The Sydney Morning Herald

2 of us

Author: Interviews by Nina Karnikowski
Date: 21/04/2012
Words: 1196
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 8
During World War II, Adrian Vanas (right) helped save the lives of more than 1100 Jewish people. Seven decades later and halfway across the world, Vanas, 92, works with Andrew Havas, 62, at Courage to Care, a program that helps kids stand up to bullying and prejudice.

ADRIAN: I was born in Indonesia and raised there as a Christian by my Dutch parents, who were sent to educate the Indonesians before independence. I went to Holland at 23 to further my studies, but the war broke out and I got caught there. My parents had always told me and

my 10 siblings, "There is no difference between you and other people, we are all equal." So when the Germans started taking action against Jewish people, I knew I had to do something, even though I didn't even know what a Jew was before then. I got involved with the resistance, where I met my wife, Bertha, who I married three years later and had two children with.

Eventually, the resistance brought me and my family to Westerbork, a large transit camp in north-eastern Holland, to find out why the Jews were being taken from there to the east. Of course, they were being sent to the concentration camps. The Germans were looking for people to employ in the food distribution area of Westerbork, so I took the job as leader of the food distribution office, while continuing my work with the resistance.

My office was on the perimeter of the camp. I would call people in, under the guise of distributing food coupons and so forth, and lock them in overnight, when they could jump out the window to their freedom. Bertha and I also issued falsified baptism and foreign nationality certificates to Jews, among other things.

The Germans found out people were missing; they had their suspicions about me. One day, a German officer pulled two bullets out of his pocket and said, "We know what you're doing; it's just a matter of getting the right evidence. When we do, I will be the person to put these bullets through your body." I hadn't realised the full consequences of what we were doing until then.

When liberation came in 1945, I was appointed by the government-in-exile to take over the command, and I freed the 988 people in the camp.

I met Andrew 12 years ago, when I started working with Courage to Care. He was born in Hungary during the aftermath of the war and was nine when he came here, so he experienced the war via the stories that were told to him by his parents later on. That gave him the motivation to work with Courage to Care, with the same aim as me: that this should never happen again.

Andrew's a very active person; he has great drive and great vision. What I learnt during the war was that if you want to do something, you have to do it now. Not in a week or a fortnight, not sitting on the fence and waiting. That's not my attitude and it's not Andrew's, either.

My daughter passed away in 2001, two years after my wife. That was a very sad time. Of course I spoke to Andrew about it, and where he could help, he did. Then in 2007 I had a blackout and was treated in hospital, and that made it impossible for me to stay on my own. Andrew took care of me then and got me new accommodation, and I'm so very grateful for that.

There's a certain thing I developed during the war years. As soon as I meet a person, my mind goes, "What sort of person is he? Can I trust him? Can I like him?" Andrew and I clicked from the beginning - there was trust from both sides, straight away. My gut told me he was good. How much time I've got I don't know, but I'm quite confident Andrew will be in my life forever.

ANDREW: A Dutch survivor introduced me to Adrian in 1999. I thought he was a very dapper, well-dressed man who had a special presence about him. He spoke quietly and didn't say much but, when he did, it was really meaningful.

The next year I gave him a lift to Taree [on the NSW mid-north coast], and that's when I really got to know him. It was a four-hour trip, so I asked him all about his story. The more questions I asked, the more he opened up and the more I realised what a wonderful human being he is.

Adrian's messages have always been: don't be a bystander - if you see something wrong, get up and do something about it - and we're all equal and should treat each other in exactly the same manner as we'd like to be treated. We all say those things and don't often live them, but Adrian does.

I'm continually in awe that here's a man who saved hundreds of people - possibly thousands, and possibly more than Oskar Schindler - even while his own life was at risk for 2 1/2 years. I just cannot imagine doing that. But he seems to think he just responded to things that were happening.

I love how humble Adrian is. One night, we had a benefit dinner to honour him with 300 people, and played a video of him that included footage from the war and from Westerbork. His daughter, his son and their grandchildren were there with their mouths wide open, saying, "We've hardly heard any of these things!" That gave me goose bumps. He's remarkable because he genuinely doesn't think he did anything amazing. I've learnt from his humble nature that less is more.

Adrian's also very deeply principled, and he's given me strength to carry on with Courage to Care. At times I've thought, "If he could do all those things and stick his neck out for other people the way he does, then I can put myself out to educate children and to do this program."

Often people who go through such trauma close the books and don't want to talk about it. But Adrian will happily spend a week talking about it. He's a very good storyteller - when he talks to the kids, his face lights up and you can see that sparkle in his eyes. He's just so happy to be sharing his story with young people, and to be planting the seed in their minds that there's another way of behaving and of living in the world. It has a profound effect on the kids.

Adrian's energy is amazing; he still has his full [driver's] licence at 92, and he travels overseas or interstate three times a year. I can't keep up with him! I have to pace him because he puts his hand up for everything. I take him on tour to tell his story for a week at a time, but he wouldn't mind doing two or three weeks! How much easier would it be for him to just live his life? But when he's with the kids, he forgets about his age and just wants to make a mark on the world. He's my hero.

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