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Risking Your Life to Save Others

It's not often that a U.S. citizen is honored for protecting Jews from Nazi forces. But a retired professor of geology and chemistry at Rice University will accept the "Righteous Among the Nations" award from the Israeli government on behalf of his mother — who risked her own life to save Jews.


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Dieter Heymann at KUHF
Dieter Heymann at KUHF

Dieter Heymann was 16 years old when his mother, Erika, was arrested and sent to a Dutch concentration camp in 1943.

Her crime was renting rooms to three Jewish men in her boarding house in Amsterdam.

“I think to understand my mom, you need to know that her grandfather was already a revolutionary in 1848. Her father was a socialist. He was a publisher and was jailed numerous times because he violated a law in Germany. So she came
from a background of people who were concerned with the general public, with the welfare and with justice.”

Dieter Heymann’s own father was Jewish and had already been imprisoned in Germany, prompting his family to flee to Amsterdam.

Dieter remembers the day his mother, Erika, first confronted the Nazis in their new home.

“And so one day there was a Razzia. What that meant was that our whole area was sort of ringed by German troops, nobody could come in, nobody could go out. Army cars would drive through the area and say all Jews had to come and stand in front of the house.”

Heymann’s mother told her boarders to hide in the attic apartment.

“And actually we were told not to watch. Eventually my sister and I did and I will never forget that sight…of all these people being herded to the trams and the railroads. Well anyway, they came up to our apartment, a German soldier. He asked ‘are there any people in the house?’ My mother said ‘only my children.’ So this German solider said ‘well, let your children sleep’ and left.”

The Heymanns were eventually betrayed by two different people who reported them to the German authorities. Dieter Heymann and his sister came home one Sunday afternoon to an empty house.

“The S.D. came and arrested everybody. Mr. Gaismer was, of course, sent to Auswitch and murdered. Albert Keijzer wasn’t there, by accident. And Chanan escaped over the balcony to the next house, where he hid for awhile, and then after an hour when he thought it was safe he went to the street.”

Heymann’s mother spent nine months in a concentration camp. She was released in 1944, but had become very sick and died of leukemia in 1950.

The man who escaped now lives near Tel Aviv. He’s the one who nominated Erika Heymann to receive the Righteous Among the Nations award.

I asked Heymann what his reaction was when he found out.

“Terriffic. She deserves it”

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Heymann will accept the award in honor of his mother on September 7th at a ceremony at the Holocaust Museum Houston.