This year, the San Diego Jewish Federation commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, on April 28 at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla with a once in a lifetime opportunity: to witness the reception of the annual Righteous Among the Nations award.
Given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, this is award has historically only been presented in Israel at Yad Vashem, or the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. But because its honorary recipient was unable to travel, a special exception was made. Darren Schwartz, chief program officer of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, said the award has never been presented in San Diego, and it will likely never be presented here again.
This year, the Righteous Among the Nations award was given to the late Wilhelmina and Cornelis de Ru. It was accepted by their last remaining and youngest child, Herman de Ru, who is 80 years old and lives in Fallbrook. His granddaughter, Elena de Ru, traveled overseas from Holland to attend the award ceremony and help fill in the pieces of her family’s history that her grandfather (who has a mild cognitive impairment) could not provide.
“I did all the research myself, but if it wasn’t for him, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It’s the highest honor one could get. And they got it because they, especially my grandmother, were always thinking about someone else."
That generosity turned into heroism when Wilhelmina and Cornelis de Ru risked their lives to hide a Jewish teenager named Maurits Kopuit in their southern Holland home. Neither he — nor his mother or father who were also hidden on a farm close by — were ever discovered by the Nazi soldiers, though they came close. But luckily, Wilhelmina de Ru had taught the Jews she was harboring (there were many more than just Kopuit) how to hide themselves in under two minutes.
“The neighbors always said that [the de Rus] were hiding Jews, so one night [Nazi soliders] came and they were so mad they couldn’t find anybody that they took my grandfather,” Elena de Ru said. “They took him to the headquarters and told him that they were going to kill him.”
The Nazi soldiers kept him for two days, and Cornelis de Ru continued to deny he had been hiding Jews.
“You know what my grandfather said? He said ‘I’m ready to die and meet the Lord, are you?’” She said. “[The soldiers] walked away but deep down they knew they were doing something wrong, and the next day they let him go.”
Because of Wilhelmina and Cornelis de Ru, many Jewish lives were spared, including that of Kopuit who went on to become a famous journalist in Holland. He died when he was 62, and his son was able to verify to the Yad Vashem that his father was in fact saved by the de Ru family.
“I heard a story about an 11-year-old kid that was killed in Sri Lanka. American kid who was out there, and he was going to be a neuroscientist. This is the flip side of that. This is somebody that was saved who then made tremendous contributions because they were saved.”
For more information about the award and Yom Hashoah, visit jewishinsandiego.org/yomhashoah.