In 1943, in the dark of night, Hendrik Drogt jumped on his motorcycle and raced to the hospital, a life or death task was in front of him. No, Drogt was not a doctor, but a deserter from the Dutch military police. His friend, Mr. Thalen, who was also a member of the Resistance, had been captured by the Germans. There was no time to waste; Thalen was handcuffed to his bed and certain death awaited him if left to his capturers. Drogt ran in the hospital, shot the two armed German soldiers guarding the door, raced in the room, uncuffed his friend and they both disappeared into the Dutch countryside.
Drogt, a Dutch citizen, risked his own life, put his family’s well being in jeopardy and defied orders to save other people’s lives, simply because it was the right thing. The story of how he became a hero spans generations, continents, cultures and religions and involves the Dutch Royal Family, President Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Dutch Jews, Allied air force pilots and countless other people whose worlds were changed forever by one man’s act of bravery.
In 2006, Mark B., an ex Israeli air force pilot who was born in South Africa took his eldest son Edden back to Africa on a family hiking trip. Mark’s sister, who lives in Johannesburg, arranged for everyone to stay at the Sikelela Country Lodge, a collection of picturesque cottages located on a Macadamia nut farm on the outskirts of Hazyview, a town on the edge of Krueger National Park.
While on the farm, 17-year-old Edden asked the ranch owner, Henk Brink, about e-mail access, and was promptly invited into his home to use his computer.
Mark accompanied Edden and noticed photos of hot air balloons and airplanes, and his interest was piqued. Brink, a retired commercial pilot and flight instructor, had once broken a world record for crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon. He then had taken the capsule of the balloon, turned it into a boat and again crossed the Atlantic in the other direction. After years of living in Holland, Brink and his family decided to take their retirement money and buy a farm in South Africa to spend more time in the wild open.
Eventually, the conversation led to a topic that Brink had never really discussed with a stranger: his father, Hendrik Drogt’s, actions during the Second World War.
During the German occupation of Holland, Drogt was a Dutch military police officer in the village of Grijpskerk. On May 5, 1943, the German occupiers ordered him to arrest Jews in and around his village. He refused, deserted with his firearms, and joined the Dutch Resistance.
Drogt became a key player in hiding Jewish families in and around the towns of Grijpskerk, Kommerzijl and Pieterzijl. He only traveled at night, bringing Jews to and from a variety of hiding places, mostly farmhouses. His bravery did not stop there. It extended to saving the lives of over 100 allied pilots whose planes were shot down and had parachuted to safety. He personally helped them escape capture and return to safety in Britain. His heroism was cut short when the Gestapo caught him on August 2, 1943. Drogt and eight of his friends from the Resistance received death sentences. The night before he was to be executed, he wrote his parents and wife a letter, with the dire news.
On April 14 1944, at 5 a.m., Drogt was executed. He never had the chance to see and hold his six-month-old son, who was named after him. Brink is still haunted by the loss of his father and of his children’s grandfather.
Drogt’s heroic actions did not go unnoticed, however. At the end of the war, he was officially decorated by American President Eisenhower and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands as well as by Prime Minister Churchill with ceremonies and certificates.
Oddly enough, the one country that never had honored Drogt was Israel. In the early 1990s, Brink told his story to the Israeli ambassador in Holland, because as he told Mark, “The only thing missing for my family is to get recognition from the State of Israel.”
While the Israeli ambassador promised to get back to him, he didn’t, and Brink did not pursue him.
Upon returning to Israel, Mark, acting as a good will ambassador, looked into how Israel could honor Drogt. He spoke with his air force buddies – people high up in the service – on what could be done. One of the air force commanders Mark spoke with is himself a son of a Holocaust survivor. However, Mark was told, while the Israeli air force could show Brink a good time, nothing official could be done or given in writing. The only award Israel gives out in these cases is the Righteous Among the Nations Award through Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, so Mark wrote them a letter with Drogt’s story.
There are specific requirements to qualify for this honor; one is that the story needs to be verified. Mark would have to find people who served with Drogt, or were saved by him. This, of course, is over 60 years later, so most of Drogt’s compatriots would be in their 80s and 90s if they were even still alive.
Undetered, Mark touched base with the Dutch Federation of Israel and spread the word. Mark’s wife Smadar and friends, David Sadot and Galai Sharir also took action. Through their work, many other people became involved, some even put ads in Dutch newspapers asking for help in finding people who could corroborate the story. But nothing happened, and no one responded. Sadot called his cousin, Yitschak Kouzin, who is of Dutch origin. He also started to search, subsequently recruiting his family in Holland to help. They were able to find the widow of a man who had been saved by Drogt. When Kouzin went to visit his sister in Holland, he decided to test his luck. He took a list of names given to him by the widow, picked up the phone book and started calling. Miraculously, one of the calls led to success. Two more people were found who could testify to Drogt’s heroic actions in the Resistance. Kouzin’s mission had been a success. These interviews happened just in time, as one of the people interviewed died a few months later.
Mark had the statements translated from Dutch to Hebrew and sent to a committee at Yad Vashem. Months went by and one day the phone rang.
A voice said, “Hello Mark, I am calling from Yad Vashem – It’s been approved.”
“What’s been approved?” Mark asked.
The voice responded, “Henk’s father has been approved to be honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.”Mark explained, “It was an unbelievable moment.”
Mark immediately called his wife, and they were both in tears. Then he called Brink to tell him the news.
Brink was in disbelief, and in a follow- up email to Mark he explained, “Your phone call is still resonating in my mind. It was a very emotional moment for me. I have informed my mother straight away and together we felt very close for a brief moment. Mark, it is your personal achievement to make this happen. This remarkable story tells exactly who is Mark B.” I asked Mark, who is a reluctant story teller, “Do you think this was a mere coincidence?”
“I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to be able to try and even luckier to have succeeded. It’s very seldom do you feel you can do something like this and to have it happen by chance,” he replied. The ceremony honoring Drogt took place on Sept 22 at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.