Cupertino man who hid Jews during Holocaust dies

Roelof van Zyl, who risked the capital offense of hiding and sheltering Jews in his Amsterdam home during World War II, died in Cupertino on June 10. He was 88.

Ordained a Righteous Gentile at Israel's Yad Vashem in 1991, van Zyl was made an honorary citizen of Israel later the same year.

His late wife, Helena, was half-Jewish on her father's side and therefore struggled to hide her identity in Nazi-occupied Holland.

Around 1943, the couple risked their lives further by offering temporary refuge to at least eight Jews. They also sheltered a 9-month-old Jewish infant, Judith Kirkham, whom they later adopted.

During the war, "he was involved in some pretty daring incidents," said his son, Alex van Zyl, a Santa Cruz resident.

For instance, to save his family and household refugees from starving, van Zyl smuggled food from a farm outside Amsterdam. He rode to the farm on a bicycle with tires made from a garden hose, noisily "clacking" the whole way.

Alex van Zyl also described an instance in which the Nazis had found and wounded an anti-Nazi underground leader. The Nazis, he said, were keeping the man alive in a Nazi-run hospital in order to torture him and make him divulge the organization's secrets.

"My father was among a group of men who staged a raid and snuck the injured man out, carrying him to his freedom through the city of Amsterdam," he said. "Unfortunately, it was too late before they realized they were carrying the man [who was wounded in the abdomen] stomach down. Not only did he bleed to death, but they left a trail of blood for the Nazis to follow."

This "tragically failed mission" was one of hundreds of stories he has of his father's level of active resistance to the Nazis.

"He was a tremendously intelligent man who also had, throughout his life, a level of integrity," he said.

An engineer, van Zyl designed and manufactured the first operative airplane ejection seat while working for Foker in Holland.

In 1956, while working for Phillips electronics in Holland, he was recruited by an American electronics company in Marietta, Ga. During his 21/2-year stay in Georgia, van Zyl became vocal in the fight for civil rights.

"Here is a foreigner who can barely speak English, saying that [racism] is wrong," said his son. "His level of courage was pretty amazing."

The family later moved to San Jose, where "the first thing my parents did was join the NAACP."

In a 1991 interview with the Bulletin, van Zyl dismissed himself as a courageous man, saying: "We helped as much as we could and that was it."

He is survived by his son Alex and his granddaughter Denise Franklin. He was predeceased by his wife and adoptive daughter.