets, the children who one day appeared in his home and then suddenly vanished.
“I’d never heard this story in my life,” Lang said in an interview with The CJN. ”At first, I just wanted to create a story for my class, but once we found Mr. Berets, it became something a lot bigger.”
Tom Van Roon, Lang’s maternal grandfather, was seven years old when his parents brought two new children into their home and warned him and his six siblings that they were never to speak of the guests.
“I was only seven at the time and at that age, you don’t get a lot of say in things like this,” he said. “We didn’t know any better, but I did wonder why they never went to school or played outside and why they went and hid whenever someone came to the door.”
Their hiding place was an attic space above the apartment’s back bedroom. Initially, their parents visited often, but eventually, Dutch resistance leaders told them to stay away because their Jewish appearance endangered their benefactors.
“This could have been deadly for our parents because if you were caught hiding Jews, you were put on a train and never heard of again,” Van Roon recalled.
The arrangement lasted three weeks, Van Roon said, before one of his sisters let the secret slip at school and the resistance decided to move them.
Like too many stories of the Holocaust, this one almost faded away. Van Roon said he told his children of the incident, but it didn’t reach all of his grandchildren.
After hearing the tale, Lang focused his attention on learning the ultimate fate of those children, and found out that Ralph Berets was a retired English professor in Virginia and a regular volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Setting up the initial contact fell to Van Roon.
“I telephoned and said, `This is Tom Van Roon. I last spoke to you 72 years ago,’ and there was eight seconds of dead silence before he simply said, `I can’t believe it.’ ”
That first phone call wasn’t long, but Lang, his family, Van Roon and Berets eventually met at the Washington museum.
“I gave him a big hug and then the conversation just started,” Van Roon said.
During that talk, Berets shared the rest of their story. Initially, he said, they hid in a forest cabin until they were betrayed by a neighbouring child. After hiding in a ditch and watching Nazi soldiers burn the cabin, they found the child who had betrayed them hanging from a hook in his family’s barn.
Eventually, the Berets were hidden in a chicken coop with a dozen other people. The space was so crowded, the occupants had to take turns lying down. That’s where they were hiding in May 1945, when Canadian soldiers liberated the Netherlands.
The Berets-Van Roon reunion was in 2017, the same year as the infamous neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. It’s also the year Lang began petitioning for his great-grandparents to be honoured by Yad Vashem.
“They were never recognized for what they did and I thought that was just crazy,” Lang said. “Getting this was a very, very long process. This started out as just a class project, but I wouldn’t have spent three years working on something that didn’t mean a lot to me.”
A medal and certificate marking the honour will be presented to the family in a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in the Hague in April.
For Madeleine Levy, chair of the advisory board of Facing History in Ourselves Canada, which helped establish the genocide history course, Lang’s pursuit of the honour for his great-grandparents is a testament to the never-ending quest for truth.
“This was a journey of the relentless pursuit of justice and shows we can all find the strength to do the right thing,” she said. “It’s a wonderful example of students doing great things in school.”
The genocide and crimes against humanity course is offered to Grade 11 history student at the Waterdown high school. It was created in 2014 by teacher Rob Flosman and includes having the students curate an annual museum in the school.
Manny Figueiredo, the director of education at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, said Lang’s success shows the “incredible power of education” to bring people together to understand history.
“I am humbled and inspired by the story of Matthew,” he said. “Having been to Yad Vashem, I appreciate the gravity of this righteous deed. We are so fortunate to have educators leading work that explores the difficult learning around the Holocaust and genocide.”
Lang is now a social sciences student at McMaster University.
Fran Sonshine, the national chair of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, said families like the Van Rooons represent the best values of humanity.
“Righteous Among the Nations were ordinary men and women who demonstrated extraordinary courage during the Holocaust. These individuals from various backgrounds across Europe had a common characteristic: conviction in the responsibility to help, guided by moral choices. These are the values the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem aims to convey to the next generation of Canadians through its Holocaust education programs.”