Benjamin Blankenstein was a Dutch schoolteacher who, with his wife Maria, sheltered a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Holland, at enormous personal cost.
Born in the Netherlands in 1914, Benjamin was the oldest of four children raised in a loving family who were active members of the Gereformeerde Bondskerk (Church of the Reformed.) A thoughtful and quick-witted child, Benjamin grew up to become a beloved fifth-grade teacher at a Christian elementary school in the town of Soestdijk. After Germany invaded Holland in 1940, he joined a local branch of the Landelijke Organisatie (LO), a nationwide resistance movement focused on hiding persecuted Jews, as well as non-Jews with a target on their backs for criticizing the Nazi regime.
The Bernsteins were a small Jewish family living in the nearby town of Soest. Henry and Martha Bernstein and their 14-year-old son Rolf had been in hiding but sadly were betrayed to the Germans by a neighbor. As the Bernsteins were scrambling to find another safe haven, Benjamin Blankenstein heard of their plight and invited the family of three to move in with him, Maria, and their two young daughters. The Bernsteins moved into the Blankenstein attic and the kind Dutch family provided the frightened Jews with all they needed to survive. Nobody knew how long the Bernsteins would need to stay there, but although money was already tight, the Blankensteins were prepared to host them as long as necessary. In the evening Benjamin and Maria would close the curtains and their hidden guests would come down from the attic and they would all play board games together.
Living in close quarters must have been difficult, but the families became fast friends. Every day after coming home from work, Benjamin tutored Rolf in multiple subjects so that the boy would be ready for school when it was safe for him to return. The situation continued for over a year, with the Bernsteins dependent on the Blankensteins for so much, and the Blankensteins happy to provide.
It all ended on June 5, 1944. The Bernsteins were again betrayed by someone who informed on them to the Nazis. While Benjamin was at work, the Gestapo came to the home and arrested the Bernsteins, then looted the Blankenstein home, taking everything of value and trashing everything else. A half hour later, Benjamin was arrested at school, in front of the young students who adored him. He was taken first to prison and then to a concentration camp in Germany, where he was tortured by Nazis demanding the names of other members of the LO resistance group. Despite horrific suffering, Benjamin insisted he didn’t know his fellow fighters’ real names. The Bernsteins were deported to Auschwitz, where Henry and young Rolf were murdered. Despite being up to date with his studies, the boy never did return to school.
From the camp where he was imprisoned, Benjamin was able to write to Maria and he repeatedly reassured her that he was in good health and would be home soon. However, things were decidedly not good. Starved of food and suffering from dystentery, Benjamin died in Bergen-Belsen on February 24th 1945, two months before the camp was liberated by the British army. He was only 31 years old. Benjamin’s youngest daughter Thea was born nine days after his death.
Martha Bernstein survived Auschwitz, and with nowhere else to go, after liberation she returned to the Blankenstein home, where once again Maria took her in. The two widows lived amicably together, and Martha helped Maria raise her three daughters, Fieke, Betty and Thea.
In 2005, Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored Benjamin and Maria Blankenstein as Righteous Among the Nations.
For helping others at the cost of his own life, we honor Benjamin Blankenstein as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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