Hiding from the Holocaust: A Story Told in Stitches honoring Leni Bendorf

Leni Bendorf had no idea when she left Germany for Holland in 1938 at the age of 18 to complete her Ajshara (a preparatory experience for immigration to the future state of Israel), that she would never make it to the promised land. Instead, she met her future huband Werner, who was working on a farm for his Ajshara. This farm job ended up being the reason they both were able to survive the Holocaust.

While living in Wilp, Holland, Werner received a letter from the occupying Nazi army, requiring that he go for a physical. By the time he had received this letter, he and Leni had known of others who had gone for the “required physical” and had never come back. They understood his life was in grave danger, as his address was known to the Nazis.

It seems ironic that on the day Leni and her husband decided to leave their lives behind forever, the sun was shining, and the air was clear. Werner had developed a close friendship with Evert Schutter, a Dutch farmer. When Mr. Schutter heard of Werner’s predicament, he offered to hide Werner in his farmhouse. Werner requested that Leni join him in hiding, and Mr. Schutter said that she could… as long as they were officially married. 

Werner and Bendorf were married on June 4, 1942, and immediately went into hiding. This would be the last time Leni and her husband would be out in the sunshine for almost three years.  At the farm, they were greeted by a small two-bedroom home and a barn that housed cattle and horses. In the barn, a ladder led to an attic that would become their hiding place for the following two years and eight months. 

Every evening, the farmer brought food and water to them for the following day. During the winter, he would bring a heated brick to provide them with warmth. In 1944, Leni became pregnant with her first child. The farmers secured a doctor from the underground who helped her deliver their son. The baby was born in December of 1944 and survived a night of unexpected bombing soon after.

After almost three years in hiding, the war was over, and Leni and her husband were able to immigrate to America. They were sponsored by Al and Fanny Razovsky, a Jewish family who lived in Dallas, Texas. 

When the opportunity presented itself, they asked an American friend to sponsor the Schutter family to move to the United States. The Schutters stayed in Leni’s home until they got on their feet and settled on a farm a few miles away. They remained in touch until the farmer and his wife passed away. However, the farmers’ children have maintained a relationship with Leni and her four children to this day. The Schutters’ only daughter was named after Leni, who the Schutter family considered one of the bravest women they knew. 

“Of course we wanted to help them. They helped us. It’s normal. When I came to this country, I started volunteering… I felt that was the way I could pay it forward. I did that all my life until I got old,” Leni said.

Leni became a client of Jewish Family Service in 2017. She wished to remain self-sufficient and started receiving counseling services. In 2020, Leni started working with new JFS clinical psychologist, Yaffa Podbilewicz-Schuller. 

Over the years, Leni had found solace and purpose in knitting. She had created beautiful pieces in the past, but as she aged and her eyesight declined, she started making blankets and dozens of tiny hats for donation to newborns at the local hospital. Soon, Leni lost all mobility in her left hand and transitioned from knitting to crochet, which only requires one hand. Leni and Yaffa developed a project to give further purpose to her favorite activity by creating a legacy piece that would capture part of her life that she can share with others.

It seemed Leni felt that no one could possibly understand what going into hiding to survive had meant or what it had been like for her and her husband. She worked with her daughter and caregiver to identify the type of yarn she wanted to work with and looked through catalogs to select the colors. To everyone’s surprise, she had absolute clarity on her vision for this project: each of the 10 squares was to capture one aspect of what her journey into and during hiding had been like. Every week, as she lovingly weaved each square, she would share the meaning of each.

Although Leni’s life was undoubtedly changed and shaped by the Holocaust, it is surprising that, when asked, Leni did not consider herself a Holocaust survivor. 

“There are people who are much more in touch with it- who went to the camps where they killed them and all that- than I do. I had nothing to do with that… we were lucky,” she said. 

And although she hoped her legacy project would resonate with the youth, she was cynical that anyone would truly understand and internalize that period of history. 

“To be truthful, I don’t think so many children… even think about it. A lot of children will hear it, but forget it. It’s not that important to them anymore; it’s too far gone, too far away for them,” Leni said. That is why she believed it was her job as someone who was old enough to remember to be an educator and share her story. Leni chose to give her legacy project to JFS to promote Holocaust education for children in Dallas. Leni Bendorf shared this account of her life, knowing there were so many details that could not be captured and so much that could not be said, as she tired easily. And yet, even while telling of these dark times, her mind naturally shifted to the beauty in people and nature, the kindness of others, her sheer luck, and her good fortune. Leni Bendorf passed away on December 17, 2021 at the age of 101. 

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