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Surviving Nazi occupation with the help of an unlikely ally

Courtesy of Laureen Nussbaum
Laureen and Rudi Nussbaum on their wedding day on October 15, 1947 in Amsteram. Otto Frank and Laureen's sister, Susi, stand off to the left. Otto Frank was their best man.


On a dark and rainy afternoon, Sound Effect producer Jennifer Wing and I meet Laureen Nussbaum in the lobby of a retirement home in North Seattle. Laureen is a petite woman. She is 92 years old, and insists on helping us with our gear. 


Laureen opens her arms to receive one of our bags, “Can I carry something?” she asks.


Jennifer hands over her coat and with that, Laureen glides up an enormous spiral staircase as we speed up a bit to keep up with her.


“I love these steps,” Laureen says with a smile, looking back at us.


The fact that Laureen is here at all is pretty incredible. Laureen grew up in a Jewish family in Germany and, later, Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, during World War II. The vast majority of people who fit that description did not survive.


But Laureen did survive, in part because of the very laws the Nazis used to decide who was worthy of extermination.


In spite of the Nazi belief that Jews were an objectively separate race of people, there were lots of fuzzy cases, such as mixed families and conversions. Somebody had to make the call when there were cases of so-called “doubtful ancestry.”


In the Netherlands, that someone was a German bureaucrat named Hans Calmeyer. He is the reason Laureen — and, by extension, we — are meeting here today.


She wrote a book about him — in her 90s! — called "Shedding Our Stars, The Story of Hans Calmeyer and How He Saved Thousands of Families Like Mine."


“He just did not believe in any of the anti-Jewish propaganda,” Laureen says.


But before we get deeper into that, we head into her tidy, midcentury modern apartment.


She brings out an old photo album. The past, jumps out into present day in the form of glossy black-and-white pictures. One photo shows Laureen and her childhood sweetheart, Rudi Nussbaum, in a doorway on the day of their wedding. They are a gorgeous couple.


In the photo, an older man stands off to the side, just inside the doorway.


“People came out and Otto Frank is standing behind the (glass) pane here. He was the best man at our wedding,” Laureen says.


The gentleman isOtto Frank. His daughter was Anne, whose writings were later published as "Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl."


Laureen’s parents, Marianne and Joseph Klein, were friends with Otto Frank and his wife Edith. Both families fled Germany for the Netherlands, which was neutral at the time during the war, and settled in the same neighborhood.


Laureen got to know the Franks’ daughters, Margot and Anne. Laureen looked up to Margot, who was two years older.


“She was ladylike, she was composed and I thought, 'wouldn’t it be nice to be a lady like her?'” Laureen recalls.


Laureen says Anne, who was a bit younger than her, was a very chatty kid who often was surrounded by friends and known for having a lot of opinions.


“In fact, one of her friends once said, ‘the good Lord knows everything, but Anne knows it better,” Laureen says, with a generous laugh.


What no one knew at the beginning is that the fates of these two families would go in two completely different directions: one toward doom, and the other toward salvation.


In this story, learn how a German bureaucrat working for the Nazis who followed the letter of the law and a prejudiced Jewish great-grandmother led to the survival of Laureen Nussbaum and her family. 


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.
Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.