Man Who Hid Jews Holds U.S. Citizenship Dear
Bert Bochove, a native of the Netherlands, felt a surge of patriotism--and relief--as he took the oath to become a U.S. citizen.
One among more than 5,000 immigrants who were sworn in at Immigration and Naturalization Service ceremonies last week, the white-haired Bochove, 79, has lived in the United States for 33 years.
His odyssey to citizenship started in the tumult of Europe after World War II and survived the death of his first wife and their dream to live together in California.
There was a two-hour delay in his being sworn in because he had failed to bring his green card to the Los Angeles Convention Center. But Bochove was permitted to take the citizenship oath in the afternoon’s second mass ceremony.
After so long a wait, the delay could not sway his equanimity.
‘Used to Waiting’
“I’m not a young bobby anymore,” Bochove said, leaning forward on his cane. “I’m used to waiting.”
From his modest demeanor and quiet good cheer, there is nothing to indicate that Bochove, a slight man with humor in his Dutch-blue eyes, twice confronted and foiled the Nazis during World War II.
For four years, Bochove and his first wife, Annie, hid dozens of Jews from the Germans. The couple risked imprisonment and death when the Gestapo, twice tipped off that the Bochoves were aiding Jews, raided their home in Huizen, a small fishing town on the banks of the Zuider Zee.
Both times, the Germans failed to find the Jews, who were secreted behind a double wall Bochove had built in the couple’s third-floor attic.
Now a resident of Lomita, Bochove, who has received several awards for his courage and humanity during the Nazi occupation, recalls those frightening years with nostalgia for the friendships he formed and with anger at the Germans.
Though he has lived in the United States since 1956, Bochove decided two years ago to become a citizen to help his eldest son Erik get his citizenship.
So last week he took the oath. He regretted that Betty, his wife of 37 years, could not be there because she was in the hospital recovering from a respiratory ailment.
Wry and quick-witted, Bochove is by his own admission still bound to the small-town values he grew up with in the Netherlands. He readily praises others but is self-effacing when it comes to talking about that daring period when his home became a refuge for Dutch Jews during World War II.
Lived Over Shop
An upholsterer by training, Bochove was living with his wife, a pharmacist, in a spacious apartment over their upholstery shop in Huizen,about 16 miles from Amsterdam.
In 1941, his wife’s best friend, Henny Juliard, a Jewish woman whose parents had been sent to a concentration camp, sought refuge with the Bochoves.
The Bochoves took her in, and Annie Bochove suggested constructing the hiding place in the attic. Their house was attached to the house next door, and on the third floor an empty triangular space existed in front of the fire wall separating the two homes.
Bochove constructed a false wall squaring off the empty space in the attic, using his knowledge of furniture making to stain the wood the color of the surrounding walls. The hiding space was about 40 square feet.
He filled the double wall with paper to give it a dull sound in case the Germans knocked on it during an inspection. They never did, Bochove said.
After several months, Henny Juliard was joined in the hiding place by her husband, Samuel, and soon other Dutch Jews sought the Bochoves as word spread that the couple had a safe haven.
26 in Hiding
“We hid 10 or 12 people at a time,” Bochove said. “At one time, we had 26 people in the house.”
In all, the Bochoves hid 37 people during the war. These “guests” were mostly free to move about the house, Bochove said, but were prepared to scramble to the attic if the Germans came.
“We were betrayed two times,” Bochove said. “Not by German people but by our own people, on our own side. That was a terrible thing. I know there were sympathizers in Holland for the Germans.”
Once, Bochove recalled, he was working at the counter of his store when he noticed a strange look on his assistant’s face, and then felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
Bochove turned to face a Gestapo agent. The Germans quickly inspected the house, including the attic.
“They could never find the hiding place,” Bochove said.
The second raid, he said, came because the Germans were tipped off by a woman collaborator who had worked in his shop for a year.
The woman apparently told her German boyfriend that the Bochoves were sheltering Jews, he said. She went away for a week’s vacation, leaving behind a package to be sent later. Annie Bochove and a shop assistant grew suspicious because the package was so heavy and bulky. They opened it and discovered goods stolen from the shop and a letter from the boyfriend, telling the woman that while she was on vacation, they would “get the Jews out.”
The Bochoves were able to move the Jews to other safe locations before the Gestapo agents arrived. They found nothing and left the Bochoves alone.
After the war, Annie Bochove, who had suffered from tuberculosis for years, went to a sanitarium in Switzerland for two years, leaving Bert with two young children.
“There are things you want to forget,” Bochove said. “My most unhappy time was after the war, when my wife was sick. When the war was over . . . I had to pay strangers to take care of my children.” They, too, became sick, he said, suffering from severe eczema and later, asthma.
With his wife away, his children ill, preoccupied by business concerns, Bochove said, he came to miss having a houseful of the refugees who had provided ample company during the war.
Returned to Holland
After Annie Bochove returned to Holland, the couple made plans to emigrate to the United States, picking California for its mild weather.
In 1946, they applied to the American consulate and waited three years for a reply. Meanwhile, Annie’s health worsened, and one morning in 1949 she died. When he arrived home from the hospital that same day, Bochove received word that their application had been approved.
Alone, with two children, Bochove abandoned his plan, moving instead three years later to Amsterdam to start a small business.
It was there that he met Betty, whose mother ran the boarding house where Bochove and his children lived. The children acted as matchmakers, convincing Bert and Betty that they were meant for each other.
“I told Betty, ‘When I marry you, I go to America,’ ” Bochove said.
In 1956, in a move arranged by the World Church Service, the Bochoves moved to Greenfield, Ind., where the church group found a home for the family and upholstery work for Bochove.
Lure of Mild Climate
After two years in Indiana, Bochove, still dreaming of California’s mild climate, moved his family to Southern California and eventually settled in Lomita, where the Bochoves raised four more children.
During his 33 years in America, Bochove kept his Dutch citizenship and maintained legal alien status. Over the years, he has kept close ties with his three brothers and a sister who still live in Holland, often visiting his native country. He has two other brothers in Canada.
“I’m still very much a Dutchman,” Bochove said, explaining that he was inclined not to apply for U.S. citizenship because he was pleased with his life and feared that if he became an American he might risk his Dutch citizenship and a government pension he gets for his efforts during the war.
When he finally did apply, in 1987, it was to help Erik--a physics professor at the University of Texas in Lubbock--get the U.S. citizenship he needed to apply for a teaching position in California.
‘You Have to Go’
Immigration officials told Erik his application would proceed more smoothly if his father were already an American citizen, Bochove said.
“My wife said, ‘You have to go ahead and do it,’ ” he said. “She’s wise in these things. That was two years ago. Things go slow, you know.”
In May, Bochove took the oral portion of the citizenship test and answered all the questions correctly until the interviewer asked him to name the current U.S. president.
“I couldn’t remember,” Bochove laughed. “I just drew a blank.”
He said the interviewer even gave him a hint--"think of a tree"--but he still couldn’t remember.
Finally, Bochove said, he showed the interviewer a picture of himself with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, whose office had honored him for his role during the war. Bochove has also been honored by other organizations, including the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish National Fund and Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach.
The INS interviewer took the Bradley picture to show to her supervisor, Bochove said. When she returned, she told Bochove that he had passed the test.
“Then they gave me that little American flag,” Bochove said. “And that was the first time I felt something. I felt I am an American.”