A different attic and a different ending

Sept 2023
Abigail Cukier

When Matthew Lang asked his grandfather about his family history, he never imagined where it would lead—including a trip to The Netherlands to hear his maternal great grandparents, Johannes and Catharina Van Roon, be named Righteous Among the Nations.

In 2017, Lang was taking the Grade 11 genocide and crimes against humanity course at Waterdown District High School. For his culminating project, he looked into his family history.

“I talked to my opa and found out his parents had hidden two Jewish children during the Second World War, Ralph and Marion Berets,” says Lang, now 23. 

“It was the first time I had heard this in my life. I decided I wanted to base my project on this and started asking a lot of questions.”

Lang found out that it had been more than 70 years since his grandfather, Tom Van Roon had spoken to the Berets family. Lang decided he would try to find them.

Along with his mom Karin, his grandfather and some of his friends, Lang searched for any information he could find. All they knew was that one of the children had moved to the United States after the war. They only had the children’s last name. And it was spelled incorrectly.

“I was up every single night on the computer, searching with my opa or with my mom. I thought if there is a glimmer of hope that I can do this, I am going to go for it,” Lang says. “There were definitely moments where I thought it would not work. This is one person in seven billion.”

Around that time, Lang contacted Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to see about having his great grandparents recognized as non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to aid Jews during the Holocaust.

“I had heard about Yad Vashem but I did not know how important it was. It’s a recognition from the entirety of Israel,” Lang says. “I don’t think my great grandparents really wanted recognition. They just did it because it was the right thing to do. But I thought they should be recognized.”

After more than two months of searching, Lang’s team found a testimony Ralph had recorded five years earlier that was posted on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. Was Ralph still alive? 

They contacted the museum and staff put the family in touch with Ralph. They also learned that Marion was living in the Netherlands.

Van Roon made the first call to Ralph. “My dad was over the moon about it,” Karin says. “He liked to talk. He liked people. He was so happy to reunite with somebody he remembered from when he was little. The first time he talked to him on the phone, he phoned me seconds later and he was just over the moon about the whole thing.”

Lang’s family had a trip planned to Washington, DC to visit the Holocaust Museum and found out Ralph lived only 30 minutes from their hotel. They convinced Van Roon to join them on their trip.

During the reunion with Ralph, the family learned what happened after the children stayed with Van Roon’s family. He had been seven years old when his parents brought two children into their home and warned him and his six siblings that they were never to speak of the guests.

Their hiding place was an attic space above the apartment’s back bedroom. The arrangement lasted three weeks before one of Van Roon’s sisters let the secret slip at school and the resistance decided to move them.

Initially, they hid in a forest cabin until they were betrayed by a neighbouring child. After hiding in a ditch, they eventually hid in a chicken coop with a dozen other people. The space was so crowded, the occupants had to take turns lying down. That’s where they were hiding in May 1945, when Canadian soldiers liberated the Netherlands.

After the visit, Van Roon and Ralph became friends, sharing regular phone calls and emails. Sadly, Van Roon died at the end of 2021 and Ralph died in the fall of 2022.

Following a two-year process, including testimonies from Van Roon, two of his brothers, Ralph and Marion, Lang was notified in 2019 that his great grandparents would be recognized. But due to COVID-19, the ceremony was repeatedly postponed. On May 3, 2023, Lang’s family travelled to the Netherlands. The family received a medal and certificate marking the honour in a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in the Hague. Marion and her husband and two of her children also attended. 

The medal and certificate will be part of the new Margaret’s Legacy Holocaust Learning Centre at the JCC and will be shared with the Waterdown high school museum.

“It is important this is in a museum,” says Karin. “History repeats itself. These things keep happening. I think the more we teach the younger generation, the more hope we have that things can change.” This is why Karin is fundraising to house the Waterdown high school museum permanently at the local Royal Canadian Legion. It is currently an occasional museum, which now takes up three classrooms.

“I think a lot of young people see history as boring. But every time the classroom museum is running, every single student is engaged,” Lang says. “It is very engaging to have this hands-on version of history.”

CAPTION: Karin and Matthew Lang with the medal and certificate he received from Yad Vashem posthumously recognizing Lang’s maternal great grandparents as Righteous Among the Nations.