The bright side of darkness
Dutch-born Anneke Burke recounts family providing safe haven to Jews
May 02, 2007History is the subject school children love to hate.
But when the events of the past are translated through people who experienced them, the results can be fascinating and enormously educational.
On Friday, Imlay City Middle School students received a history lesson they will not likely soon forget.
The school hosted Anneke Burke-Kooistra, a Dutch-born woman whose family hid eight Jewish people from the Nazis during World War II.
|Imlay City Middle School students respond with an appreciative round of applause after hearing the emotional story of Anneke Burke, a Dutch woman whose family protected Jews in their home during World War II.|
Burke explained that her parents, both Protestant Christians, began offering protection to Jews in 1942, following the German occupation of Holland in 1940.
Recalling the events that transpired during a three-year period until the war's end on May 5, 1945, Burke shared a story of uncommon courage and perserverence during a dark time in world history. She pointed out that much of what she shared with the students had been told to her by her parents.
Burke said many of her countrymen were at first enamored with the German occupation, citing some improvements, including the elimination of income taxes. But the tides quickly turned once Dutch families began to notice the inhumane treatment directed toward Jewish families.
"By 1941, the Jews were being restricted from using public facilities and they were being forced to wear the Star of David to identify them," Burke recalled. "At this point many of the Dutch began to question the occupation."
While she didn't know it at the time, her parents became members of the Dutch underground. It was their affiliation with the clandestine organization that led them to provide sanctuary to Jews seeking refuge.
She described how her father made openings in the floorboards of their home to create a crawlspace for hiding purposes.
"Each night, they filled pails with sand and dumped them into the nearby canal to create a (waist-high) crawling space beneath the house," said Burke. "Our house was referred to as the 'rubber house' because when we took in more people, it would stretch.
"I believe miracles were allowed to happen in that house," she continued. "We must have had God's protection. There were so many times we were very close to being caught."
Burke cited one particularly harrowing incident when the family's home was being searched by three German soldiers.
"The Germans searched our house three times, but each time we'd been warned by a Nazi family who knew they would be coming," Burke recalled. "On this one occasion, one of the soldiers walked to the back door and the other stayed at the front door so no one could escape. "A third soldier walked hard through the house, using the butt of his gun to hit the floor. I wonder now what would have happened had somebody sneezed or made a noise. It must have been terribly frightening for the people hiding in the crawl space."
Burke recalled yet another occasion when one of the Jews being hidden required medical attention. Because the family's regular doctor was unavailable, they had to trust another physician they didn't know. After treating the patient, the doctor left with some comforting words.
"The doctor told my parents, 'As soon as my foot passes over the threshhold of this house, I will have forgotten what I saw here.'"
"That doctor took a big risk by coming to our house and treating a Jewish man," added Burke.
While the challenge of feeding and caring for a 'secret' family of up to eight people was perilous for Burke's parents, the announcement that the war ended on May 5, 1945 caused an eruption of jubilance.
"My mother woke us up and brought us downstairs," she recalled. "Everyone was crying and hugging."
Burke noted that it was the first time she had set eyes on the entire secret family.
"I was so young, I never knew there were eight strangers living in our house," she said. "I didn't find out who was in that room until May 5th. Our parents had to lie to us because it was a matter of life and death."
Thirty years after the war's end, Burke's parents were honored in Israel with a tree planted in their honor in Jerusalem. Honors were also bestowed on the couple by the queen of Holland.
In addition, a plaque has been affixed to the former family home in Utrecht, Netherlands, commemorating Burke's parents for their efforts during the war.
"My parents were not heroes," Burke told the students. "They were just like you and me. We can all do good things and make a difference.
"I am so proud and grateful that my parents had the courage to stand up to such evil. They were able to make a difference. I am still feeling the blessings today for what they did."
Burke said she remains in touch with a few of the people who found refuge in her family's home in the 1940s, though most of them have died.
She added that her family's experience, followed by many years of personal reflection, have afforded her a unique outlook on life, loving and the pursuit of peace.
"I believe that when there is love in your heart, there is no room for hate," Burke said, suggesting that each of the students should try to love themselves.
"If you can love and be kind to yourself," she said, "it will help you love and be kind to others. It can change your life and the world."
During a question and answer segment following her speech, Burke alluded to a question asking her 'what she would like to say to Hitler.'
"I would ask him why he hated himself so much that he would do the things he did," she said.
Burke's visit and speech took place in conjunction with middle school students' current studies of the Holocaust.
The speaker's visit was arranged by middle school math/language arts teacher Julie Raiss, who will be taking her students on a field trip to the Holocaust Museum in West Bloomfield on May 16.