Ask yourself, are people born heroic, or do they become heroic when thrust into a situation, often by mere happenstance, that requires heroism? I believe that, generally, the latter is the case. Consider, for example, Marion Pritchard, who, was just a student studying to be a social worker, but during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in WWII, saved as many as 150 Jews, including many children, from annihilation.
Marion Philippina van Binsbergen was born on November 7, 1920 in Amsterdam. Her father was a judge, who strongly opposed the Nazi ideology, and her mother was a homemaker of English ancestry. She was raised primarily in the Netherlands, but she attended boarding schools in England. She credited her parents with instilling in her a powerful sense of “justice and moral resolve.” When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940 Marion was a 19 year-old studying social work at the University of Amsterdam.
One night in 1941 she was studying at a friend’s house. Unbeknownst to her, some of the other occupants in the house had been distributing underground mimeographed broadsheets summarizing BBC’s news reports. The Nazis arrested everyone in the house, including Marion. She remained in jail for six months, during which time she was tortured for information. Eventually, she was released, but the incident left a bad taste in her mouth.
The incident that changed her life and, to some extent, the course of history, occurred on a Spring day in 1942. While riding her bike to class she happened upon a group of Nazis who were rounding up the occupants of a home for Jewish children for deportation. Everyone knew what that meant. She observed some of the soldiers murdering children by “picking [them] up by an arm or a leg or by the hair” and blithely tossing them into the truck for sport. In addition, two other women passers-by who tried to intervene were thrown into the truck and taken away with the Jews. Years later, in an interview that was published in the book “Voices from the Holocaust,” Marion lamented “you stop [to witness the action], but you can’t believe [it is really happening].” Marion regretted that she just “stood there” and “watched it happen,” but the incident fueled her determination to do what she could to save other Jews, particularly children, from a similar fate.
For the duration of the War she collaborated with an underground network of trusted like-minded individuals she had organized to save as many Jews as possible. In later years, she often modestly denoted that she could not have succeeded without the assistance, both overt and covert, of this network, as, in her opinion, on only rare occasions could a single person save anyone without the support of others. Sometimes, she operated as one piece of a chain of people who would pass Jews from one to the other until they were safe (similarly, I suppose, the Underground Railroad rescuing slaves in the US). Other times, she would make the arrangements herself. For example:
- They obtained false identity papers.
- They arranged hiding places and host families to take in the children.
- They purloined extra ration cards.
- On one occasion she passed herself off as an unwed mother, which she characterized as a “mission of disgrace” to shelter a child.
- Her most harrowing experience, however, was in connection with her sheltering of a man named Fred Polak, his two sons, and his infant daughter Erica in her house. They devised a system that whenever the Nazis or collaborating Dutch police came to the house the family would quickly hide under the floorboards. They would give the infant sleeping pills to prevent her from crying. This worked really well until one time a collaborating policeman doubled back to the house unexpectedly and caught the family. Marion shot and killed the man. In order to avoid detection she had an undertaker friend of hers bury the body in a casket with another corpse. When asked if anyone ever came to investigate the collaborator’s disappearance, she replied he was “widely-loathed. I think a lot of people were delighted” [he was missing]. Marion was uncomfortable with the incident. In later years, she confided to an interviewer “I would do it again, under the same circumstances, … but it still bothers me.” The Polaks remained with Marion for the duration. Some 30 years afterwards Erica , now grown up, reconnected with Marion and expressed her gratitude for “keeping us alive through these difficult war years.” She added, “I felt very connected to this woman whom I didn’t see for such a long time.”
Marion never discussed her underground activities with her family to avoid endangering them and the network. “You just did not talk” [about it], she said.
After the War, Marion used her social worker background. She worked for the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in various displaced persons camps in Germany. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Anton Pritchard. He was a former US soldier who was running one of the camps. They raised three sons, who gave them eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.
In 1981 Marion received the ultimate honor for a Gentile when Yad Vashem, in recognition of her activities during the War, designated her as one of the “righteous among the nations.” Marion is one of only 26,000 to receive the honor, s0me 20% of which are from the Netherlands. She was also a recipient of the Wallenberg Medal, which is a humanitarian award bestowed in honor of the late Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews before the Nazis caught and killed him.
In 1997, she began teaching at Clark University with the Rose professor of Holocaust History there, Deborah Dwork. Last week, Dwork offered that many of the students were greatly influenced by Marion. In particular, one dedicated her recently-completed dissertation on human rights violations in Rwanda to Marion. Furthermore, Dwork offered, perhaps, the ultimate testimony, that Pritchard “continues to save lives today through her influence.”
Marion passed away on December 11 at the age of 96. Rest in peace, Marion. You will be missed, but your legacy will live on through your students, the people you saved, and their descendants.