A Winnipeg man discovered a whole new side of his father when he travelled to the Netherlands last week to accept a medal awarded posthumously to his dad for his role in the Dutch resistance during the Second World War.
“He saved a lot of lives,” Rob Jacks said about his father, Max (Wout) Jacks. “Pride swallows my heart when I think of that.”
Rob Jacks, who moved to Winnipeg in the 1970s and later started a family, went to Amsterdam with his own sons to accept his father’s Mobilization War Cross.
Wout Jacks moved to the Dutch countryside when he was 17 to learn about agriculture. He ended up in hiding at a small farm as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, then joined the resistance.
Jacks took part in acts of sabotage, such as tampering with railways that carried trains to concentration camps, and once helped a British officer escape the Nazis.
But Rob didn’t know anything about his father’s bravery until recently, 44 years after his death.
“When the medals were given out and people started talking about him being a hero,” said Jacks, he responded, “‘Dad? Come on.”
His son David Jacks, also a Winnipegger, had been doing some research on his grandfather, but there wasn’t much to go on, since the rest of their known relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
It’s something Wout Jacks didn’t like to discuss. All that was left from that dark chapter of his life were a few family photographs.
“And that’s basically all you had,” said Rob, who said his father never talked about the war, and shared very little about his family, except to point them out in photos.
“‘These were my mom and dad and my little sister,’ and that’s it.”
That is, until a pair of Dutch researchers got on the case. Martijn Brandjes is a historian, specializing in buildings, and his wife, Linda, is a nurse and amateur genealogist.
Martijn Brandjes was looking through an apartment in Amsterdam when he found a cache of Nazi documents. The couple soon uncovered the real story of Wout Jacks, finding accounts that he once fired at German soldiers, bravely holding his position so others could get away.
“With risk of his own life, as the last man,” Brandjes said. “In my opinion, that’s a very heroic action.”
The pair eventually connected with the Jacks family in Winnipeg, and forwarded Wout’s name to the Dutch government, helping him gain posthumous recognition.
Rob and his sons travelled to the Netherlands to accept the Mobilization War Cross on behalf of Wout at a ceremony on May 10.
Thanks to the Brandjeses, they also learned where their family worked and lived, and went to visit those sites.
“Touching the same doorknobs that they touched, listening to the same birds they likely heard,” said grandson David Jacks.
“It really puts into perspective that these were real people, with real lives that were suddenly, dramatically and brutally taken away.”
David was also touched by the story of his great-aunt Susi Jacks, who worked at a daycare run by the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, an organization that helped offer children an education. Jews were stripped of their rights to public services while the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis from May 1940 until the end of the war.
Susi was killed at 15, the same age as Anne Frank, who lived in the same neighbourhood. The Brandjes told the Jacks that similarity is what drew them to the story of Susi .
“It really shows how many Anne Franks there really are, how many stories are really moving people, even to this day,” David Jacks said.
“Strangers come across one little name and are able to uncover a story of perseverance, of tragedy.”
One of the most poignant details unearthed by the Brandjes was a police report filed by the teenager after her scooter was stolen outside the daycare.
“That little tiny bit of evidence gave us a glimpse of who she was, and to us, that’s gold,” David said.
“Susi didn’t leave behind a diary, but she did lose a scooter.”
The Jacks also learned about their family’s capture and the Dutch Nazi who turned them in.
Documents show he profited from the family’s murders, moving into the Jacks’ apartment after they were transported to the Sobibor extermination camp in German-occupied Poland.
“One day, the Nazis came and knocked on the door, and my great-grandparents had to walk out with their little daughter, into a truck and off they went,” David said.
He still wrestles with anger, but tries to focus instead on the bravery of his grandfather and his fellow resistance fighters.
“These are the people that we should hold in the highest esteem, and we should model ourselves after,” he said.
David now has two children of his own and hopes his grandfather’s story continues to inspire generations to come.
“When you see or hear something that’s wrong, act and speak up,” he said. “Don’t be a passive bystander.”
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