The righteous among the nations

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An article from the New York World-Telegraph, in 1946, described the scene as hundreds of Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived on the SS Marine Flasher from Germany at Pier 97 on the Hudson River.

“The arrivals included many who had seen the worst horrors of the Nazi concentration camps,” the story related. “There were some who had been safely hidden in Holland and a few Polish Jews who had been in Siberia.”

The article continued: “Erich Leyens… had waited six hours in a crowd of about 1000 and all that time he held a big baby doll for the ship’s smallest passenger and one of the last to come down the gangplank.

“She was his niece, Anna Bianca Köhnke, five, a pretty orphan in a pink gingham dress and red bow in her hair. Her parents were gassed in Auschwitz but before they were driven from their home the baby was secreted with a Christian family.”

That child from war-ravaged Europe is now 70 years old. She is Anneke Thompson, of Roseville. As the AJW goes to press this week, Thompson is back in the Netherlands, where her parents handed her off as a baby to a young member of the Dutch resistance as the Nazi noose tightened around the necks of the country’s Jews. The resistance heroine, Cora De Young, who is now 97, is being honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, gentiles who rescued Jews during the Shoah. The Blacquiere family, which raised young Anna Bianca Köhnke, will be similarly honored this week. Thompson will attend the ceremony at a home for the Jewish elderly in The Hague.

Thompson visited the Jewish World offices last week. Our interview was videotaped by a Dutch filmmaker, Deborah van Dam, a Jewish woman who lives near Amsterdam. Also sitting in was film researcher Martina van Poeteren, who is from The Hague. Thompson’s story of survival will become the basis for an independent documentary film.

Anneke Thompson (center), from Roseville, is participating in a documentary about her rescue in the Shoah. She visited the Jewish World offices last week with Dutch filmmaker Deborah van Dam (left) and Martina van Poeteren. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

Thompson’s parents were living in Chemnitz, in the German state of Saxony, then fled to the Netherlands. Her father was a musician and the conductor of the synagogue choir in Chemnitz. After they had turned over their daughter to De Young, they remained in hiding but were eventually apprehended. Thompson said that they were shipped to the Westerbork transit camp, and then to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

Thompson’s early life in the Netherlands was revealed to her just five years ago. She was contacted by Fred Blacquiere, the son of the family who hid her, who said that it was “his mother’s dying wish” to find out what happened to young Anna Bianca, who had been turned over to an orphanage during the war.

The Blacquieres had concocted a story that the baby who came into their home was an orphan whose parents had died in the bombing of Rotterdam.

Although Thompson says that she does not understand all of the press attention coming her way lately, her story becomes more amazing and compelling as she unspools the tale.

For example, her family lived with the Franks in Amsterdam — that is, Anne Frank, the world renowned author of The Diary of a Young Girl, and her family. This was before the Franks went into hiding in the famed annex at Prinsengracht 263.

“We all lived together… they baby-sat for me,” she explains.

Her mother and Otto Frank’s wife were friends; and Frank discovered Thompson in a Dutch orphanage after the war. He was looking for his missing daughter.

“He recognized me when he went to the orphanage,” Thompson explained. “He found me and he knew about my mother’s sister and brother.”

Thompson’s Uncle Erich, who was mentioned in the World-Telegraph story, had fled to Cuba. Her maternal aunt, Greta Herzfeld, had found sanctuary in England. They later moved to New York City, and Herzfeld raised Thompson until she left to attend Carleton College in Northfield.

Here is more from that World-Telegraph article, about the reunion of Thompson with her uncle in 1946: “It was the man [Leyens], not the child, who cried when her uncle took her in his arms and kissed her. Like other children in that crowd, Anna had seen too much to lose her poise even when stepping into a happier life in a new world, but the first doll she ever had held was exciting and she fondled it while landing papers were being signed.”

Thompson remembers Otto Frank visiting her aunt, when she was a teenager in New York. “He was very tall,” she said, about the man who came by for “Kaffee and Kuchen.” She regrets that she did not have the presence of mind then to ask him questions about her family.

Leyens returned to Germany late in life, and lived in an assisted living residence in Konstanz (the family had owned a department store in Germany before the Nazis came to power). Thompson recalled attending his 100th birthday celebration, in Eilat, Israel, in 1998. Many of his German friends journeyed to Israel for the party. He died in 2001, at the age of 103. Thompson’s Aunt Greta died at the age of 86.

After attending Carleton, Thompson did graduate work at the University of California in Berkeley. She married a German man, who has since died; and she remarried. She has two biological children, a stepdaughter and an adopted daughter (who attended the Adath Jeshurun nursery school).

Thompson moved back here in 1966, and attended the University of Minnesota. She has had a career as a teacher of children with emotional problems.

Growing up in New York, Thompson had questions about where she came from and who her parents were. “But nobody would talk about it,” she said.

About three years ago, at the urging of Fred Blacquiere, she petitioned Yad Vashem to recognize De Young and the Blacquiere family as Righteous Among the Nations. “It was a long ordeal,” she said. “They had to do their own research and I had to fill in papers.”

About two months ago, Thompson got the word that her rescuers were going to be honored by Yad Vashem, and she began preparing to travel to the Netherlands.

Thompson said that she has never had an emotional connection to the mysterious events during her infancy, when she was a bundle being shunted here and there.

“I don’t feel a part of my own story,” she admitted, and added that she has started feeling sad lately while thinking about her parents who perished.

“I had no part of my own story — other people did good things,” Thompson said, regarding her life before she boarded the boat for America. She remembers nothing of her early life experiences.

Perhaps more of the story will be illuminated for Thompson during her visit to the Netherlands. More than 65 years after the Shoah, there is still much to ponder about the destruction of European Jewry. There are no easy answers about how the cataclysm unfolded, and why some lived and so many others died.

Thompson is not affiliated with a synagogue, but toward the end of our interview she said, “I’ve never thought of myself as anything but a Jew. I identify absolutely, but I’m not a religious Jew.”

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