Jaap Penraat, 88; Forged Papers, Risked His Life to Save 406 Jews From Nazis in WWII Holland
The workers were “hired” to help the Nazis construct a wall along the Atlantic coast of Europe, but the men never laid a brick or even showed up at the work site.
Dutch architect Jaap Penraat, who gave the men the bogus jobs, also gave them their lives.
It was 1942, and Jews faced death in concentration camps if they remained in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. So Penraat forged work permits and traveling papers, disguised young Jewish men as workers, then escorted them by train to France. From there the French Underground took them to safe houses in Gibraltar or Portugal and on to Britain.
By the time World War II ended, Penraat had made that dangerous journey 20 times and saved 406 Jews from death. Decades later, he was honored by the Dutch government and in 1997 by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel.
Penraat died June 25 of esophageal cancer at his home in Catskill, N.Y. He was 88.
“Here’s a man who did extraordinary things when his moment of truth came,” said Hudson Talbott, a friend and author of “Forging Freedom,” a children’s book about Penraat’s experiences. “He was just not willing to go along with evil.”
Glenn Easton of the Washington, D.C.-based synagogue Adas Israel, which honored Penraat in May, said “he put himself and his own family at risk in order to save people he didn’t even know.”
In interviews, Penraat sometimes attributed his actions to what he learned during his childhood in Amsterdam, from parents who were liberal thinkers and acted on their beliefs. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, a then-15-year-old Penraat saw his mother and father helping Jews who had sought refuge in the Netherlands.
“I grew up in a kind of artistic environment ... and there were a lot of people who were in the arts -- painters, artists, intellectuals, if you want to use that word -- who were fleeing Germany and came into my surroundings.”
As a boy, Penraat was dubbed their “Shabbas Goy,” a gentile whom Jewish neighbors depended on to turn out their lights so they would not have to work on the Sabbath.
But when Penraat was in his early 20s, Germany invaded the Netherlands and Jews were no longer safe there. What would end with the deaths of more than 100,000 Jews from the Netherlands began with a Nazi requirement that all citizens carry identification cards.
“Jews had one with a big, black ‘J’ on it,” Penraat said in an interview with Alan Chartock of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio.
At one of Amsterdam’s most prestigious art schools, Penraat had studied architecture and design and was a trained draftsman, skilled in drawing and lettering. The first thing his many Jewish friends asked him was “Can you get rid of that ‘J’ for me?”
“I tried ... bleaching and instead of a black ‘J’ it became a white ‘J,’ ” he said. “I came to the conclusion you had to make fake papers. You had to start from scratch and print fake identification papers.”
Not only did Penraat possess the skills needed to create false documents, his father owned a print shop with the proper inks and paper.
For a year and a half, Penraat produced counterfeit ID cards that offered Jews false identities so “they were not officially Jewish any more,” Penraat said. The older Penraat knew about and supported his son’s efforts.
As the Nazi isolation of Jews intensified, the cards were used to determine who could hold a government job or enroll their children in school or walk in certain areas of a city. The forged cards saved hundreds of Jewish people from arrest.
Then one morning in the spring of 1942, Penraat bicycled to the Jewish quarter of town to drop off more forged documents. There he saw the Nazis’ latest way of identifying and humiliating Jews: yellow stars with the word “Jew” written on them sewn onto their clothing.
Around that time, Nazis arrested Penraat on suspicion of helping Jews. For two months, he lived in deplorable conditions: a tiny cell shared with four other men with a bucket as their only toilet. During interrogations, German soldiers beat Penraat and often forced him to stand for 20 hours at a time. A daily torture was the deprivation of nearly all food and water.
“He was starving to death,” said Talbott, who interviewed Penraat extensively.
Two months later Penraat was released, only to find that the Nazis had become even more ruthless in their rampage against Jews. They went door to door pulling Jews from their houses, ordering them into a ghetto and then on to so-called labor camps in Germany and Poland, Talbott said.
“Some neighbors were hiding Jews; others were turning them in” so they could claim their property and other belongings, Talbott said.
Still recovering from prison, Penraat thought he needed to do more to help, Talbott said. In prison, he had devised a way to save Jews that utilized the Nazis’ plan to build the Atlantic Wall, a huge string of defensive fortifications along the western coast of Europe that would thwart an Allied invasion.
For the plan to work, Penraat needed an authentic copy of a letter from a German construction company, which a friend provided. Penraat copied the stationery, then wrote a letter posing as a company official requesting permission from Nazi officials to take workers into France to work on the wall.
He and a friend -- Kreen Taconis, who helped in the scheme -- went to Nazi headquarters in Paris and presented the letter.
“He said he needed work permits and travel permits to get his workers out, to move them from Holland to France,” Talbott said. “He fooled them.”
Before each trip, Penraat forged travel documents and work permits and then transported men to France and the French Underground. Because Jews were disguised as construction workers, only able-bodied young men who could play the part were able to make the trip.
After the war, Penraat married Jettie Jongejans and they had three daughters. In postwar Europe, he began his career as a designer and architect and helped the continent rebuild. Later, he found much success and renown working on various projects in the Netherlands, including designing the trolley cars used in Amsterdam.
In 1958, the Penraat family moved to the United States. In 1974, the Dutch government awarded Penraat a war pension and later the Cross of Resistance. But for years he did not speak publicly about his experiences. When Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, sent him a letter, he did not respond.
“I kind of knew that my dad did something but I never knew what,” said Penraat’s daughter Noelle Penraat of New York. In the mid-1990s, “I asked him please write down what you did so I can tell my children,” she said. That opened the door for Penraat to talk about his experiences.
Penraat’s wife died in 2003. In addition to Noelle, Penraat is survived by two other daughters, Marjolijan de Jager of Stamford, Conn., and Mir Lewis of Mattituck, N.Y.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In Penraat’s last years, he and Talbott spoke at schools, synagogues and senior centers about Penraat’s experiences. His message was “don’t be a bystander; you can do something to make a difference,” Talbott said.
“It was never about his own glory or thinking about himself as a hero,” Talbott said. “He never liked that word. He just said, ‘I did what I could. I did what you’re supposed to do.’ ”