CONCORD, New Hampshire — After immigrating to the United States, Wilhelmina Wiegman rarely talked about how her family in the Netherlands sheltered a Jewish couple and their daughter fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.
But descendants of the couple, Georg Froehlich and Edith Froehlich, wanted to do something to recognize her family’s heroic action. They decided to honor the memory of Wiegman, whose family is Catholic, by dedicating a memorial garden at a church in Somersworth, New Hampshire where she was a long-time parishioner.
Volunteers on Saturday will plant 1,200 tulip and daffodil bulbs that have been imported from the Netherlands, near the town of Bovenkarspel where the Froehlichs and later their daughter, Sabine, were sheltered from the summer of 1944 until the war ended in 1945.
The company importing the flowers, Colorblends Wholesale Flowerbulbs in Connecticut, is owned by descendants of the couple. Sabine married a member of the Dutch underground, Cornelius Schipper, who after the war started importing Dutch bulbs into the United States.
“It is a way to celebrate their lives and what they did for us and our family,” Chris Schipper, one of their five children, said of the garden. “When you’re survivors of the Holocaust, you are very fortunate. It’s something you don’t easily forget and this is something to celebrate in the darkness of war and the Holocaust.”
His mother, Sabine, died two years ago in New Jersey at age 90. Her husband died last year, aged 102.
Wilhelmina Wiegman was only a teenager when her father, Jan Elders, who was the mayor of German-occupied Bovenkarspel, chose to shelter the Froehlichs in an upstairs bedroom. Sabine would join the family a few months later, after the Wiegmans had arranged for her to visit her parents from a nearby farm. The family also sheltered some Allied airmen whose planes were shot down and other refugees.
In the coming months, the Froehlichs were nearly arrested several times by German soldiers who came to the family’s house for wood and food — both in short supply during a harsh winter, said Wiegman’s son, Leo Wiegman. Once, Sabine was questioned by a German soldier as she chopped wood outside; another time the Froehlichs were stopped near the house by German soldiers who checked their forged identity cards but let them go. Their 19-year-old son, Andreas, had been arrested in Amsterdam a few years earlier and died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Wiegman and her seven siblings would also run errands for the Dutch underground, often transporting food, fuel and letters by bicycle to German Jews and other refugees who were sheltered in a network of farmhouses in the countryside. Once, she was picked up by the Germans for violating curfew and spent a night in jail.
“I don’t think she thought of herself as a hero,” Leo Wiegman, who owns a solar energy company and is the former mayor of Croton-on-Hudson in New York state, said of his mother, who died this year. “She thought of herself as fulfilling a duty to help people who needed help.”
The experience of surviving the war and helping the Froehlichs would lead to a lifetime of public service for Wilhelmina Wiegman. She was active in her church, taught English classes and volunteered at a regional hospital. It also forged a tight bond between the two families in the United States and instilled a sense of empathy and understanding among her children as they grew older.
“Our parents never really talked about what happened during the war even though we knew terrible things happened,” Leo Wiegman said. “Among my generation, it led to a certain awareness and certain sensitivity around issues of persecution, prejudice and the need for immigration and avoiding violence.”
Relatives of families will attend the ceremony as well as members of the local Jewish community, Catholic war veterans and parishioners from the church. Along with the bulbs being planted, a plaque will be placed in the garden in honor of Wiegman. The date was chosen because this was the best time to plant the bulbs but it also coincides with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, which begins Sunday.
“For us as a community of faith, it’s an important reminder that even in the darkest times of history that people of faith brought the life of Christ and the light of hope to the world,” said the pastor at Saint Ignatius of Loyola Parish, Father Andrew Nelson. “We think it’s important to tell the stories of people living out their faith and living out the life and choosing good, the way of hope.”
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