By Kevin O’Connor, VTDigger
When Gov. Madeleine Kunin learned of the recent death of 96-year-old friend Marion Pritchard, she recalled their meeting at Vermont’s first Holocaust memorial ceremony in 1987 — and their separate yet shared World War II experiences nearly a half-century before.
Kunin, born in Switzerland in 1933, was 6 years old when her Jewish family fled to the United States upon the threat of Nazi invasion.
“My mother taught me here in America, anything is possible,” the state’s first and so far only female chief executive remembers of the day she sailed past the Statue of Liberty.
Pritchard, a gentile who lived in Vershire from 1976 to 2006, learned different and more difficult lessons growing up in her native Netherlands. The former Marion Philippina van Binsbergen was a student at the University of Amsterdam School of Social Work when, riding her bicycle in 1942, she witnessed Nazi soldiers pulling Jewish children from their homes.
Marion Pritchard in her United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration uniform in 1946. Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
“It was a street I had known since I had been born, and all of a sudden you see little kids picked up by their pigtails or by a leg and thrown over the side of a truck,” she told the author of the book “Voices from the Holocaust.” “You stop but you can’t believe it.” Pritchard saw two passersby attempt to stop the action, only to be seized. That’s when, raised by a father who opposed Nazi ideology and a mother who supported social justice, she decided to fight.
Pritchard would feed, clothe, hide or obtain false identification papers for as many as 150 Dutch Jews, according to obituaries in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She also met, by chance, the German-born diarist Anne Frank before the girl went into hiding.
Kunin recalls Pritchard telling her about smuggling Jewish babies out of Amsterdam by declaring herself to be their unwed mother.
In her most extreme example of heroism, Pritchard hid a Jewish father and his three children for nearly three years, only to have police arrive to search the house. Not seeing the family under the floorboards, the authorities left before, to everyone’s surprise, one returned. Pritchard grabbed a gun and fatally shot the officer, then snuck his body to a friend at a funeral home who buried it in someone else’s coffin.
“She said, ‘I had no choice — it was either him or them,’” Kunin recalls of the family crisis.
Pritchard went on to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where she met her husband, U.S. Army officer Anton Pritchard. Moving to New York in 1947 and Vermont three decades later, she became a psychoanalyst and mother of three sons. After relocating to Washington, D.C., in 2006, Pritchard died in the nation’s capital Dec. 11.
Kunin, for her part, served as Vermont governor from 1985 to 1991, deputy U.S. secretary of education from 1993 to 1997 and U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999 before retiring.
“I invited her to come to Switzerland when I was ambassador,” Kunin says of Pritchard. “She became a very good friend and would tell me her stories. She took extraordinary chances and saved many lives, yet was totally unassuming. She always felt she should have done more. She just felt it was right.”
Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan
Onetime Vermonter Marion Pritchard receives the University of Michigan’s 1996 Wallenberg Medal for her commitment to human rights and humanitarian principles.