By Samantha Levine
Like the angel of death, the Dutch police officer stood at
the door. It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and he was hunting
for Jews. Someone must have tipped him off to the three Jewish
children sheltered in the home of Marion Pritchard. He entered
the living room, his back to the bedroom where the youngsters
were sleeping. Pritchard's gut told her he would send them to a
concentration camp. Within two minutes, she'd decided what to
do. She reached up to a shelf and felt for the revolver given to
her for emergencies. "It was him or the kids, so I shot
him," she says, unflinching. "It was a moment of
excitement. I did it! I did it! The kids are safe! Then it was,
what do I do with the body?"
During World War II, the Nazis murdered millions of Jews,
Gypsies, homosexuals, and others. But thousands of ordinary
folks risked their own lives to help the intended victims.
Marion Pritchard was one of the rescuers, concealing a Jewish
family for nearly three years.
"It was never a question," says Pritchard, now 80
and a practicing psychoanalyst who lives in Vershire, Vt.
"For somebody's life, how could you not?"
The straightforward woman with the clipped Dutch accent is
puzzled by those who don't understand her conviction that
hesitating in the face of evil is equal to siding with the
enemy. Her brows knit together, she crosses her arms and asks,
"What if nobody had done anything?"
"To my father, justice was everything," Pritchard
says of her dad, a judge. "Not law and order, but
justice." His philosophy shaped her idyllic girlhood in
Amsterdam."I was never spanked, never hit," Pritchard
says. "I got all my questions answered. When you are
brought up that way, with complete love, respect, and
understanding, that is how you try to treat people when you grow
When the Dutch government shocked its people by capitulating
to the Nazis five days after the Germans invaded in May 1940,
Pritchard remained true to her family's values. She aimed to
"do whatever I could to get in the way of the Nazis."
So when her supervisor asked her and her classmates at social
work school to temporarily shelter Jewish children targeted for
concentration camps Pritchard agreed. Despite the possibility of
prison, or worse, she took a boy into her parents' home.
One morning in the spring of 1942, Pritchard watched Nazis
load sobbing Jewish children into trucks. When they didn't move
fast enough, the Nazis grabbed an arm or leg and threw them in.
"I was so shocked I found myself in tears," Pritchard
says. "Then I saw two women coming down the street to try
to stop them, and the Germans threw them into the trucks, too. I
stood frozen on my bicycle. When I saw that, I knew my rescue
work was more important than anything else I might be
doing." She was 22.
That summer, a friend in the Dutch resistance movement
secured empty servants' quarters in a rural village as a refuge
for a Jewish family. Pritchard volunteered to live with and care
"Jews in hiding couldn't be visible," she explains
with a hint of annoyance when asked her rationale. "They
couldn't just go to the store. So I stayed with them. It was the
right thing to do." The Polak family–Fred and his
children, 4-year-old Lex, 2-year-old Tom, and newborn
Erica–stayed with her until the war ended in 1945. (The mother
was separated from the family but reunited with them after the
war.) There was nowhere to hide other than a tiny compartment
under the living room, so Fred spent each day upstairs in a
nurse's house across the street and worked on his doctoral
dissertation. The children, who passed for gentiles, could play
in the yard. Though many of the neighbors knew what she was
doing, they were "good Dutchmen, anti-Nazi, and rescuers in
their own way," Pritchard says. They sneaked her milk and
vegetables to supplement her meager rations. Pritchard struggled
to keep house while finding havens for other Jews.
By the time the war ended, the Nazis had murdered
approximately 110,000 of the Netherlands' 140,000 Jews.
Pritchard had helped find hiding places or transport to safe
houses for more than 150. "I tried," she says,
"but many were only saved temporarily."
Pritchard was an exemplary rescuer because she chose to risk
her life when she saw Jewish children being hauled away, says
Malka Drucker, who coauthored Rescuers: Portraits of Moral
Courage in the Holocaust. "She was frozen in fear and
indecision, so she decided to become a rescuer."
For all her bravery, Pritchard is haunted by that night she
shot the policeman. She was fortunate local authorities did not
pursue the missing man–hatred for Nazis and Dutch turncoats
seethed in the village. And she was extremely lucky that friends
and supporters disposed of the body. Karel Poons, a gay Jew who
was her former ballet teacher, risked his life to sneak out
after curfew and persuade the baker to take the body in his
horse-drawn cart to the undertaker, who stashed it in an
occupied coffin slated for burial. Still, Pritchard feared being
found out. "I had to go on, to stay strong for the
family," she says. "I wish it hadn't been necessary.
But it was the better of two evils."
© 2001 U.S.News
& World Report Inc. All rights reserved.