Brothers reunite with hidden ‘sister’ after 65 years

During a teary-eyed meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, on Tuesday, 70-year-old Elli Mantegari met members of the family who hid her for almost two years in Nazi-occupied Holland. The reunion brings an end to a search that has lasted 65 years.

Mantegari, then Elli Szanowski, was only a few weeks old when she was hidden in the Amsterdam home of Johanna and Frits Hakkens in 1942. Her father had been killed by the Nazis, and her mother fled to Switzerland.

Toward the end of the war, Elli was reunited with her mother and sister. But the Hakkens, who moved to New Zealand in the 1960s, died a decade later without learning her fate. All they had were old photographs of Elli as a little girl.

“I’m still above the clouds. I am yet to digest everything. I’m very, very happy and grateful to know that I had people who saved my life,” said Mantegari, who now lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Mantegari met Richard and Marcel Hakkens, the sons Johanna and Frits Hakkens, at Wellington Airport. In war-ravaged Amsterdam, Richard Hakkens had been Elli Szanowski’s secret foster brother.

“She is my sister,” Richard said, “my mother, who had borne three sons, said she was the daughter we never had.”

“We are very grateful for the parents that we had. You can be in the most difficult situation and the outcome is a story like this … about peace and love and kindness,” said Marcel Hakkens, who was born six years after the war.

In September 2010, Marcel Hakkens had taken his 9-year-old grandson, Caleb, to see the film “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” a documentary about the Kindertransport. Caleb was deeply moved by the film, which recounts how hundreds of Jewish children were rescued from the Nazis in World War II.

Afterward the family told Caleb how his great-grandmother had hidden a tiny Jewish baby girl and how the family had unsuccessfully tried to find her after the war.

“Try one more time Nana,” he asked his grandmother, Gloria Hakkens.

Johanna and Frits Hakkens had told their daughter-in-law about Elli, and Gloria had joined the family hunt to find her. But every road led to a dead end. Unsure of the correct spelling for Elli’s surname, the family eventually gave up the hunt.

Driven by Caleb’s curiosity, Gloria Hakkens recently tried again. After another dead end, she turned to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which suggested she advertise in Aanspraak, a Dutch journal distributed to those receiving restitution and pensions as a result of the Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch Jewry.

Lea Radziner, Elli’s sister, saw the ad.

Radziner, 72, had broken her leg during a hike and was laid up in her Encino home.

“Aanspraak was delivered to my home and this time I read it from cover to cover. I saw the ad looking for Elli and I thought ‘This sounds very much like my sister,’ ” she said.

A young Elli Mantegari (nee Szanowski)

After Mantegari got the call from her sister, she e-mailed the Hakkens family and set up a meeting on Skype.

“Marcel produced a photo of the little baby who had become part of their family and I immediately yelled, ‘It’s me!’ He asked me to hold on while he found another photograph. This time I gasped and told him to hold on. I had exactly the same photo.

“Before she died, my mother told me that Jo, our housekeeper in Amsterdam, had taken me in when my mother had to flee the country. But I had no idea that I had stayed hidden in her home for what was probably almost two years. And now Jo’s family has found me,” she said.

On a Sunday morning in February 1941, Mantegari’s father, Avraham Szanowski, went out on an errand. He never returned. The previous day, a German officer had been killed and the Nazis trapped 400 young Jewish men as retribution.

Radziner, who joined her sister in Wellington, said, “They closed off bridges and took the young Jews away. We were never to see our father again. After the war, we sought out information as to his fate. The Germans kept scrupulous records and we learned that he had died in Matthausen. The official record reads bronchial pneumonia, but we believe he was worked to death in a slave labor camp,”

Avraham’s brother, Jacob, had remained in Holland. He had previously immigrated to Argentina and was protected by his South American passport. Jacob received information that Avraham’s wife, Gitel, was slated to be collected for forced labor and he begged her to flee. She did, but not before ensuring that her children were in safe hands.

However, Ellie’s stay with the Hakkens family came to an end when young Richard Hakkens developed diphtheria. Ellie was transferred to the Dutch underground child protection system.

After the war, Gitel returned to Amsterdam. Since her brother-in-law Jacob knew where Elli had been hidden, Gitel found her almost immediately in the city of Haarlem. But it took a massive, desperate search to find Lea. Gitel showed her older daughter’s photograph to everyone she met and eventually the mother and daughter were reunited at a farmhouse in Horst.

Radziner still remembers that day, saying that her mother seemed like an absolute stranger in her eyes.

Reunited with her daughters, Gitel moved her family to Argentina. Gitel and Lea eventually settled in Los Angeles, and Elli and her husband made a new life for themselves in Brazil.

“We have so much to be grateful for. That two people can do so much to help so many,” Lea Radziner said of Johanna and Frits Hakkens.

Addressing Marcel and Richard, Radziner said: “If there were more people like your parents, this would be a much better world. Our children and our grandchildren are miracles.”

Gloria Hakkens added: “When hearing Frits and Jo’s story, people say it’s amazing. But this would have been a normal thing for Jo and Frits to have done. She would do the same thing today. That’s the sort of people they were. They did the right thing.”

Henry Benjamin is the editor of J-Wire, an online Jewish news service for Australia and New Zealand.