Diet Eman, honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, spoke of her time in the Dutch Resistance when she and others saved Jews by hiding them from the Nazis.
Diet Eman, honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, spoke of her time in the Dutch Resistance when she and others saved Jews by hiding them from the Nazis.
Diet Eman, honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, spoke of her time in the Dutch Resistance when she and others saved Jews by hiding them from the Nazis.

Diet Eman, who arranged to hide Jews during the German occupation of Holland, spoke to an audience of more than 100 at Young Israel of Southfield on Sept. 29. The program was arranged by Esther Posner of Southfield, who was born in Holland before the war. When Hitler came to Holland, Posner’s family, alerted by a police officer, went into hiding. The Dutch underground came each week with food and false papers. They saved her life.

Not long ago at the Holland Museum in Holland, Mich., Posner found a copy of Things We Couldn’t Say, Diet (pronounced “Deet”) Eman’s memoir of the war years. A docent at the museum later mentioned that Eman lives in Grand Rapids. With the help of the Chabad rabbi there, Posner got in touch with Eman and ultimately arranged for Sheryl Siegel to bring her for a one-day visit; Eman spoke at Farber Akiva Day School and later at Young Israel of Southfield.

On Aug. 23, 1998, Diet Eman was recognized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as a Righteous Gentile, one who rescued Jews during the Shoah. She is 96.

During the talk, Posner hovered at Eman’s side, providing the author with water, adjusting her microphone and otherwise setting her at ease. Asked if she felt comfortable, Eman replied, “If I were a cat, I would be purring.”

Eman commented, “You are taking such good care of me.”

book-coverPosner replied, “I should. You took care of my people.”

With that, Diet Eman told how it started: “On May 9, 1940, I was 20, and we listened on the radio as Hitler promised to respect Dutch neutrality. While we were listening, German armies were invading. The next day we were occupied.

“The newspapers had stories about Jews who had committed suicide rather than live under German occupation. It was a terrible time.

“The Germans progressively restricted the lives of Jews. Jews could no longer visit non-Jews, or use the trams or buses, or attend schools or parks or movies. The synagogues were closed. My friend Herman asked if I could help him hide. I could; my fiance’s father, a principal in an isolated part of the country, knew people who had farms. They were willing to hide Jews.

“Herman had a girlfriend, Rosa, and a sister, Ada, and, of course, we needed to help them, too. Pretty soon we had 60 Jews to place.

“It was a terrible time.

“Hidden Jews needed food. Dutch people had identity papers, which entitled them to food ration cards. The Germans shipped most food to Germany; the ration cards entitled us to too little food. People in hiding needed forged papers so they could not even claim their insufficient rations.

“Acts usually forbidden were good then. We had to rob ration cards from the Germans. We would pray for God’s blessing on our robberies and that we would not have to kill anyone. Not many people make such prayers.

Diet Eman at age 20 in 1940
Diet Eman at age 20 in 1940

“Workers who issued identity papers tried to quit, but the Germans would not let them. That was a blessing: We got inside help getting blank identity papers. One of the hidden Jews, a draftsman, forged the papers.

“It was a terrible time.

“We became a resistance group, “Helping Each Other in Time of Need,” but we were no organization. We could not follow procedures. We made them up.”

Hiding Places

“Hosts trained their children to call the guests ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt’ or ‘Cousin’ or ‘Neighbor.’  Never use names; someone might overhear a name. Names might get changed.

“Isolated farmhouses made good hiding places, as did a rural monastery and a hotel that had no guests anymore. A small apartment in the big city, the Hague, made a dangerous place, but one woman kept 29 Jewish people. The neighbors might notice that the toilet got flushed too often. She had a big heart, but she did not use her noodle.

“Sometimes I had to transport people to a new place. If a Jew looked too Jewish, I gave him a newspaper to keep in front of his face on the whole train ride. ‘If one of you gets detained, the rest must still keep going,’ I told them.

“People helped hide Jews even though the Germans announced that anyone caught helping Jews would be treated as a Jew.

“It was a terrible time.”

One evening, a Gestapo officer came for Diet. Fortunately, she was out. Her father answered that his daughter was  a wild girl, who went out and didn’t come back until the next morning. The officer commiserated, “I have a daughter like that, too.”

The officer left a card with his name and telephone number. When she learned of the visit, Diet knew she could not go home. She would hardly ever see her parents for next the two years.

Overcome with longing, she sometimes arranged for her parents to leave their door open so she could peek in. Once, when she did, her father turned away; he was crying. She had never seen him cry.

“It was a terrible time,” Eman said.

Time In Prison

“I was caught and imprisoned. The cell for one person held five. It had no toilet, no water to get clean. I was in danger all the time but never alone. Every day, I recited verses from Psalms: ‘Though my enemies surround me, You are with me.’

“When they took me for questioning, I refused to admit that I knew German. At the start of the occupation, I had already stopped speaking German. So they had to get a translator. That worked out well, as it gave me time to figure out what to tell them.

“It was a terrible time.”

After The War

After the war, pro-German Dutch people generally moved to Germany.

“People who worked to save Jews came back out of hiding. Not everyone came back. Our little group was nine men, one of them my fiance, and me. After the war, seven did not come back. My fiance never came back.

“It was a terrible time.

“My fiance had worked for Shell Oil; the company offered to hire me and asked me where I wanted to go next. I took the offer and went to Venezuela.

“I am still in touch with Herman’s friend, Rosa, 76 years after we helped her go into hiding.”

By Louis Finkelman, Special to the Jewish News