Pastor Dirk van Ekelenburg was a first cousin of Nederland Lines second officer Dirk van Ekelenburg. He was born in Vlaardingen, South Holland province, Netherlands, on March 24, 1917, as the older son of Johannes van Ekelenburg and Jacoba van Roon. At the age of nineteen he moved to Leiden, in order to study theology at the university there. Later he moved to the town of Oegstgeest to study at the Missionary College. At the end of 1941 he was named assistant pastor at the Reformed church in Nieuw-Amsterdam in the rural northeastern province of Drenthe.
Dirk married Lientje van der Mast, the daughter of Cornelis van der Mast and Martje Vermeulen, in the New Church in Vlaardingen on May 23, 1942. The couple had planned to go as missionaries to the Indonesian island at that time called Celebes (known today as Sulawesi). However, the threat of war in that region caused them to change their plans, so they remained in Drenthe.
Dirk would ride his bicycle and speak with the farmers in the surrounding peat villages. Soon some of them working in the resistance movements asked him to help find places to hide escaped French prisoners of war from over the nearby German border. He expanded his activities to helping his Jewish fellow citizens, and urged his congregation to do so as well. Beginning in 1942-43, the pastor and his wife participated in a unique communal rescue effort led by Johannes Post and Arnold Douwes in the village of Nieuwlande. All 117 families took in at least one Jew so that around 200 Jews were hidden, fed, and given new identity papers and ration cards. With all villagers involved, there was believed to be no risk of betrayal. (Note 1)
Dirk became a member of the resistance group Luctor et Emergo and later, the editor-in-chief of its underground newspaper of the same name. Luctor et Emergo (I Struggle but I Rise) is the motto and coat of arms of Zeeland. It shows the Dutch Lion struggling but emerging from the ocean, symbolizing the region’s eternal battle with the sea.
Alas, the young pastor’s success ran out. On January 25, 1945 he was arrested in Schoonoord after being double-crossed to the Nazis. He was taken first to the prison camp at Assen in Drenthe, and then, on March 18, 1945, deported to the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.
As the British and Canadian forces neared the camp, the SS began to evacuate the prisoners by ships so the allied troops would not find them there. Historical narratives vary so widely about what happened next, and why, that we may never know for sure. The German ships Athen and Cap Arcona were being used to shuttle inmates between Neustadt and Lübeck and the prisoner ships Deutschland and Thielbek. (There are several cities in Germany named Neustadt; this was Neustadt in Holstein, situated on the Bay of Lübeck.) High ranking SS personnel were also trying to escape by ship to Norway. The combined number of prisoners and Nazis on the four ships is generally believed to have been approximately 7,000-8,000. Some accounts cite as many as 4,000-5,000 prisoners on the Cap Arcona.
The date was May 3, 1945. The British claim that they believed the ships to be carrying SS guards, whom their pilots could view on the decks, because the prisoners were locked below. The Germans stated that the ships were full of convicts and were to be blown up. The ships were attacked by RAF fighter-bombers as part of a general plan to cripple German shipping in the Baltic. Around the burning, sinking ships could be seen people in the forty-five degree water, who were shot up with 20 mm cannons. To this day, the British and German governments have refused to reveal the results of their investigations into this maritime and humanitarian disaster. Dirk van Ekelenburg was found ashore at Neustadt. He was taken to the English-run regional hospital. The starvation, disease, and forced labor endured in the concentration camps, and the near-drowning experience, proved to be too much for this courageous and selfless man, and he died at the age of twenty-eight on May 11, 1945. He left behind a young widow and two sons, ages nineteen months and five months. His elder son, Johannes Hendrick (Hans) lives today in Vlaardingen, Netherlands. His younger son, Cornelis, died in an automobile accident in 1990. The Netherlands Righteous #1148 was posthumously bestowed upon Dirk in 1983. He and Lientje are also named on the monument, dedicated in 1985 in Yad Vashem, acknowledging all individuals in Nieuwlande’s joint resistance action as orchestrated by Arnold Douwes and Johannes Post.
Photo courtesy of Hans van Ekelenburg