Marty Brounstein tells a compelling, true tale of courage and compassion in “Two Among the Righteous Few,” his recent book about a Catholic couple in the Netherlands who helped save more than two dozen Jews during World War II — including the author’s own wife.
“This is a story of people willing to do the right thing, people who cared more about others than about themselves. I am just the messenger,” Brounstein said last week from his home in San Mateo.
“And I am the evidence that the story is true: Exhibit A,” his wife, Leah Baars, said with a laugh. Baars is one of the individuals whom the couple, Frans and Mien Wijnakker, saved so long ago.
Baars and Brounstein have scheduled more than 40 book talks across the country, including one at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10 at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.
Baars is a retired school psychologist. Brounstein, who owns the Practical Solutions Group, is an author, speaker and management consultant. The couple, who met 11 years ago in San Francisco and were married in 2007, are affiliated with Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.
Baars was born in 1944 to Lynn and Louis Baars, Jews who were hiding in the Wijnakkers’ home in Dieden, a small village on the Maas River. Little Leah, known then as Ineke, was presented as the Wijnakkers’ child. “It was a most unusual first year of life, really a miracle,” Baars said. “It is also a miracle that everyone Frans and Mien helped survived.”
Frans Wijnakker worked as a miller in a granary and sold meat and eggs in neighboring towns. His wife cared for their four children (a fifth was born just after the war).
In the summer of 1943, they took in one young Jewish girl, thinking it would be for just three weeks. Before the war ended, they had more than a dozen people living in their home, in a secret room they constructed to hide them.
“They risked their lives every day for almost two years,” Brounstein said. “What they did was so dangerous, so not the norm. The average person would have said, ‘I am out of it,’ and moved on.”
Baars’ family visited the Wijnakkers once a year before moving to Los Angeles in 1957. Even after the move, the families stayed in touch. In 1984, Leah Baars attended a ceremony in Dieden honoring Frans Wijnakker (Mien died in 1980). Still, she didn’t know the whole story of her early years.
“I knew my parents were hidden, and where I was born,” she said. “My mother was traumatized by the war — she lost her whole family — and she talked about the effects of that, not about specific circumstances.”
Details emerged when Baars and Brounstein went to Europe in 2009. Traveling through the Netherlands, they stopped in the town of Ravenstein, where they learned that a Dutch family member had written a book about the Wijnakkers. Baars and Brounstein then drove a short distance to Dieden, where they found the couple’s oldest son at the family home.
“Frans Jr. hadn’t seen Leah in 25 years, but when she said she was Baby Ineke, he lit up and started calling relatives,” Brounstein said. The couple spent three days visiting with the Wijnakkers’ grown children and extended family. They were shown photos of a plaque and a tree at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where the Wijnakkers were honored in 1984 as Righteous Among the Nations for opening their home to Jews and finding safe houses for others from 1943 to 1945.
“That’s when it hit me,” Brounstein said. “You don’t get that award for nothing.” Still, he had no plans to write a book for the U.S. market until the Wijnakker family members encouraged him. In April 2010, Brounstein started conducting interviews, doing additional research and using the earlier book as a resource. He also had access to audiotapes that Frans Wijnakker made before his death in 1994.
“I wanted to shape the material, give it more depth and clarity, write it for a wide audience,” Brounstein said. “If readers don’t know much about the Holocaust or World War II or life in Holland, it’s OK, because it’s all in the book.”
Until “Two Among the Righteous Few” was published in late 2011, Baars’ friends had not known her background. “This is not something I talk about easily, but I have had very positive reactions,” she said.
“Still, the book has not really changed my life. I am just along for the ride, supporting Marty’s wonderful work — and I hope never to be famous.”
Leah Baars and Marty Brounstein will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 10 at Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, www.pjcc.org, May 7 at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville and May 17 at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.
“Two Among the Righteous Few” by Marty Brounstein (191 pages, Tate, $12.99)