Written by Pat McCune, Penny Schreiber and Joan Lowenstein
Marion Pritchard protected the lives of 150 Dutch Jews during World War II, mostly children, using whatever means were at hand. “By 1945 I had lied, stolen, cheated, deceived, and even killed,” she told the audience assembled in Rackham Auditorium for the seventh Wallenberg Lecture in October 1996. She emphasized that she did not work alone, but with many collaborators, often Jews, who were taking a bigger risk than the Gentiles because they were treated more harshly if they were caught.
Pritchard was forced to kill a man while hiding three Jewish children. When a Dutch policeman brought three Nazi officers to her house, the children, hidden under the floorboards in the living room, escaped detection. “But an hour later, after I had let the children out, because the youngest, two-month-old Erica, was crying, the policeman came back alone,” she recalled. “I felt I had no choice but to shoot him.” In her lecture, Pritchard focused on her personal experiences with Jewish rescuers. She spoke of her neighbor and friend Karel Poons, a Jewish ballet dancer, who was determined to assist in the rescue effort of as many Jews as possible. After Pritchard killed the policeman, Poons quickly came to her aid. Pritchard knew what his fate would be if he was caught trying to save Jews. “In spite of the curfew, he walked to the village and talked with the baker, who agreed to come get the body.”
Pritchard also admits to being a kidnapper. Lientje Brilleslijper, a talented Jewish dancer and singer, was in hiding with her husband, her two-year-old daughter Kathinka, and other members of her family. When their house was surrounded by the SS, Lientje pretended to have a fit, hoping that after the Nazis arrested her they would not trust her with her daughter. The ruse worked—Kathinka was taken to the home of a local doctor. The next day, the SS tried to get Lientje to talk by threatening to bring in Kathinka and torture her. A friend alerted Pritchard, asking her to steal the little girl before the Germans did. Once again, Karel Poons insisted on helping out. He and Pritchard went to the home where Kathinka was being held. While Poons distracted the doctor and the guard at the front door, Pritchard ran in the back door. “Fortunately, Tinka was already dressed,” recalled Pritchard. “I grabbed her, ran down the stairs, put her on the back of my bike and pedaled off.”
Pritchard said she learned that people can’t be tidily divided into victims, rescuers, and bystanders. For example, some bystanders helped, she says, by not telling on people in hiding. Others might not have been imaginative or bold, but they helped if asked to do so. A farmer knew that she was hiding children, although they never spoke about it. Every day he left her extra milk.
Even German soldiers came to Pritchard’s aid near the end of the war. Pritchard bicycled north in search of food, loaded down with family silver. She successfully bartered with some farmers. On her way back home German soldiers stopped her. Exhausted and frustrated, Pritchard lost her temper. She told them what she thought of the war and of the way the Jews were being treated. Others tried to shut her up, knowing that people had been killed for lesser offenses. But Pritchard couldn’t stop. She was detained overnight, and the next morning two soldiers came to her. She expected to be killed. Instead they put her in a truck, along with her bike and the food she had bartered for, and drove her to safety.
Today Pritchard lives in a farmhouse in rural Vermont. She and her late husband, Tony, raised three sons, who all work in the helping professions. Throughout her life Marion Pritchard has continued to be a formidable advocate for children, first as a social worker and then as a practicing psychoanalyst. Erica and Kathinka survived the war and went on to lead fulfilling lives. Pritchard is still in touch with both of them today.
Israel made Marion Pritchard an honorary citizen in 1991. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, she is among those designated as Righteous Gentiles.
Source: The Wallenberg Endowment/University of Michigan