Marion Pritchard, born in Amsterdam in 1920, was the daughter of a liberal judge and a self-assured, optimistic woman who encouraged her to treat others with respect. Marion was planning on a career as a social worker when, in May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. While studying in a friend’s apartment, she was arrested by the Nazis, together with some other students who belonged to the Dutch Resistance.
In later years, recalling that dreadful experience, Marion commented, “I always thought I had my mother’s ability to ignore fear until I spent seven months in jail.”
In early 1942, the Germans started forcing Jews to move from the rural areas of Holland to Amsterdam, confining them to certain parts of the city. In July, mass deportations began to the concentration camps in Poland, mainly Auschwitz.
One day, Marion Pritchard, then aged 22, witnessed Germans throwing young Jewish children into a truck for deportation. That horrifying sight was to change Marion’s life. Filled with rage at the cruelty of the Nazis, she vowed to save as many Jewish children as she could.
Working with friends in the Dutch resistance, Marion took food, clothing, and papers to Jews in hiding. Then Marion’s friend, Miek, asked her to find a hiding place for his Jewish friend, Freddie Polak, with his two young children and baby. When Marion was unable to find a place for them, Miek asked his mother-in-law to allow Freddie and his children to stay in the servants’ quarters of her country house. For the first year in hiding, Marion visited the family every weekend. When she finished her schooling in November 1943, she moved into the house and took over the full-time care of the children.
Miek had built a hiding place under the floor in case the Germans came searching for hidden Jews. One night, three Germans and a Dutch Nazi arrived at the door. Marion quickly put the Polaks in the hiding place, but did not have time to give the baby a sleeping powder. Fortunately, the search party did not find the family and left the house. When the baby started to cry, Marion let the children climb out. The Dutch Nazi returned half an hour later and saw the children sleeping and the opened hiding place. Marion knew she had to act quickly. She reached for a gun that Miek had given her and killed the Dutchman. Later she explained, “I felt I had no choice but to shoot him.”
The Polaks remained with Marion until the war ended.
“By 1945 I had lied, stolen, cheated, deceived, and even killed,” she stated. She pointed out that she worked with many collaborators, often Jews, who took a greater risk since they were treated more harshly if caught. Her Jewish neighbor and friend, Karel Poons, was determined to help rescue as many Jews as possible. After Marion shot the Dutch Nazi, Poons quickly came to help her, ignoring the risk involved. “In spite of the curfew, he walked to the village and talked with the baker, who agreed to come get the body.”
Marion also hid Lientje Brilleslijper, a talented Jewish dancer and singer, together with her husband, two-year-old daughter Kathinka, and other members of her family.
When the Germans caught Lientje, Marion and Poons went to the house where the two-year-old girl was being held. While Poons distracted the doctor and the guard at the front door, Marion ran in the back door. “Fortunately, Tinka was already dressed,” she recalled. “I grabbed her, ran down the stairs, put her on the back of my bike, and pedaled off.”
Marion pointed out that people at that time were not neatly divided into victims, rescuers, and bystanders. For example, some bystanders helped by not revealing people in hiding. Others might not have been brave, but did help if asked. A farmer knew she was hiding children. Although he never mentioned it, each day he left extra milk.
Most incredible of all, some German soldiers came to Marion’s aid near the end of the war. She had bicycled north in search of food, trading her family silverware with local farmers. On her way back home, German soldiers stopped her. Exhausted and frustrated, Pritchard lost her temper. She told them what she thought of the war and how the Jews were being treated. Unable to stop her outburst, she was held overnight. The next morning, when two soldiers came to her, she expected to be killed. Amazingly, they put her in a truck, together with her bicycle and the food she had traded for, and drove her to safety.
When the war finally ended, Marion hoped to find some of those she had saved. It is estimated that she saved about 150 Jewish lives, mostly children, who kept in touch with her for years.
She went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s Displaced Persons camps in 1945. In one of the refugee camps, she met and married Tony Pritchard, a former U.S. Army Lieutenant, and relocated to a farmhouse in Vermont.
Marion Pritchard continued to be a strong advocate for children, first as a social worker and then as a practicing psychoanalyst. She also raised three sons who all entered the helping professions. Marion did not retire until well into her eighties, serving on the University of Vermont’s Center for Holocaust Studies’ Advisory Board. Looking back at her wartime experiences, she expressed regret for not doing more. She pointed out that Jews themselves were active participants in rescue activities. “Jews did not go willingly to their deaths. That they did not resist nor defend themselves is a universal misconception,” she emphasized.
Israel honored Marion Pritchard as an honorary citizen in 1991. She was designated by Yad Vashem as a Righteous among the Nations and awarded the Wallenberg Medal in 1992.
One of her sons, Ivor Pritchard, said the mother he knew was not a larger-than-life heroine. To him, she was a very nice but ordinary person: “I knew her as someone who was not fearless. I remember when I was a teenager, a small bat got into the house, and it scared the daylights out of her. She was like you and me. But when she found herself in extraordinary circumstances, she did the right thing.”
Marion Pritchard passed away on December 11, 2016, at the age of 96.