A Hidden and Solitary Soldier
As the sun dips behind the Vermont tree line, the family sits down to dinner and the talk goes in a thousand directions--books, politics, the Red Sox. Eventually the conversation turns to Grandma, and the Nazi she gunned down.
Grandma looks into her lap, shyly. The adults discuss the story in low voices while the children strain to hear from the far end of the table. “What are you talking about?” says Marion Pritchard’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Molly.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 10, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Contributor omitted--Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to “A Hidden and Solitary Soldier,” a story by J.R. Moehringer that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on Jan. 20.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 10, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to “A Hidden and Solitary Soldier” (by J.R. Moehringer, Jan. 20).
Silence. “Grandma and the policeman,” someone says.
“Oh,” Molly says--not shocked, but bored. She’s heard that story a million times.
It often happens this way. Pritchard’s family doesn’t get too excited about her daring past. They glide over the fact that she rescued scores of children from the Holocaust, survived seven months in a Nazi prison and killed one Nazi who got in her way. They take for granted that Grandma is a war hero--or else they can’t quite believe it. The stories of extraordinary bravery don’t fit with the aproned woman they see before them, who is frightened of squirrels and public speaking and who feels guilty when she swats a fly.
Strangers tend to be less casual about Pritchard’s past. Psychologists study her, biographers woo her, governments fete her and invite her to speak. Visitors occasionally appear at her door, unannounced, to meet her, shake her hand, thank her.
Lately interest in Pritchard has grown even more avid. People want to be around her, now more than ever, because they know she’s been here before: a nation under attack, a constant state of fear, a fanatic enemy bent on killing innocent civilians, especially Jews. The last time, Europe was ground zero, and Pritchard was one of those who ran into the fire.
But for a profile in courage, she keeps a fairly low profile. She lives at the end of a dirt road, in the middle of a sparse woods, on the outskirts of a town--Vershire, Vt.-- that doesn’t appear on many maps. She spends her days reading, teaching, seeing patients--she’s been a psychoanalyst most of her working life--and listening to her beloved Verdi. You might hear “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” wafting from the open windows of her big white farmhouse when you turn off the dirt road.
As history does its ominous U-turn, she watches quietly from a safe distance. This isn’t her fight. And yet, when hatred hits closer to home, she reverts instantly from recluse to rescuer. When anti-Semitism and homophobia flared in her corner of Vermont not long ago, Pritchard fought back with everything she had.
People want to know where this 81-year-old woman gets her grit. She eludes the question the way she once eluded her pursuers. “There’s nothing you can tell somebody that’s going to make them less fearful,” she says in her faint Dutch accent. “I was scared stiff all the time during the war.”
She prefers to let her life speak for itself. And its lessons are clear:
You can’t always hide from hate.
Or from history.
And sometimes it’s best not to try.
Standing in her garden, not much taller than her sweet peas and daylilies, Pritchard doesn’t look like the intrepid rescuer who defied the Third Reich. Sitting in her book-lined living room, speaking in a thin voice that crackles like a fire, she gives no hint of the cunning rebel who risked her life for strangers.
She hides the hero somewhere inside.
When the memory of an injustice comes up, though, her blue eyes darken, her voice takes on a ragged quality, like a gypsy violin, and there she is, in plain sight, Marion van Binsbergen, the young girl who tried to save the world one child at a time. It happens when she remembers Hitler’s shock troops devouring Europe in 1940, smashing into Amsterdam, where she was living with her younger brother and her parents. Overnight, the streets were filled with Nazis, “all 6 feet tall” and smug, she says.
She heard stories. Mass arrests. Night trains. Camps. She knew what was happening, but she didn’t really know, until one day: She was 20 years old, riding her new bicycle near the school of social work where she was a graduate student, when she saw a truck double-parked outside a Jewish children’s center. Some Nazi soldiers were rousting the children--all between 2 and 8 years old--and rushing them onto the truck. The children were sobbing. The soldiers were pitiless and efficient.
“It didn’t take long,” she says.
One soldier grabbed a little girl by her pigtails and hurled her onto the truck.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Pritchard says. “Two women came from the other side of the street to try to stop them, and [the Nazis] threw them in with the kids.”
She seems to be watching the 60-year-old scene play out in the middle of her living room, each detail as clear as the books and rugs and potbellied stove, and she becomes angry all over again. “That,” she says, “was indeed the moment when I decided what was the most important thing to do.”
Pritchard decided to rescue Jews--hide them, smuggle them, help them however she could. Though not Jewish herself, she made rescuing Jews her mission, for no reason other than that it was right.
People who make such decisions are the products of extraordinary parents, says Eva Fogelman, who has studied Holocaust rescuers, including Pritchard, for years. Most rescuers, Fogelman has found, were given an exquisite sense of justice as children, along with an unwavering self-confidence, “so they could withstand fears.”
Pritchard remembers, for example, an exchange between her mother and the Germans. “The Nazis were looking for able-bodied men,” she says. “They came and made my brother get out of bed. He was 14 at the time. Fortunately, he was still small and skinny, and they told him he could go back to bed. Then they said to my mother, ‘What are you doing with all that bunting?’ My mother had all this red, white and blue material out on the kitchen table. My mother was a lady. She never swore. But she said, ‘I’m making a Union Jack--to hang out the window when you sons of bitches get kicked out of here! “‘
Pritchard coughs and covers her mouth. She looks away, and her eyes fill with tears. “It’s funny,” she says. “You can tell a tale a lot of times, and then suddenly, for some reason, it gets harder.”
Pritchard estimates that she helped 150 Jews, nearly all of them children. She doesn’t know the precise number. She didn’t keep track, in case she was caught. “The less you knew, the better.”
Nor does she know how many of the children she helped were able to survive the war. She would hide a child for a day, an hour, then pass the child along, into the night, into the woods, into history. She only knows that most of Holland’s 140,000 Jews were killed, so it’s likely that most of the children she met didn’t make it. She gave them, at best, a few more days, or hours. Hers may have been the last kind face they saw.
Every rescue was different. She’d bring a child home, or simply to the next rescuer. She’d guide a child in the night to a safe house, or a clearing in the woods. She’d place a Jewish newborn with a non-Jewish couple. Occasionally, she’d walk a child in the light of day right past a group of Nazi soldiers.
In 1981, Pritchard was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust authority, as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.” Her name was placed in the pantheon of Israel’s national heroes, alongside Holocaust rescuers such as Oskar Schindler. She was recognized as one of the great moral exemplars of the century, from whom, the writer Cynthia Ozick wrote, “we can learn the full resonance of civilization.”
And still she regrets not doing more. She’s haunted by the children she couldn’t save, the countless Anne Franks. She knew Anne Frank, in fact. And Anne’s older sister, Margot. She met them once at a birthday party. Years later, a mutual friend met the Frank sisters at Bergen-Belsen, and saw them die.
Besides the children who passed briefly through Pritchard’s hands, she hid one Jewish family for the duration of the war. She took Fred Polak and his three children--Lex, 7, Tom, 4, and Erica, an infant--to a farmhouse on the outskirts of the city and cared for them as though they were her own while their mother fought with the Dutch Resistance.
By day, Pritchard and the family kept to a routine, playing and walking in public, pretending to be non-Jews. At night, when the Nazis came around and demanded everyone’s papers, Pritchard hid the family in a pit beneath the living room floor. Whenever Pritchard heard a motor coming up the road, she hurried the Polak family into the pit. “Regular people didn’t have motors,” she says. “Only Germans. So when you heard a motor, you knew.”
Even when the Nazis weren’t coming, she made the Polaks practice sliding away the coffee table, pulling up the floorboards, diving into the pit. Survival hinged on doing the drill faster and faster. “We got it down to 30 seconds,” she says, still proud.
Pritchard was arrested during the war, but not for rescuing Jews. She was simply studying with friends who were part of the Dutch Resistance, and when the Nazis raided the apartment, everyone was taken, Pritchard included.
Memories of prison return to her, unbidden, at odd moments. In an elevator or a strange bathroom, if the door doesn’t open right away, she feels trapped. Having a manicure, she recalls the way she filed her nails in prison, by rubbing them against her cell walls.
Every detail of prison remains vivid, but she doesn’t share them. “I never have told, and I don’t know whether I ever will tell, about the relatively minor torture I underwent.”
She does describe, with a self-mocking smile, her sudden surge of religion. “It came naturally. ‘Dear God, if you let me out of here, I’ll be good forever after.’ ”
She was better than her word. When the Nazis set her free after seven months, she went back to rescuing Jews and took even greater risks, helping to pull off a daring kidnap in which she stormed a house and snatched a 2-year-old girl whom the Nazis were about to torture--their way of making her parents name members of the Dutch Resistance.
Then there was the Nazi she killed, a sadistic Dutch policeman she’d known all her life. He surprised her one night at the farmhouse, no sound of a motor to warn her, no time to hide the Polaks in the pit. Acting on a tip, the policeman crept up to the farmhouse on foot and burst in the door. “Somebody must’ve betrayed us,” Pritchard says.
In that terrible moment, Pritchard says, there was no choice. Behind some books on a shelf was a gun given to her by a friend. She grabbed the gun and fired. “One shot,” she says. “Dead as a doornail.”
She doesn’t remember pulling the trigger. She doesn’t remember feeling anger or regret. “I remember the exhilaration when he was lying on the floor,” she says. After covering the policeman with a sheet, she phoned a friend, Karel Poons. He arranged for the body to be smuggled to an undertaker, to be buried secretly with a recently deceased resident of the town. “Oh,” she says, in the ragged violin voice, “Karel was wonderful.”
She thought of him often in 2000, when Vermont legislators voted to let gay couples “marry,” plunging the state into a yearlong political crisis. Poons was gay, and it couldn’t have mattered less to Pritchard. She loved him, trusted him with her life. So when the debate over gay rights in Vermont turned ugly, she took it personally.
But she kept quiet for the sake of her patients. “If someone comes to me who is an ardent Republican,” she says, “I want them to be able to tell me anything.”
Eventually, as she feared, the anti-gay rhetoric spawned something darker. Swastikas began to appear all around her, on lawns and mailboxes and the elementary school across the street from her office. She couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
In a letter to the local newspaper, Pritchard gave Vermonters a stern history lesson, reminding them that Hitler began by persecuting everyone “different.” Then she hammered signs into her front yard, supporting candidates friendly to gay rights.
One night her phone rang. A menacing voice told Pritchard to take down her signs “or you’ll be sorry.”
The signs stayed.
The voice called again.
The signs stayed.
Finally, someone crept up to Pritchard’s farmhouse in the middle of the night, no sound of a motor to warn her, and stole the signs. It felt, she says, as if the past itself had crept out of the shadows. “I never thought,” she says, “in Vermont of all places--"
Meeting Pritchard many years after the war, Erica Polak had trouble believing that this small, dignified grandmother was once all that stood between her and the camps. “She’s such a tiny woman,” Erica says by phone from her home in Holland. “She came from a very sophisticated family. And then, to go underground, to do such brave things? It’s unbelievable.”
Erica’s mother never discussed the war. And with Pritchard, Erica feels the same reticence. Revealing means reliving.
“She lets go of a tiny piece at a time,” Erica says, “and most things she doesn’t let loose at all.”
The honor from Yad Vashem seemed to loosen Pritchard a bit. She began to accept speaking invitations. Last fall she even helped teach a seminar at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., the only college in the nation to offer an advanced degree in Holocaust Studies. Despite cataracts and heavy traffic on the interstate, Pritchard sometimes drove herself to the school, four hours each way.
Deborah Dwork, who heads the center for Holocaust Studies at Clark and taught the seminar with Pritchard, says the students would fall perfectly silent whenever Pritchard spoke. One young woman confided to Dwork: “I never thought in my life I’d have the opportunity to be at the same table as a saint.” Dwork feels the same way. “Just being with her makes me calmer,” she says.
Each class began with Pritchard sharing a wartime memory. Then there would be a discussion of the week’s assigned reading. The final hour of class was given over to the latest news. The students asked Pritchard for her take, and she gave it, unvarnished. One day she spoke about walking the razor’s edge, about living each day in danger. She told the students that terrorism is yet another of life’s perils, no more lethal than all the others. Evil didn’t end with World War II, she said.
You can’t always hide from hate. Or from history.
It was as close as she comes to giving advice. “The notion that someday everything in the world is going to be lovely, I haven’t had that for a long, long time,” Pritchard says. “I guess I hoped that right after World War II. But humans don’t change, it seems.”
In those heady days after the war, there were many reasons for optimism, but the main reason was U.S. Army Lt. Tony Pritchard, who did what the Nazis couldn’t. He found Marion van Binsbergen.
He spotted her at a Paris rail station, where they were both bound for the refugee camps--he with the Army, she with the United Nations. They got into an argument immediately. She scolded him for complaining to a fellow soldier about all the “awful Dutch girls.” He told her that he was simply remarking, “What an awful lot of Dutch girls.”
She laughed, and so it began.
“It’s summer, it’s peace,” she says. “After years of deprivation, of no food and no fun, suddenly you’re on the French coast. We got American officer Army rations, which included liquor and wine. I’d never had hard liquor before.”
They married in 1947, her wedding dress sewn by concentration camp survivors. A few months later, they came to the U.S., first to Cambridge, Mass., where they started their family, eventually to Vermont, in 1967. It was Tony who found the Vermont house, part of an old dairy farm, with 120 acres of white birches and sugar maples, set in the middle of raw wilderness.
Rebuilding the house was Tony’s passion until he died 10 years ago. Now keeping the house is Pritchard’s mission. It takes daily courage. Besides intruders in the shadows, she must contend with the brutal cold, the isolation, the temperamental septic tank and the steep staircase, down which she recently took a bad fall.
She deems it a small price to pay for staying connected to Tony, her fellow hero, who fought with Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and went with the first troops into the nightmare of Buchenwald. She and Tony could talk about anything, Pritchard says, which was vital, because they often couldn’t talk to anyone else. At dinner parties and other social events, they were discouraged from describing the horrors they witnessed. Too depressing, friends said. Move on.
Over time, their silence included their children. Pritchard’s three sons--52-year-old Arnie and the 49-year-old twins, Ivor and Brian--didn’t know much about their mother’s past until 1981, when Israeli officials phoned to say that Pritchard would soon receive one of their nation’s most sacred honors.
In Israel, Brian watched as his mother received the thanks of a nation. She was showered with praise, he says, and blinded by flashbulbs. Then the ceremony ended and everyone started for the doors--except for a group of sad-faced men and women. They moved closer to his mother, their hands extended, and he wondered who they could be.
Then he realized. They were survivors of the camps.
“That,” he says, his voice unsteady, “was when I knew . . . .”
Once, at a school, Brian heard his mother reveal the thing she never reveals, the details of her time in prison. A boy in the audience asked politely and Pritchard wasn’t able to deny him a straight answer. She told how the guards pressed a knife in her arm, demanding information. When she wouldn’t talk, they pressed harder.
It was the first time Brian had heard the story, and it explained the scar on his mother’s left forearm. It also made him wonder how many other stories and scars will remain hidden forever.
“We’ll never know all there is to know,” Arnie says. But he quickly adds: “I think I know enough.”
What the brothers do know is always hard to reconcile with the woman their children call Grandma. “It challenges the imagination,” says Ivor. “To put these two things next to each other--these extraordinary heroic things and the very ordinary experience of your mother, who’s afraid of some things and doesn’t like to do some things, and is shy and uncomfortable in front of people--it’s incongruous.”
And so, after dinner, it may be the incongruity that causes Pritchard’s granddaughter to brush off the story of Grandma and the Nazi. Instead, Molly wants to hear the birds.
“Please, can we hear the birds?” she pleads.
“You want to hear the birds?” Pritchard says, smiling.
Pritchard stands up from the table and goes to the wall, where a cord is fastened to a peg. She releases the cord and a bird cage slowly descends. A gift from Pritchard’s childhood ballet teacher in Amsterdam, the bird cage is so old, so delicate, that Pritchard keeps it suspended from the ceiling, out of harm’s way.
Inside the cage are two birds made of luminous paper, and underneath is a key, which Pritchard now winds tight. When she releases it, the birds spin to face each other, and their beaks fly open. The room suddenly fills with bird song.
The children stare in awe. The adults tilt their heads and smile. The sound is beautiful but also haunting. Like voices from a vanished world. It’s not possible to know what they are saying. But it’s clear that they are somewhere other than this delicate hiding place above Pritchard’s kitchen, and that they are happy and free.