When the long shadow of war finally lifted from the Netherlands in 1945, Willy Grootenboer’s parents gave her sister away. Or that’s what it felt like to eight-year-old Willy. Her sister Rita was five.
Willy hadn’t been told that Rita wasn’t a Grootenboer. She didn’t know Rita was Jewish, taken in as a baby by their parents, Marinus (Rien) and Co, who saved her life and risked their own by raising her as part of the family. They resisted Nazi occupation by hiding the girl in plain sight. Rita’s Jewish parents had placed her and her brother into the hands of the Dutch Underground for safekeeping. They were killed soon after in Sobibor, a concentration camp in Poland.
Willy remembers the sound of boots clattering up the stairs at night, then squeezing her eyes shut as soldiers shone a flashlight over their beds. Once, a German soldier came in, looked at Rita’s dark hair alongside the fair hair of the others, gave a small, knowing smile – and left. “He was a good soldier,” her mother said later.
When the war ended, Rien and Co brought Rita to the home of an aunt and uncle. The Grootenboers left the town of Berkel en Rodenrijs and immigrated to Canada. With five brothers, Willy always wondered what became of her only sister. It took 73 years to find out.
A lifetime later
This April, Rita and Willy spoke for the first time since 1945. Fred Ball, a friend of the Grootenboer family, had renewed some earlier, mid-80s efforts to find Rita. Willy already knew that Rita had immigrated with her uncle to Milwaukee but there the trail went cold. Early this year, Fred found a small write-up about the Holocaust in a Buffalo newspaper that included Rita’s maiden name; he tracked down her phone number and reached out to her.
Willy and Rita met in June at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario – a neutral location. Two Grootenboer brothers, Theo and Ed, were also there. The family regrets that their parents did not have a chance to meet Rita.
“It was very emotional,” Willy says. Now the women talk on the phone once a week.
Rita doesn’t have many war year memories. She told Willy she recalls having lots of kids around, once being rescued from falling into some water, and being lifted off the counter by their mother after climbing up to play hide and seek.
Rita currently lives in Buffalo with her son, an orthodontist. She was never able to search for the Dutch family that saved her life because she didn’t know their last name.
Rita, 78, visited Willy for a week at her home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in September.
When Willy called Rita her “long-lost sister,” Rita corrected her.
“I’m not long-lost,” she said. “Willy, I’m ‘new-found.’”
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