Dutch rescuers are unpaid heroes in saga that took years to write

Herbert Boucher has a good life.

He and his wife Hilda have two sons, a brand-new grandchild and a wonderful view from their Tiburon home. When someone says "your son the doctor," the Bouchers can respond, "Which one?" Their sons Charles, 49, of Boston and Ralph, 43, of Belmont are both cardiologists.

The Bouchers appreciate every day of their lives. They are Holocaust survivors who wouldn't be here if not for Righteous Gentiles, foresight and a lot of mazel.

The German-born couple survived the war by hiding in Holland. Any number of times they, along with their rescuers, could have been found out, killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps.

But they weren't. Now Herbert has added their story to the body of Holocaust literature.

He wrote "Miracle of Survival, a Holocaust Memoir" at his sons' insistence. This personal account is illustrated with many rare documents including old family photographs, a registration card, identity cards and a notice summoning the author for a medical examination before deportation to labor camp.

The author's sons realized the urgency of recording their parents' story when their uncle, Kurt Boucher, died during Ralph's fourth year of medical school.

"He had an incredible escape story," said Ralph. But Kurt's health declined so rapidly that there wasn't time to record the details and when he died, his story was lost.

So they started putting pressure on their father.

"He wouldn't have written it up at all," says Ralph. "We were insistent about him doing it." They gave him a computer and became his editors, proofreaders and researchers.

The work took 10 years to complete and was often a painful process.

"In the beginning it was very taxing," says the 82-year-old author, who interviewed many survivors to supplement his own memories. "I couldn't work on it longer than two hours" at a stretch. "All the remembrances and all the people we lost…Then after a while it got easier."

The project was an eye-opener for Boucher's sons. Although they knew the outline of their parents' story, "Miracle of Survival" filled in many details.

As a child on a visit to Europe, Ralph was shown the house where his parents were hidden.

"It meant something in the sense that it was kind of neat for a kid to see," says Ralph. But at 6 years old, he was too young to understand the implications of spending three years in hiding.

"I didn't know my father's resourcefulness. I didn't know what a close call my grandfather had."

A single day's delay in executing his deportation notice and a fortuitous encounter saved the life of Herbert Boucher's father and enabled him to go into hiding.

A trained chemist, Herbert Boucher found a solution that would remove the official stamp from identity cards. Once the stamp was removed, another photo could be inserted and an I.D. could be forged.

The book also raised questions for Ralph.

"Why in the world would these gentiles extend themselves and hide you in their home?" Ralph asked his father. According to Ralph, statistically there are more Dutch acknowledged in Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles than individuals of any other nationality.

The first woman who hid the Bouchers received some remuneration but the amount was small and the risk was great. The second family, the van der Zees, had five children and hid as many as 15 people at one time. They were not paid anything.

"They were wonderful people," says Herbert Boucher, who attributes that family's behavior during the war to their "love of humankind." Boucher had the van der Zees declared Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem, and remained in touch with them until their deaths.

Most rescuers were ordinary people doing extraordinary things, Ralph observes, adding that rescuers and Jews came from completely different backgrounds and would never have met under ordinary circumstances.

As for the rescuers' motivations, Ralph replies, "These people have an instinctive humanity. I don't think they were looking to hide Jews. It was dropped on their doorsteps."

Another question "Miracle of Survival" raised for Ralph Boucher was why his father had the foresight to leave Germany 1933 for the Netherlands when his grandfather, much more typical of the German Jew, stayed until 1938 hoping things would get better.

"Anti-Semitism was always very strong in Germany," says Boucher. "I remember the mentality of some of the people over there and I was convinced this wouldn't go right."

In 1992, Boucher returned to his hometown of Gevelsberg, Germany.

"It took a long time to decide to go," says Boucher, who describes the visit as "very rough." While there, he spoke at schools and visited his family's former home.

For him, the possibility of reconciliation is questionable.

"There are certain people, groups, who are very sorry about what happened," he says. "There are others who are just anti-Semitic, especially the older generation."

One telling incident occurred when Boucher saw an old school friend and asked him what he tells his children when they ask about the war. The friend told Boucher they don't even talk about it.

"I'm not sure it wouldn't happen again," Boucher says. "But maybe I do them an injustice."

Now that Ralph Boucher and his wife Lisa Grondahl have a son, Mattias, he believes that "Miracle of Survival" is more important than ever. The book is his father's legacy, he says, noting that Mattias is the first of the next generation who will pass on the story of his grandparents' survival.

"Someday, I would like my father to take him on his knee and tell him" the story firsthand, says Ralph. "He will have the book to read. It meant a lot to my brother and me to have this come out — a lot."

Referring to Mattias and his father's book, Ralph says, "Two babies have been born this year."