Marion Pritchard: hero of conscience

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert says that the honorary doctorate given to Marion Pritchard this year by the University of Vermont was well deserved.

(Gilbert) Marion Von Binsbergen Pritchard saved lives – literally. With the Dutch resistance in World War II, she worked to save Jews from death at Nazi concentration camps.

I met Marion Pritchard in 1982, when she was honored as a “righteous gentile” by the Israeli government. The soft-spoken Dutch native explained to me how normal people can easily be led to do abnormal things. The fears and horrors of war can make principles seem like luxuries instead of guiding forces in people’s lives. Black and white issues take on infinite shades of gray.

The German army invaded and occupied Holland when Marion Pritchard was 20 years old. Oppression was mild at first, even against the Jews. Everyone had to carry identity papers. Jews were slowly singled out, but in small ways that seemed minor inconveniences. Their identity papers carried a “J.” Then Jews weren’t allowed to go to the movies. Then they couldn’t shop at certain times. Then they couldn’t participate in air raid drills. Then they couldn’t teach.

Next they were made to wear stars. Then they could live only in certain parts of cities and towns. Then they were moved to Amsterdam. And then some were shipped to “work camps.” And then more were shipped to camps. By the end of the war, only 20,000 of Holland’s 140,000 Jews were still alive.

“It was so difficult to believe it was happening,” Pritchard said. “It was so cleverly done. It was very hard for people to know when and where to take a stand.” Marion Pritchard’s decision to take a stand came one day when she saw German soldiers hauling children out of a Jewish children’s center in Amsterdam and throwing them onto trucks. A helpless rage rose within her. She vowed to do whatever she could to resist the Nazis.

Her resistance work is the stuff of novels. She hid three children and their father for two-and-a-half years in a house outside of Amsterdam. She helped hide Jews in the psychiatric hospital where she worked as an intern. She falsified papers to protect Jews. She once shot a Nazi police officer to protect the Jews whom she was hiding.

Pritchard married a U.S. refugee worker at the end of the war, and came to this country. For many years she didn’t talk about her experiences. She felt guilty for not having saved more Jews. But as the years passed, and efforts arose to deny that the Holocaust had happened, she decided to be a witness to the fact that the Holocaust had been very real.

And she wanted people to know how difficult it can be to remain compassionate in a troubled world. Few situations are morally unambiguous, she said. Even World War II, which is now viewed in absolute terms, was shades of gray.

Whenever I have wanted proof that ordinary people can be heroes of conscience, I’ve thought of Marion Pritchard. I am immensely proud that our state university honored her this year.

This is Allen Gilbert.

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