A SAFE PLACE
De Zonnewende estate,, Sint-Michielsgestel
It was the summer of 1942 and the raids on Amsterdam were well under way. During one of the raids, a student from Utrecht noticed four Jewish toddlers who had been left out on the street. She didn’t hesitate and took the children back to Utrecht where, together with a fellow student, she found a family that could hide the children. That rescue helped pave the way for a student resistance group called the ‘Utrecht Children’s Committee’.
A safe place — that’s what the members of the Utrecht Children’s Committee sought for Jewish children. Many of the children came from the Jewish crèche, which was located opposite the Hollandse Schouwburg theatre, where children were often separated from their parents and then deported. To spare the children this horrific fate, ingenious disappearing acts were employed to smuggle them out, with children often hidden in potato or laundry bags.
The resistance work the students were doing was extremely dangerous and they needed to act quickly. Finding safe houses for the children was difficult and relied on a network of contacts.
One of the safe houses that the Utrecht Children’s Committee did manage to find in summer 1943 was a house on De Zonnewende estate in Sint-Michielsgestel, a safe place in Brabant far from the turbulence of Amsterdam. The house was used to hide four children in the care of Dirk de Ruiter and Mies van Ginkel, an unmarried couple from Amsterdam. They were acquaintances in the Committee’s network and had previously organised safe houses for Jews in Amsterdam.
There then followed some doubt about Dirk and Mies. The illegal newspaper of the resistance Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands) got wind of contact between the couple and the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB), a troubling discovery that spelled danger, and not only for the four children. Dirk and Mies knew the secret contact address of the Committee, a student house in Utrecht, and if that information were to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences would be disastrous.
Acting on this knowledge, the members of the Utrecht Children’s Committee decided to take drastic action. Two female members of the Committee, Hetty Voûte and Gisela Söhnlein, only just managed to bring the children to safety. On the afternoon of 11 June, Dirk and Mies, along with a young man who happened to be at their house at the time, were surprised by a resistance commando group.
Dirk de Ruiter was killed instantly, having been hit by a bullet in the chest causing him to crack his skull. Mies and the young man were seriously injured but managed to flee and alert the Boxtel police. An investigation by the police quickly led them to Hetty and Gisela and on 12 June, they were arrested in Utrecht.
After a brief spell in prisons in ’s-Hertogenbosch and Haaren where they were interrogated, the two women found themselves in Camp Vught. When the camp was evacuated in 1944, Hetty and Gisela were deported to a concentration camp for women in Ravensbrück from where, after a tough time, they were ultimately released. In 1988, they were given the Yad Vashem award for helping Jews.
Together with other children’s groups, the Utrecht Children’s Committee helped to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish children. Sadly, a number of children fell into the wrong hands and were ultimately transported to concentration camps. What happened to the four children who briefly hid in De Zonnewende is unknown. Did they find a truly safe place?
Hetty Voûte and Gisela Sohnlein
(Image: Camp Vught National Monument, undated)