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Hidden in plain sight

by Leslee Komako

April 23, 2014 | 3:24 pm

Harry Davids, Photo by Cyndi Beme

Harry Davids, Photo by Cyndi Beme

Harry Davids was about 6 years old when his parents called him into the bedroom of their home in South Africa to deliver a message he will never forget.

“They say, ‘Are you aware we’re not your real parents? We’re your uncle and aunt. Your parents were killed in a big war.’ ”

Since that day, Davids’ life — the Encino resident is now 71 — has been one big research project to discover the horrible truth of a war that stole more than 60 members of his family. 

His story begins in Holland. Although Davids’ parents were from western Germany, hyperinflation in the mid-1920s, followed by the fallout of the Great Depression, forced them abroad in search of work. Both found jobs at high-end department stores in Amsterdam, albeit competing ones. 

In 1940, Germany invaded Holland. Davids’ parents married the following year, but by this time, restrictive rules were imposed on Jews, who were stripped of their civil rights, and many went into hiding. It was into this world that Davids was born in the fall of 1942; a few months later, he was given to someone in the Dutch resistance. 

“I’ve never been able to find that person,” he said, though he suspects it was a Jewish-German nurse. 

Over the next several months, Davids was shuttled at night by barge along canals to the north of Holland. The resistance sought a permanent home for him, but boys were especially hard to place: Circumcision revealed their true heritage.

By the time Davids arrived in the city of Dokkum, he was very sick. A Protestant family from Engwierum, a village seven miles away, agreed to take him, but the village doctor would not treat him because he was Jewish. Instead, he told them of another doctor hours away.

“The mother of my family travels five miles by bike and takes me to the train station, to a distant place almost in Germany in the dead of winter,” Davids said. “The doctor treats me. She brings me back to the village, and I get sick all over again. Now they send me with the oldest daughter, and they get me cured.”

Davids’ new family, the Bakkers, told two cover stories about the 1-year-old boy. To neighbors, he was a sick child they were nursing to health who required the curative powers of the ocean air. To German soldiers who occasionally passed through, he was the youngest of their five children. The ruse was supported by Davids’ white-blond hair and blue eyes. 

It worked, but after the war, when laws were passed requiring people harboring refugees to turn their names over to the government so they could be reunited with family, things got complicated, Davids said. 

He had no papers — it was how the resistance had wanted it. He had only his name, an unusually English one for the region. His birth parents, both killed in 1943 at the Sobibor extermination camp, gave it to him because they intended to move to South Africa, where they had relatives. 

This is how Davids’ extended family found him. But even after an uncle in South Africa agreed to take him, his Dutch family was not eager to give him up, and all manner of paperwork and legal barriers resulted in a closely contested court case, he said.

Finally, in May 1947, Davids was able to join his new family. This is where his memory takes over the telling.

“I don’t remember saying goodbye to my old family,” Davids said. “I remember misbehaving. It was an incredibly long plane trip. My ears were bleeding. That was very common in those days. Planes were not pressurized. I remember meeting my new mother and new sister, and a Great Dane named Tiger.

“I remember arriving to this new country, and the bright sunshine. I remember squinting a lot. I was unaccustomed to the light. I remember spacious homes, compared with Holland, where everything is cramped. Seeing black people for the first time. And I had to get into a new role. In Holland, I was the baby of the family. Now I am the oldest in the family, expected to protect my siblings.” 

Soon after arriving in South Africa, Davids started receiving packages in the mail. They were filled with chocolates and other goodies. 

“My parents were upset about these packages,” he said. “I was the only one in the family getting them. My parents wanted us to learn that no one should be favored. I was very young and self-centered. I was disinclined to share the contents. So my parents decide to contact this family in Engwierum and tell them to back off on the packages. After a few months, I become aware I was not getting packages. I wanted to know what was going on, and I started badgering them.”

That’s when they called the boy into their bedroom to tell him the truth.

“I am totally shocked to hear this,” Davids remembered. “It created all kinds of problems.”

Part of it was a great sense of insecurity.

“I wondered, ‘What have my parents done that was so wrong?’ In the early years, I had problems sleeping. But the main thing that stayed with me was distrust. I could no longer accept things that were told to me because everything was like a lie.” 

Most of all, though, Davids was overwhelmed by curiosity and questions his new parents could not or would not answer.

And so began Davids’ 65-year quest for answers, a quest that continues to this day. He unveiled part of the mystery when he turned 21 and his uncle handed over the complete dossier from the Dutch court case. But he said the Internet has provided the richest research cache. He has binders filled with birth certificates and death certificates, photocopies of black-and-white photos, including one of him, a towhead, with the family in Engwierum. He shares these with visitors to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), where he also serves as a docent. 

LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman called him “a treasure of the museum.” 

“He impresses people with his earnest passion and workmanlike dedication to teaching this history,” she said. “He had to teach himself his own history, so he’s particularly poised to walk someone through that same path.”

Never married, which he attributes to his difficulty trusting people, at least in his youth, Davids moved to Southern California — first San Diego, then Los Angeles — because of the political climate of South Africa. Telling his story is something Davids has done full force since retiring from his job as an accountant six years ago. 

“For me, it is a form of giving back to the community because of my very good fortune during the Holocaust, in one sense, and as opposed to 64 members of my family [who perished],” he said.

Sharing his story is also a way for him to shine a light on the Bakkers, an extraordinary family who risked everything to save him.

 “Without people standing up for others, how many of us would really have survived?” Davids said. “My hope is that people will learn something from this story and say, ‘Yes, we can have a little courage; we can stand up.’ ”

Davids has found camaraderie in groups such as the local chapter of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants, where he serves on the board. Even so, Davids does not consider himself a “survivor.” 

“I am not comfortable with that label,” he said. “To compare me with someone in a camp —  they carry a huge load. I was a baby when this all happened. The fact I survived didn’t have anything to do with something I did. I consider [the Bakkers] the real survivors.”

Davids worked for three years to have Berend and Jeltje Bakker added to the list of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. The two were recognized in 1987.

“These people are considered heroes in my story,” he said. “Upstanders in a world of bystanders.”

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