Diet Eman was a Dutch Resistance hero who, at 22 years old, risked her life to save dozens of Jews during the German occupation of Holland.
Born in The Hague in 1920, Diet grew up in a loving Christian family. Her father’s design business was hit hard by the Depression and the family had very little money, but it was a happy childhood. For Diet, the war began on May 10, 1940, when Hitler’s army invaded the Netherlands. Diet’s brother-in-law was killed that first day. Inspired by their strong Christian faith, Diet and her fiancee Hein Sietsma immediately formed a resistance group and enlisted their friends and family to join the fight.
They began by listening to banned BBC war news broadcasts, and sharing the information with everybody they knew. When the Nazi invaders began enacting anti-Semitic legislation, Diet’s work became more important and more dangerous. She found a house for her terrified Jewish friend Herman, who was marked for deportation. Hein, who had read Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, knew what was in store for Jews in Holland. Together Diet and Hein found farmers to shelter Herman, as well as his sister, his fiancee and her mother. They continued their efforts and found safe houses for 60 Dutch Jews, saving them from almost certain death at Auschwitz or Sobibor. Some of the Jews were placed in cities, others in small villages or rural farm areas.There were so many Jews in need of help that Diet spent most of every day and night on her bicycle, delivering false ID papers and ration cards to people in hiding. Diet later said, “In the beginning you have no idea what risk you are taking. Then, you’re so deep in it, you can’t go back.”
The Gestapo raided a safe house and found Diet’s diary. Knowing she was about to be arrested, Diet fled from her home and moved in with a family on a remote dairy farm. She took on a new identity, and continued her resistance work from the farm, tracking the movements of German troops and supplies.
On April 26, 1944, Hein was arrested. Knowing she was next, Diet once again changed her identity and base of operations. Continuing her work with the resistance, Diet traveled by train with illegal documents to distribute. On the train, Nazi officers asked to see her ID, but it was clearly fake. She was forcibly removed from the train for questioning. Diet knew that once the Nazis found the fake documents, she would most likely be executed on the spot. But there was no chance to get rid of the documents, until a stroke of luck she later attributed to Divine intervention. One of the officers had a new plastic raincoat, a brand-new invention, and the others were so fascinated by the coat that Diet was able to toss the documents into a nearby trash can without being noticed.
Diet was arrested for the fake ID and sent to a concentration camp. She was employed in the laundry, where her job was to wash bloodstains off clothing worn by executed prisoners. The work was so difficult that she suffered an emotional breakdown. At her trial, Diet did such a good impersonation of a dim-witted housemaid that she was released. She continued her brave work delivering false documents, endangering her life with every trip by bicycle or train.
After the war, she learned that her beloved Hein had died at Dachau. Diet moved to America, where she got married and raised two children. She didn’t speak about her wartime heroism until 1978, when she spoke at a “Suffering and Survival” conference. People were so interested in her story that she began writing her memoir, “Things We Couldn’t Say,” which was published in 1994. “It Is Well,” a ballet about Diet’s actions during the war, was performed for Dutch King Willem-Alexander on a royal visit to Michigan in 2015.
Diet received thanks from many world leaders including General Eisenhower in 1946 and President Reagan in 1982. She was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1998. Diet died on September 3, 2019, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was 99 years old.
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