Now 87 years old, Harty van Engelen was just 13 when his parents started providing safe refuge to Jewish people during the Second World War.
“I have been proud of my parents, that they did good for five Jewish people. They gave them shelter and food,” he said.
Harty and his father, Albertus van Engelen, built secret hiding spots in their house, should the Nazis raid it.
Albertus and his wife, Gerrigje, struggled to obtain enough food to keep their secret roommates fed – at times surviving off the old potato skins from previous meals.
“They were a beam of light in a very dark chapter in world history and Jewish history,” said Galit Baram, the consul general of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada.
Now, the family is being honoured with the Righteous Among the Nations award. Harty accepted it on his late parents’ behalf at the Beth Israel Synagogue in front of nearly 200 people on Tuesday night.
In addition to a medal and a certificate, Albertus and Gerrigje will also be honoured in Israel.
“There are trees that are planted with their name and their names appear in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum.”
One of the people the van Engelens saved was 28-year-old Leo Karpe. He was working in a Nazi labour camp when he felt the overwhelming urge to leave.
“When the labour was finished, the Germans intended to send all those Jewish people that were working to the concentration camp. Just the day before they did it, my father could escape,” said his daughter, Sascha Karpe.
She said her father was smart to get out when he did, but also lucky to find refuge at the home of the van Engelens.
There, though life was difficult, they made the best of it. Leo played guitar, sang and wrote poetry.
All three of Leo’s daughters flew to Edmonton from Amsterdam for the ceremony. They wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the van Engelens.
“They took a very big risk because if they should be discovered by someone, they would have been killed — all three of them. My father was hidden there, that’s why he survived the war.”
The families remained close friends long after the war ended, but didn’t often speak of what happened.
“I think it was really, really painful, and it was a traumatic experience, and they just wanted to get on with their lives,” explained Harty’s daughter, Claudia Kobayashi. “The war was over.”
And to this day, the van Engelen family remains humble.
“My parents never wanted an honour. We as Christians and as humans, we should’ve taken in more Jews.”
Decades later, their story lives on, along with the descendants of the people they saved.
“I believe that in a time when we still struggle with hatred, with hate crimes and with antisemitism, education is very important,” Baram said. “That is why it’s important for us to tell the stories of these brave people.”