Monday, April 16, 2018

Sophie, Wigel, and Fiet Primowees - Righteous Among the Nations

A week ago on Wednesday it was Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. I didn't write anything this year. We'd just returned from London, I've written about it in past years, I don't know why I didn't mention it last week. However, today, I have the chance to write about a meeting at school with Fiet Primowees whose parents are Righteous Among the Nations.

Last year the Third Grade in my school went to see a play called Hanneke and Fiet, based on the children's book of the same name by Ran Cohen-Harounoff. It's about two little Dutch girls during WW2. Today the real Fiet came to our school. She's 80 and she came to tell the now Fourth Grade her story.

One day in 1942, when she was six years old, Fiet, an only child, came home to find a little girl at home. Her mother, Sophie Primowees, told her that the child, Hanna, was staying for one night on her way to another home. Hanna had been passed from family to family as the danger involved in hiding her was too great for many families to risk. Hanna stayed with the Primowees family for three years.

Fiet didn't know that Hanna was Jewish but she did know that it was a big secret and no one must know that she suddenly had a little sister. She did tell one school friend that she had a new sister but she wasn't a baby, she was already three years old. The friend told her that this was very strange - new little sisters don't come so old. But the friend also understood, somehow, that this was something never to be spoken about. For three years Fiet never had a school friend come over to play. They had no visitors to the house and they could not accept any invitation themselves.

Fiet told us that her family were all blond and Hanna was dark. They looked nothing like each other. There was no way they could have passed Hanna off as her real sister.

Fiet is in the middle with her grandchildren seated on the left.
Right of Fiet is her daughter and next to her, the Dutch translator. 
On one occasion Hanna was very ill. A serious illness that she could have died from. They couldn't take her to the hospital and they had to try to find a doctor they could trust to come to the house. To make matters more complicated, there were Nazi sympathizers living opposite them, who were on the lookout for any strange behaviours.

Once they went to visit Fiet's grandmother. Hanneke could go outside but her grandmother was so afraid that she told them children weren't allowed to speak in the streets in her neighbourhood. One day there was another child in the street with a bicycle. An older woman came over and asked the the child if Hanna could have a ride on his bike. Fiet's grandmother was very scared but the older woman turned out to be Hanna's real grandmother who was in hiding nearby. She had recognized Hanna but Hanna didn't know who she was.

Fiet's father, Wigel (Wim), was arrested and sent to a war camp. Before he left he told her mother to keep both the girls safe and to keep them together. For Fiet, Hanneke was  gift. They loved each other. They were sisters. And then one day, three years later, there came a knock on the door. The war was over. Hanna's parents had come to collect her.

Hanna didn't want to go with them. She didn't remember them at all, even though Sophie Primowees kept telling her that her real parents would come for her after the war. Sophie went with Hanna to stay with her real parents for a few days. Then they both came back. Then they went again. And his went on for a few visits until eventually Hanna had to go to live permanently with her parents.

The two families kept in touch and visited often. When she left school Hanna went to volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel where she met her future husband and stayed, living in Israel and bringing up her own family here.

In 1981, Sophie and Wigel Primowees were honoured by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem) as Righteous Among the Nations. There was a ceremony and a tree was planted in their names.

On this visit Fiet had brought her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren to Israel to see the tree. She was going to speak at Yad Vashem. And of course they were visiting her beloved sister, Hanneke.

Our children were allowed to ask questions and among the usual questions (Did you and Hanna ever fight? - No. How did you feel when you suddenly had to share your parents? -  I loved Hanna from the beginning, she was like a gift for me.) there were some quite profound questions too.

How did you have the courage to hide a Jewish child? - We didn't feel like heroes, we don't feel like heroes. It is just a part of our family story. We did what we had to do. We did what was right.

How did you feel when the State of Israel honoured you? - We didn't ask to be thanked but it was a great honour. And it is a wonderful legacy from my parents Sophie and Wigel, to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who never met them.


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. It was very powerful. I sometimes wonder if I would have been as brave as the people who hid Jewish people. It is impossible to imagine what it was like and how everyone felt. We have no context to compare it with. Thanks again.
    Myra, from Winnipeg, Canada

    1. I know, I also think about this. It wasn't just helping others, it was putting your own family in extreme danger - that was the heroic thing. Thanks for commenting Myra.

  2. Another amazing story - these are the sorts of people who should be more famous and should be who we aspire to emulate. Their stories need to be more widely known.

  3. Replies
    1. I know. One of many many amazing stories. It was also an amazing experience to meet her.