Diet Eman: Courageous Dutch Rescuer

Diet (rhymes with “feet”, as in Dietrich Bonhoeffer) Eman and her fiancé Hein Sietsma were a young couple in their twenties when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.  Angry at the way the Jews were being treated, Diet refused to remain silent.

When her Jewish friend Herman got a summons to report to Germany, Hein was blunt and told him not to go. Hein knew Christian farmers in a place called The Veluwe, who would be willing to hide Herman until it would all blow over. He was confident it would only last a year or so. Herman asked if they would hide his Jewish fiancé, Ada, and Ada’s widowed mother. Diet and Hein agreed. Then Herman’s sister wanted to hide. Within about three weeks, sixty Jews were hidden in The Veluwe.

A few weeks later, under severe torture, a young man gave away Diet’s parents’ phone number. For two years, the gestapo went to her parents’ house at random times a day – and for those two years she never saw her parents. The Gestapo would stay at her parents house until curfew, awaiting Diet’s return in vain.

After the Gestapo began looking for Diet Eman, Hein was searched. Diet was going under a false name, and Hein had Diet’s false name on him. So now, the gestapo was searching for Diet under her real name and under a false name. Diet took a third name. This time, she posed as Willie Laarman, a maid from Paramaribo, Surinam. With her third identity, Diet boarded a train with false papers in her blouse. In the six-wagon train, six gestapo guards entered and began checking everyone’s identification papers. Diet anxiously anticipated her turn. When the gestapo guard checked her papers, he took longer looking at her papers than he had anyone else.

As the other guards finished checking the other ID papers, they all crowded around Diet and began laughing. “When did you get this?” he cackled in German. Diet spoke German very well. However, at the beginning of the war, she decided she would only speak Dutch until the Germans left the Netherlands. Acting dumb, she began speaking Dutch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only speak Dutch.”

Another passenger translated, and Diet replied, “The date is on it.” In May 1941, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, everyone over 14 had to have an ID card. The word “Nederlander” was printed in dark purple-blue ink. In 1943, the original supply ran out and the Germans began using black ink. Since she would have been given the ID in 1941, the word “Nederlander” on Diet’s legit ID would have been purple-blue. Instead, the visa had been recently stolen in recent robberies and “Nederlander” was in black ink.

What happened next was an act of God. Once the train stopped in Rotterdam, Diet was told to sit on the bench and she was guarded by the six guards; one or two of which who were always watching her. Diet had two problems. She had to explain why she had a phony identification card on her, and she had to get rid of the false papers in her blouse. The false papers would have surely brought her death.

She began praying, asking God for only thirty seconds. One of the tallest guards had a shiny plastic raincoat on. At the time, plastic was new. One of the other guards began inquiring about the raincoat. “Is that one of those new coats?” “Is it really water-proof?” “Look at how many pockets!” The guard, loving the attention, boastfully took off his coat and displayed it. Every single one of the five guards turned their heads to look at the new raincoat. Without wasting a second, Diet hurled the ID cards across the room. People dropped visas all the time, and the gestapo couldn’t have arrested the whole train station.

After feigning ignorance, Diet was sent to the Gestapo headquarters in The Hague and she was sent to prison from there. Diet played stupid the entire time she was in prison – she was an ignorant maid named Willie. For not talking, Diet was sent to the prison at Scheveningen. In the prison, Diet had a bobby pin she used to scratch Bible verses on the wall. Jesus’ last words before returning to heaven, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.” gave her comfort.

During the time, the Germans would send in spies posing as inmates to get Diet to reveal information. But Diet, who was extremely intelligent and knew it was a trap, kept acting stupid and childish. As the Allies were nearing, Diet was sent to a concentration camp – the same one Corrie ten Boom was in. Diet faced a dilemma – she had grown up in a Christian home and gone to a Christian school. She was faced with betraying her friends and family or lying. For many months Diet struggled with this. And then the story of Rahab came to her. God gave Diet many months to figure out a plan – and she did. 

Her trial came at last. One of her fondest memories is of her friend Freddie telling her before the trial, “Willie, I’m going to storm the gates of heaven for you!” In her book, Diet wrote, “It was such a great comfort to me that she wasn’t going to be merely praying – she was storming!” Before the trial, Diet was plagued with worry. What if they didn’t buy her story? What if she said the wrong thing? And then a verse came to her.
Luke 1211-13Diet – dirty, unfed, unshowered – stood before seven well-fed, arrogant Nazi officers. The officers began asking her basic questions about her place of birth and family. She answered without hesitation – she had rehearsed for hours and made things easy for her to remember. The Nazis’ conversation among themselves was laid back, since they thought she spoke no German. 

The interrogations began instantly. Since Diet refused to speak German, she played stupid. “I don’t know what you’re saying, I’m Dutch. I only speak Dutch.” They brought in a translator, to Diet’s advantage. She had twice the time to answer.

She was Willie, a maid from Paramaribo, who was an only child whose parents had died. She was worried about curfew, she was terrified about everything. She had met a man during an air raid – named Jan Schilder – a tall handsome blond with blue eyes. He had given her the ID. And she, innocent, stupid, ignorant – didn’t even know documents could be forged! The Nazis bought her story. And she was released. A man with a manure wagon was the first person Diet saw after liberation – in a situation Diet laughs at when she recalls it.

You may have thought this story will end with Diet being liberated, the Allies coming, and Diet living a long and happy life. It would be nearly a year before the Allies came. Diet was more mad than ever about the Nazis. Diet re-joined the Resistance as Willie. Then came the Hunger Winter, in which the Germans cut off food and other supplies because the Dutch refused to cooperate.

The Canadians liberated Holland on May 5, 1945. Of course, Diet was happy and excited – but she was even more anxious to learn about Hein. 
From witnesses, she learned Hein had suffered for many days in a cattle car without food and water. Diet became incredibly angry at God with the way Hein died. If he had to die, why couldn’t Hein have just been shot? They were all willing to give their eyes, but why did they have to?

After the war, multiple people sent Diet letters describing Hein as “a light in the darkness.” Multiple people testified Hein was not what they imagined Christians were. They had thought Christians were “no-fun, boring, strict, mean” when in reality, Hein was a great friend, incredibly comforting, and he had led many to Christ. Hein wrote Diet a letter on a thin piece of toilet paper and threw it out a cattle car. Through an act of God, Diet received the paper. It was dated October 12, 1944.

Here is a short bit of what the letter said:

Darling, don’t count on our seeing each other again soon. I have the feeling that it will take at least a year. But we are with friends altogether, and you will soon be in a free country. So we have many reasons to be optimistic. And here we see again that we do not decide our own lives. Even if we won’t see each other again on earth, we will never be sorry for what we did, that we took this stand. And I know, Diet, that of every last human being in this world, I loved you most. And it is still my great desire that we will become a happy family someday.

Diet passed away in September 2019, at the age of 99. I first heard Diet’s story in Women Heroes of World War II by Kathryn Atwood. I loved Diet’s story and simply had to read her memoir. Diet had a conversation with Dr. Dobson in a 2-part series. The Focus on the Family 3-part podcast in which Diet tells her story, God’s Grace is Sufficient, can be downloaded for free on their website here. Dr. Dobson’s 2-part podcast called Courageous Choices, in which he and Diet talk about the war, can be downloaded for free here. You can buy Diet’s memoir Things We Couldn’t Say here or on Amazon. Her memoir includes more details, diary entries, pictures, and other inspiring information.

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  • Hi Samantha Firstly what a lovely idea for a blog. Diet Eman’s book: “Things We Couldn’t Say” is my very favourite book by a righteous gentile about the Holocaust and World War 11 and I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust,
    If this had been a movie I would have given it a happy ending. But this was real life and sadly, many paid the ultimate price. But great shall be their reward in eternity. Thanks for sharing these stories. They need to be told so that we will NEVER forget.
    Blessings And Shalom

  • Happy Holocaust memorial day! I have read your book things we couldn’t say. My uncle Frank Smeby was WWII U.S.A. army P.O.W. I was told never to talk to him about the war. We called him Frankenstein because of all the abuse from the soldiers. I know that Jesus loves you. God bless. Lord willing you will celebrate another birthday on April 30th. Friend in Christ, Jeannette

  • It was so great to come across this and to hear all that you had to say. I know Diet a little bit because she goes to my church and I have had dinner with her before. It was great to hear her story and I am currently reading her book and researching more about her because I am preparing a speech on her for one of my classes. Her faith and confidence in God is truly incredible and it is great that you are sharing that. Keep up the good work!

  • Just got this link to the story of Diet from the Acton Institute, planning to present one of this artist’s bronze works, called the Faith and Freedom Award, to Diet Eman for her work. Appears to be another feather in my cap–unknown, of course…sigh. But it’s not about me. My heartfelt congratulations to her.

  • Hello, dear Diet, I am preparing to speak for a group Richmond University students. Looking for some young underground workers and your name popped up.
    I started to read your story and know that we had met, but on the end of the story, I saw your picture, that brought our time together back.
    Let me know how you are handling these last months? My friend who just came back from Germany, told me this:” Bald headed young men were shouting all kinds of sentences but one they will never forget.
    “Make Germany great again.”
    Love you.