A Kapiti Coast family will this week become the first New Zealanders to be honoured with a righteousness award from Israel after the Dutch immigrants risked their lives during World War II by hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic.
The honour is the only award given by the Israeli Government and evidence of heroic acts are investigated for years before being approved by Israel's Supreme Court.
Johanna and Frits Hakkens were in their early 20s and living in Amsterdam when they took in Elli Szanowski, the 2-year-old daughter of a Jewish woman Johanna worked for. Elli's father had already been taken to a concentration camp, where he was killed.
For two years they hid her in the attic, and sometimes even in a cupboard. She was passed on to another member of the Resistance before her uncle could pick her up and reunite her with her mother and sister in Switzerland.
The Hakkens were members of the Dutch Resistance. Johanna sewed diamonds in the coats of Jewish children and Frits, who worked at the airport, sabotaged Nazi planes.
The couple moved to New Zealand in the 1960s with their sons Richard, Cees and Marcel, who grew up hearing tales about Elli and their parents' heroic actions. Richard and Marcel live on the Kapiti Coast but Cees moved back to Europe.
The Hakkens died in the 1970s but, after years of searching, Marcel's wife Gloria found Elli, now Elli Mantegari, in 2010 living in Brazil. She came to New Zealand last year and was reunited with her lost "brothers" after 68 years.
Marcel, Gloria and Richard Hakkens will accept the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" from Israeli ambassador Shemi Tzur on Wednesday at Parliament.
Marcel Hakkens said the award kept his parents' bravery alive and taught future generations they could make a difference.
Mr Tzur said in almost 30 years as a diplomat based around the world, he had presented only one other righteousness award.
It is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during World War II and their names are immortalised on a wall at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. "The wise rabbis say whoever saves a life, it is like they have saved the whole world."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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