Johtje Vos, 97; sheltered Jews in her home in WWII Holland, saving 36

Times Staff Writer

During the World War II Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Johtje Vos and her husband agreed to keep a suitcase full of valuables for a man forced to move to a ghetto.

Then they said yes to a couple who asked them to shelter their 3-year-old son, and yes again to a pair who sought safety from the Nazis in the Voses' home.

Each request escalated and finally led the couple to confront the ultimate question: Would they continue to help?

The answer for Johtje Vos was an emphatic yes. She and her second husband, Aart Vos, provided wartime shelter to Jews and saved the lives of 36 people. Vos died from complications of old age Oct. 10 at the home of her son in Saugerties, N.Y., said her daughter Barbara Moorman. She was 97.

For their actions, Vos and her husband received the title "righteous people" in 1992. The couple never considered their actions heroic and never regretted the decision -- though it placed their lives and the lives of their children at risk.

"We couldn't do differently than say yes," Vos said in an interview from the book "Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust."

Vos wrote a book, "The End of the Tunnel," about her activities during the war. But for many years, the couple, like many other people, never spoke publicly about their experiences, Moorman said. In those years people tried to put the war and its trauma behind them. The impetus to speak came from Jewish people in the U.S. who wanted to document the work of people like Vos while they were still living.

"They begged my parents to tell their experiences," Moorman said. "My parents weren't into that at all. But they really found it their duty to educate."

The couple lived in the town of Laren, an artists' community, near Amsterdam. Their house was on a street that ended in a wooded area, "which was marvelous to flee to if you had time," Vos said in the book. Her husband had grown up near Laren and knew the area so well he could lead groups through the woods and to safety even at night.

For those times when they could not make it to the woods, there was the tunnel.

"It went from the art studio, which was a shed on the back of the house, under a false bottom below the coal bin under our garden out into the open woods," Vos said. "It saved lives."

During those years the Vos house was filled with as many as 14 additional people at one time. It was also raided more frequently than others, an indication that the Nazis may have suspected the family was involved in helping Jews.

But the couple also had the clandestine support of others in town, including the chief of police who would, through a telephone signal, warn them of an upcoming raid.

"Their lives were in danger 24 hours a day," Moorman said. "She had a great strength of character. That's for sure. And her husband and she were incredible partners."

During the war the Vos household suffered from hunger. The situation was so bad they imposed a rule: They could speak about food only during one designated hour of each day. Otherwise, to speak of it too much would increase their suffering, Vos wrote.

"Adults would talk about, 'Do you remember that restaurant? Do you remember that dish? What was the best veal that you ever had, the best asparagus,' or something, you know."

They also played a guessing game with the children in which they would ask, "Who remembers what a banana is?" The children would ask whether it was something to eat. They couldn't remember.

Because her first husband was German, Vos had it better than most. She received double food stamps, she said, which helped her feed her houseguests.

"But sometimes, as I stood in line to get them, someone would spit at me, and I didn't blame them," Vos said in the book. "I would secretly think, 'That's good.' "

Long before the war started Vos possessed an independent spirit. Vos' grandfather was a well-known prime minister, Abraham Kuyper, and her father was a career army officer. Vos' mother spoke at least four languages and translated 52 books into Dutch, all under the name of Vos' father because women weren't permitted that kind of recognition.

Vos was born Johtje Kuyper in 1909, in Amersfoort, near Amsterdam. While married to German painter and commercial artist Heinrich Molenaar, she became a freelance journalist, which horrified her parents, she said.

Her assignment included traveling to Egypt to cover the wedding of King Farouk for the Dutch press. She and Molenaar had Moorman and a daughter, Hetty Crews, who died in 2001.

In 1942 she married Vos and the couple had four children. In addition to Moorman, Vos is survived by Dominique Vos of Woodstock, N.Y.; Sebastiaan Vos of the Netherlands; John Vos of Saugerties, N.Y.; 15 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren. A son, Peter Vos, died in 1973.

After the war the family moved to the U.S. From the mid-1950s until the late 1970s they ran an international summer camp for children that offered swimming and horseback riding, sports and a firm belief in non-competition.

The couple began to speak publicly about their experiences in the 1980s, giving talks at schools and synagogues and community centers, but they were always uncomfortable with the suggestion that they were heroes. They received honors from organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Rocklin Center for Holocaust Studies. Their story inspired a movie, "The Rescuers," Moorman said.

Over the years they kept in touch with some of those who lived with them during the war.

"If someone hears us talk today with some of those we saved, they would think we were being nostalgic, remembering a beautiful time," Vos wrote in the book. "But there was something beautiful in it, because we were standing together, for whatever reason, totally together."

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