This post is brought to you by Teigan Goldsmith, Archivist of the Ottawa Jewish Archives.
As some of you may have seen, we updated our display case outside of the Greenberg Families Library this week. When trying to decide what the next display should be I stumbled upon an item in our collection that captured my attention. It was a Second World War, forged identity card. It’s not everyday you come across something that historically significant. I dug into the file a little deeper and after some further research decided to feature the incredible life of its owner, Arie Van Mansum.
Below is a brief account of Arie’s life. As much as I would love to give you every last detail about his 79 years, I simply don’t have the space. For more information about Arie check out Janet Keith’s book A Friend Among Enemies: The Incredible Story of Arie Van Mansum in the Holocaust available in the Greenberg Families Library or make an appointment with the archives to do some research.
Arie Van Mansum was born in Utrecht Holland on March 5th 1920. He was the second of four children born to Gerrit and Neeltje van Mansum.
When Arie was 6 years old his Father was transferred for work to Maastricht, a city located near the borders of Belgium and Germany. This area was predominantly Roman Catholic. The van Mansum’s were members of the Reform Church, and Arie attended the Protestant elementary school. He had his first encounter with religious prejudice at a young age when bigger boys from the Catholic schools would chase him and call him names. Some even went as far as to throw rocks through the Reform Churches windows. A mess, Arie’s father had to clean as the church custodian.
In 1933, the same year Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Arie began to notice the effects of antisemitism. New Jewish students starting attending his high school and they told stories about the rise in antisemitism in Germany. They and their families were fleeing Germany to avoid the Nazis and persecution.
On May 10, 1940 the German army began their invasion of the Netherlands. The army was caught off guard and after only 5 days they surrendered. The death toll for both military and civilians was 4000.
The next couple of months saw a lot of changes in occupied Holland. Curfews were enforced, rationing was put into place, and news was becoming heavily censored. Resistance against the censorship and their new German leaders came in the form of an underground newspaper called Free Netherlands (Vrij Nederland). This paper usually consisted of a single page paper that was written in Amsterdam and copied and distributed in regions across the country. Distributing Free Netherlands was Arie’s first act of resistance.
In the spring of 1941, Arie got a job working as a traveling salesman. This position meant he had a railway pass which allowed him to travel freely after the German occupation of the Netherlands. He was soon approached by Derk van Assen, a man working in the underground. Arie was asked if he would help with further distributing Free Netherlands using his railway pass. Arie of course agreed and was able to deliver Free Netherlands to other regions without becoming suspect.
In the summer of 1942, Arie was approached by the underground resistance to assist with finding places for Jews to hide. At this time, thousands of Jews were being sent out of the country to their deaths, hiding people was their only chance of survival.
Helping the Schaaps
When Derk finally called on him it wasn’t to hide a family, but to transport one. The Schaaps family had found a place to hide but had to take the train to their location and were frightened to travel alone. Arie, of course, agreed. He met with the family before their departure and came up with a plan. He instructed them to leave their home slightly before sundown with their yellow stars loosely sewn to their coats. On the afternoon of their departure Arie met them at their home and walked with them to the train station. Once they arrived at the station Arie instructed them to hold up a large newspaper, rip off the stars and stick them in their pockets. Once they boarded the train, everyone split up. Mother and daughter in one compartment and Arie with the father in another. 4 hours later they arrived at their destination safe. This trip scared Arie. Despite their safe arrival they’d been lucky. As they boarded the train Arie realized he’d failed to get fake identification cards for everyone. All they had were their real ones which were stamped with a large ‘J’ signifying they were Jewish. It was a tense 4 hours but luckily, no one stopped and asked them for ID.
After that Arie always came prepared with forged identification cards and foods stamps when they were needed and requested. Arie continued to find safe hiding places for Jews in the community. His family even hide Fritz Freilich, a Jew the same age as Arie, in their home until liberation in 1945.
In 1943, Arie was arrested by the Gestapo. He was ambushed during a meet up with a fellow resistance member. Arie and others in his resistance group were taken to S.D. Headquarters in Maastricht. Here, Arie was interrogated about the whereabouts of two people working with him. When he denied knowing them he was beaten by two guards. After several days he was transferred to a converted prison near Haaren where he was placed in solitary confinement for 6 months. In March of 1944, Arie was transported to Amersfoot concentration camp in Holland where he was classified as a political prisoner. His stay in Amersfoot was marked with terrible conditions and a starvation diet of watery soup and bread. After 3 months, Arie was transferred to another camp in Utrecht where he remained until liberation. It was here that he appeared before a court marshal and was questioned about his activities working for the underground. In 1945, Arie was liberated by the Canadian armed forces and returned home to Maastricht where he was met with a heroes welcome.
In 1945, the small surviving group of Maastricht Jews – most had survived because of Arie – had an oil painting done of him and a celebration honouring him as a hero in a room adjoining their synagogue. At the celebration he was given a scroll with the signatures of those he saved.
After the War
In 1958, Arie and his wife Doris immigrated to Ottawa and started a family. They had three children, Ria, Girret and Margeret. For many years Arie didn’t speak about what he did during the war years telling no one, including his family. However, as the years went on he realized there was a generation growing up without the knowledge of what happened in Europe and decided to tell his story. On January 2, 1969, Arie was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
“For many years after 1945 I did not want to talk about my wartime experiences. Those of us who were in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation lived through a dreadful time, and we preferred to forget if it we could. Even when I married and had children of my own I told them nothing.
Then, as the years went by, I realized that a whole new generation was growing up with very little knowledge of what happened in Europe during the Nazi period. Some of them did not even want to believe that such a terrible thing as the extermination of the Jews could ever have taken place.
And so eventually I came to realize that perhaps the story of my experiences, and those of other in the Dutch Resistance movement, should now be told. It is important for the next generation to realize that the evil forces of racism can emerge in the world at any time. And when they do, it is possible for the individual to make a choice, and to resist them.
I never considered myself a hero. I was scared to death a lot of the time, just like anyone else would be. When people need your help you don’t stop to think; you just do what you can. At the beginning of the occupation I didn’t plan to become involved with the Resistance. But when the time came, I couldn’t refuse.
Of course I did not work alone. I depended a great deal on the cooperation of my Resistance colleagues and of all those good Dutch families who opened their homes, in spite of the risks involved, to Jews and others in need of a place to hide from the Nazis. I wished at the time, and I still wish today, that I had been able to do more.”Arie Van Mansum, Ottawa Canada, March 1991