Among the events marking Yom HaShoah this year in Ottawa was a special reception, May 4, honouring the Makkinje family of Bussum, a suburb just east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, for its efforts in sheltering the Veffer family from almost certain death during the Holocaust.
When the Nazi persecution of Dutch Jews intensified in 1942, flower shop owners Sara and Jonas Veffer, and their six young children, needed a place to hide.
Finding a place of refuge proved difficult, until Rachel, the second oldest of the Veffer children, eventually found them safe haven at her friend Annie Makkinje’s house in Bussum. Annie’s parents, Jetske and Gerrit Makkinje, agreed to hide all eight members of the Veffer family in their home.
The Veffers spent nearly three years in an upper-level room – just 11-foot by 12-foot – sealed off from the outside world, living in constant fear of being discovered by neighbours or of being betrayed by passersby. With the help of the Dutch underground, rations, books and medical assistance helped sustain the family.
Following the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945 – largely by the First Canadian Army – Jonas Veffer spent time in the Canadian military hospital in Bussum where he was tended to by Martin Stern, a 21-year-old Canadian soldier.
Martin Stern was invited for Yom Kippur to the Veffer home, where he met Rachel Veffer, whom he later married.
Through Martin Stern, all eight members of the Veffer family moved to Toronto, where the parents opened a flower shop. The Sterns eventually sponsored another 50 members of the extended Veffer family to begin new lives in Canada.
The reception in Ottawa – attended by Ambassador Rafael Barak of Israel and Ambassador Cees Kole of the Netherlands – recognized the great sacrifice of the Makkinje family in hiding the Veffer family from the Nazis.
The event was an important opportunity for members of the Veffer family to gather together – many for the first time – to express their deep gratitude to the Makkinje family.
Although Rachel Veffer Stern passed away several years ago, her husband Martin Stern, now 93, was able to attend the ceremony. Their son, Dr. Hartley Stern, CEO of the Canadian Medical Protective Association and vice-chair of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, was the driving force behind the event.
Hartley Stern’s desire to initiate the event came from a long-term personal “mission” to thank the Makkinje family, whose heroic efforts have remained largely unrecognized for more than 70 years. His sister went to the Netherlands to invite the Makkinje family to Ottawa.
“I wanted to do more than just say ‘thank you’ to the Makkinjes. I wanted my children and my children’s children to understand and remember [the Holocaust] through a personal connection,” explained Hartley Stern, who first visited the Makkinje house with his wife in 1981.
The Makkinje family was represented in Ottawa by Jan Makkinje, the younger brother of Rachel Veffer’s friend Annie Makkinje, and by Gerda Betzema, Annie’s daughter.
With the Dutch tulips blooming in Canada’s capital, giving thanks to the Makkinje family in Ottawa on Yom HaShoah held tremendous significance. It was a day to not only commemorate the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but also an opportunity to recognize the heroic actions of families like the Makkinjes.
Their story teaches us about sacrifice, survival through hardship – and the importance of gratitude.
With files from Ariel Vered.