Survivors Lya Frank and Elly Rubin: Former hidden children ‘have a story to tell’
On the evening of April 18, 1943, as Lya and Elly Meijers were being bundled up by their parents, they were told, “You’re going away for a few days.”
The day before, the girls had celebrated their shared birthday — Lya had turned 7 and Elly 4 — and now, with only a valise each and no further explanation, they were placed on the backs of bicycles belonging to non-Jewish friends, Wilhelmina and Jan van Hilten, whom the girls called Tante (Aunt) Wil and Oom (Uncle) Jan. As they rode away from their home in Utrecht, the Netherlands, Lya and Elly had no idea they soon would be separated from each other for more than two years.
They also never would see their parents again, and their only indirect communication would come 50 years later, when someone unexpectedly forwarded a postcard their father had thrown from a train on his way to a transit camp in the Netherlands, after he and their mother had been captured. It was written in pencil, dated May 1944 and addressed to a neighbor in Utrecht.
After the war, Lya and Elly were encouraged not to speak about their past. Later, as former hidden children who hadn’t experienced the horrors of roundups, ghettos or camps, they thought their stories weren’t consequential.
But faced with some personal crises in 1993, Lya began to acknowledge her long-buried anguish of having been separated from her sister and of emerging from World War II to discover that her parents and extended family — except for an uncle, aunt and cousin — had been annihilated by the Nazis. Soon after, she began sharing her story publicly. For the past five years, Elly tentatively has followed suit.
“We do have something to say. We do have a story,” Lya said. “It may not be Auschwitz,” (“Thank God,” Elly interjected) “but we have different issues.”
Lya and Elly were born in Utrecht, a city in the central Netherlands, to Lion Mauritz, known as Leo, and Renee Meijers.
Leo worked for the Hamburger Lead and Zinc manufacturing company as the equivalent of a chief financial officer. The family lived comfortably, often surrounded by friends and family. “I have memories of a happy childhood,” Lya said.
After Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, anti-Jewish measures were implemented, though Lya and Elly’s parents mostly sheltered them from details of the increasingly perilous situation. By April 1943, they were living in permanent hiding places.
Lya, who kept her name, which, like her appearance, was not identifiably Jewish, was placed with the Broers family in Amersfoort, about 15 miles northeast of Utrecht. She was instructed to tell people, if asked, she was from Rotterdam, which had been heavily bombed, and didn’t know her parents’ fate.
Hugo Broers was an ophthalmologist with an office on the first floor of their spacious house. His wife, Kathy, worked with him. They had two daughters, Pauline, then 6, and Francine, 4. “I was treated as one of the girls,” Lya said.
The first night, when Hugo and Kathy entered Lya’s large bedroom to say goodnight, Lya burst into tears. “I don’t want to sleep alone,” she told them. The parents moved her into their girls’ bedroom the following night.
Sometime later, a new housekeeper cornered Lya, interrogating her. “What kind of parents do you have? They don’t write. They don’t see you,” she said. Lya remained outwardly calm. “I don’t know. I’m from Rotterdam,” she answered.
That night, Lya recounted the incident to her foster parents. “We’re really proud that you stuck to your story,” they told her, rewarding her with a scarce piece of candy and firing the housekeeper.
Elly doesn’t recall being taken to her foster families in 1943. “But I remember the families,” she said.
She first was placed on a farm in Baambrugge, about 18 miles north of Utrecht, with Wijntje and Jacobus Griffioen and their six children. But after six months, because the house was close to the road and because Elly’s darker hair and complexion made her conspicuous, she was moved to the farm of Wijntje’s sister and brother-in-law, Cornelia and Jan van der Lee.
At the time, the van der Lees had six children. They were not well-to-do, but, Elly said. “They were rich in religion and family life.” Elly attended their Dutch Reform church and was part of the family. “I was loved until [they] died,” she said. Jan van der Lee died in 1968; his wife, who was known as Cor, died in 2006.
On May 5, 1945, the area was liberated. “The [Dutch] flags went out and people were celebrating,” Lya said. Allied tanks and jeeps rolled in, and the children were allowed on the street, where soldiers distributed chocolate and white bread.
A couple of months later, Lya was visited by her Uncle Lex, their birth father’s brother, who had been in hiding himself and who had learned the girls’ locations, most likely through the van Hiltens. He reunited Lya with Elly, whom she didn’t recognize but by day’s end didn’t want to leave, in fear of being separated again. The foster parents agreed that Lya should stay with Elly while Lex and his wife, who had two daughters of their own, searched for housing.
One day, Cor van der Lee called Lya and Elly into the front room, which was used only on Sundays and holidays. “I have to tell you, Mommy and Daddy have gone to heaven,” she told the girls. Lya immediately burst into tears. “That couldn’t be,” she said. “They loved us.”
In November 1945, the girls moved to Amsterdam with their Uncle Lex and his family. They lived in a large house and attended the Rosh Pina Jewish school. “We had a good family life,” Lya said.
But when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, Lex announced, “We’re not staying here to go through this again.” They arrived in the United States as immigrants a year later.
The family first lived in Glendale, where Lya and Elly worked in banking. Eighteen months later, they moved to Los Angeles.
Lya married Henk Frank in December 1959. Their daughter, Terry, was born in August 1962. Elly and Coleman Rubin married in December 1962. Their two children are Mark, born in August 1964, and Sharon, born in April 1966. Coleman died in 2004 and Henk in 2014. Lya has two grandchildren and Elly has nine.
Over the years, Lya and Elly learned that their parents — along with two uncles, an aunt, their grandmother and a cousin — had been hidden by two brothers in Brummen, a village in central Netherlands, which was their father’s birthplace. There, one brother’s step-daughter, who was having a relationship with a German officer, divulged their hiding places and got paid for the information. “For a small amount of money, they annihilated our whole family,” Lya said.
Lya and Elly also learned that as the bus carrying the captured family members pulled away from Brummen, their mother was shouting, “I want my children. I want my children.”
The family was taken to the Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz, where only a cousin survived.
The van Hiltens, Broers, Griffioens and van der Lees all have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Lya and Elly have remained close to the families, visiting through the years. “I loved these families. I still do,” Elly said.
Lya and Elly said they feel fortunate to have each other, each other’s families and their hiding families.
“You know what?” Lya repeated. “We do have a story to tell.”