It was 1944, and the Gestapo was after Diet Eman. The young Dutch resistance fighter, who had helped provide shelter to Jews, downed Allied pilots and other targets of Nazi persecution, was now a fugitive herself. She spent months on the run, frequently changing locations and her name, with the help of fake identification cards. But one day, while she was transporting illegal documents under her shirt, six Gestapo officers caught up to her.
They had pinpointed Eman’s ID as a fake, but weren’t aware of the illicit trove hidden beneath her clothing. Eman was terrified that she would be executed immediately if she were found out—and then came a twist of fate that she would later describe as being an act “from God.” One of the officers had a new raincoat made from plastic, a rare material in those days, and started to show off his digs to his colleagues. Taking advantage of the distraction, Eman tossed the bundle of documents away.
For many years after the war, Eman stayed silent about that story and other remarkable details of her past. “Terrible things happened in my life,” she said in 2017. “My fiancé was killed, and all my friends from the resistance … It really breaks your heart.” But Eman ultimately did speak out about her wartime experiences—and upon her death on September 3 at the age of 99, she was remembered as a woman who “bravely fought to save the lives of Jewish people who were being persecuted by Adolph Hitler.”
According to Harrison Smith of the Washington Post, Eman was born in The Hague in 1920, the third of four children. Her father ran an interior decorating business, which started out successful until it suffered a blow during the Depression. Money was sometimes scarce, but Eman nevertheless remembered her childhood as one that was happy and free.
“[W]herever I went, my hair was always a mess. I loved climbing trees and having adventures out in the country,” she wrote in her memoir, Things We Couldn’t Say. “My brother Albert and I and our friends used to pedal our bikes outside The Hague to little villages and farms, out to where we found pastures with sloten, those little brooks and moats that are still there today.”
In 1937, a young man named Hein Sietsma, who had gotten a job in The Hague and needed a place to stay, came to live with Eman’s family. Eman and Sietsma eventually fell in love—and after the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, they became partners in hiding Jews who faced near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
The first person they saved was a violinist named Herman, who had worked with Eman at a bank. Eman and Sietsma found farmers outside the city who were willing to take him in—and then also found safe havens for his sister, his fiance and her mother. Within two weeks, Smith reports, they were organizing shelter for 60 people.
Sietsma and his brother Henk formed an underground resistance organization called Group Hein. Eman was active in the movement, typing out BBC broadcasts that the Nazis declared forbidden, transporting supplies and papers to safe houses, and even orchestrating missions to steal government ration cards.
It was perilous work. In April 1944, Sietsma was arrested and deported to Dachau. A month later, Eman was apprehended with her bundle of illegal documents. She avoided execution, but was sent to a prison in The Hague, then to a concentration camp in Vught, in the southern Netherlands. While awaiting her interrogation, she was forced to wash the bloody clothes of prisoners who had been killed.
“The men who had been executed—usually every night at sunset, we could hear the machine guns—would be lying somewhere for hours before they died,” she wrote. “I was absolutely heartbroken. And I was heartbroken for another reason: I suspected that any one of those men being taken out and shot in the stomach and left to die could be my Hein.”
Eman pretended to be a maid named Willie Laarman, going over her alias’ story constantly so she would not slip up during her hearing. The cover ultimately worked, and Eman was released. She immediately rejoined the resistance.
Sietsma never came back from Dachau. But a note that he wrote to Eman, scribbled on toilet paper and thrown out of a train car window, did make its way to her. “Even if we won’t see each other on earth again,” the letter read, according to Smith, “we will never be sorry for what we did, and that we took this stand.”
After the war, Eman worked as a nurse, and later got a job with the Shell oil company in Venezuela. She married an American, Egon Erlich, and settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after they divorced.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel has recognized Eman as a Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific bestowed upon non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In 2015, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander called her one of his country’s “national heroes.”
As a result of all the horrors she had witnessed during the war, Eman struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, Fox17 reported in 2017. A devout Christian, she often looked to her faith for guidance and support. It was, in fact, a pastor who finally convinced Eman to tell her story publicly.
“The pastor said, ‘If something unusual happened in your life, and God is involved, you have to tell it,’” Eman recalled. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, it was unusual, and God was involved, because we wanted to obey God to help the Jewish people.”