Some World War II Heroes Weren’t Soldiers: RIP, Rachel de Leeuw

Mrs. de Leeuw, Annie and Rachel, circa 1935, in Holland.

Mrs. de Leeuw, Annie and Rachel, circa 1935, in Holland.

I never met her, but she was one of my heroes since I first read about her when I was about twelve years old.

Rachel de Leeuw was the older sister of Johanna Reiss, then known as “Annie” de Leeuw, author of THE UPSTAIRS ROOM and THE JOURNEY BACK, books that dealt with her Jewish family’s incredible story of survival during World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland.

Annie, the youngest, was fourteen years younger than Rachel, and ten years younger than the third sister, Sini. Their mother was very ill and the two older girls became surrogate mothers to Annie.

As their mother’s health deteriorated, so did the conditions for Jewish people in Holland. Their mother, who was fatally ill, entered the hospital. The Nazis were rounding up Jewish families for deportation to what they deemed “work camps.” The rest of the de Leeuw family, led by a clear-thinking, savvy father who realized the Nazis’ stories about these so-called “work camps” couldn’t possibly bode well or be a good thing, arranged for himself, and his daughters, to go into hiding until the war was over.

This cannot be held up for anything, and unfortunately, “anything” includes the imminent death of the girls’ mother. The Nazis already tried to round up the family at their former address and could have apprehended them at any moment. Mr. de Leeuw and the three girls have to leave to join the families that would be hiding them – at once.

The father has to go to one hiding location and the three sisters, Annie, Sini and Rachel, were all set to go to another one together – to the Hannink family. However, it’s the eldest girl, Rachel, who voluntarily stays behind at first. The local hospital will not prepare kosher meals for the girls’ dying mother, so Rachel remains in their hometown of Winterswijk to make them for her.

This may sound like a minor thing, but it isn’t.

It’s major.

Rachel de Leeuw could have been arrested, and ultimately killed, for being Jewish, but she was also a great daughter. Rachel opted to stay for a few more week to take care of those meals for her mother. She was fully cognizant of the fact that she was risking arrest by doing this, and yet, she stayed.

She also was involved with preparing little Annie for her trek to her hiding place in Usselo. She cut the child’s hair like a little boy’s and put her in a boy’s outfit, the better to evade Nazi scrutiny as the ten-year-old left town on a bus. Rachel also walked behind her on her way to the bus stop, “riding shotgun,” as it were, to make sure the little girl made it onboard safely.

Again, it may seem like a small gesture, for an older sister to make sure a younger one boarded a bus. But Rachel wasn’t supposed to be out on the street, watching over her little sis. She was risking her life.

Yet there she was.

Rachel remained in town until her mother died, and even saw to her burial. Ultimately, she wasn’t able to join Annie and Sini at their hiding location. She was sent to the home of a reverend who is famous in Holland, and ought to be famous here, too, for his role in helping to hide Jewish people during such a dark time: Reverend Frits Slomp. Recently it came to light that Rachel was concealed behind a false wall when Nazis raided the house, looking for contraband people. They fired gunshots into the wall, which was one of their preferred ways of ferreting out the hidden. Rachel, thank God, didn’t stir and wasn’t hit.

Rachel was later moved to another hiding place, where she was hidden all alone. She missed her sisters so much that she traveled, by night, on a bicycle, and using false identification papers, just to have the chance to visit them. One more time: it may seem like one small step for Rachel, but it was huge. She risked her life yet again to see Sini and Annie.

I didn’t know when I read these books as a child that one day Annie would become one of my very best friends in the world, but that’s exactly what happened. I never met Rachel, but only because, by the time I met Annie, her heroic older sister was too old to visit her in New York like she used to.

It broke my heart today to hear that Rachel, at age 97, died early this morning in a nursing home in Holland. At the same time it makes me want to stand up and cheer to know that the amazingly gutsy Rachel died peacefully, with her daughter by her side, and didn’t have her light extinguished prematurely, back in the 1940’s, due to the hate of a madman.

There is a Yiddish proverb that hangs on a sign over my desk at work. It says, “Don’t be scared when you have no other choice.” Rachelina de Leeuw Akker, “Lini” to her family and friends, personified it. She was a woman whose like we may never see again, as awesome as any one of our World War II veterans who also showed enormous courage, simply because the situation warranted it, when they stormed Normandy Beach to liberate these three sisters, and their father, and all of Europe, from the insanity of the Nazis. Yet from what Annie tells me, Rachel never quite realized how off-the-charts fantastic she was.

May this wonderful woman rest in peace and finally know what an inspiration she has been to everybody who read her little sister’s books, and will be for generations of readers to come, too.

THE UPSTAIRS ROOM by Johanna Reiss tells the first part of the story.

THE UPSTAIRS ROOM by Johanna Reiss tells the first part of the story…

...and THE JOURNEY BACK, also by Johanna Reiss, tells the rest of it.

…and THE JOURNEY BACK, also by Johanna Reiss, tells the rest of it.


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