“It is thanks to him, we’re all here.” My sister Avigail wrote sorrowfully in the family WhatsApp this past week after Max (Nico) Leons passed away this week in Holland, only a brief two weeks after the death of his wife of over 65 years.
Max, known as “Nico” in the Dutch underground during World War II, was a modern Jewish hero who selflessly saved hundreds Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust, one of them my father, Haim Roet.
Together with Dutchman Arnold Dawes, for whom a tree is planted in his honor to the right of the entrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, Max decided to do the impossible and in the midst of chaos take action. They took initiative and bravely risked their lives to save more than 200 Jews, mostly children, in Nazi-occupied territory. As it says in the Sanhedrin tractate of the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.” Then, what about a person who saved the lives of more than 200 people?
I personally met Nico seven years ago in the Netherlands on his 90th birthday, when my father honored him through the Committee for the Valor of Jews and members of the World Alliance and B’nai B’rith International for saving Jews during the Holocaust. He could not be recognized as a righteous among the nations, as that is a tribute bestowed only on non-Jews who saved Jews. During our interaction, I was privileged to ask Nico about his experiences and his conduct during the war, a rare life-changing opportunity for second-generation children and even for some survivors themselves. I asked “Why did you, a 21-year-old in hiding with the necessary papers to save himself, decide to risk it all?” My question surprised Nico and he immediately replied, “It didn’t occur to us that we had any other choice.”
After I returned to Israel, Nico called to thank me for coming for his birthday. In response, I told him that it is in his merit that I am here, that I have sisters, and parents, and they have eight grandchildren. At the end of the conversation, Nico told me he had thought much about my question, why he had acted the way he did during the war, and his answer stays with me constantly since: “You should never look for a good reason to do the right thing.”
My father kept in touch with Nico all these years and their last phone call was just over a week ago. Years after the Holocaust and after the non-Jewish rescuers of my father were recognized and celebrated, my father was overcome with the realization that, while Arnold and the family who hid my father were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, the State of Israel does not recognize Jewish rescuers like Max. In light of this, my father established the “Committee for the Valor of Jewish Rescue of Jews” and together with B’nai B’rith International, they honor Jewish rescuers and tell their stories. My father, 87 years young and an unrelenting advocate of social change, was ecstatic this year, 20 years after the effort to recognize Jewish rescuers began, when Yad Vashem decided that the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in 2020 will be using the motif, “Heroism of Jews who saved Jews in the Holocaust in a disintegrating world.”
My father vividly remembers the journey with Nico and Arnold down obscure paths that saved his life during a moonless night to Nieuwlande, a village and a haven. He remembers being brought to his rescuers and to relative safety on a bicycle without rubber on its tires. My father also remembers that, in addition to Nico and Arnold saving Jews, they did not forget the children they rescued. They came to visit the children in hiding from time to time despite the risk. This is how my father remembers them: coming on his birthday to give him candy even though it was impossible to find at the time.