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The Power of One

A Hidden and Solitary Soldier

In the Face of Nazi Terror and the Murder of Innocents, Marion Pritchard Made a Courageous Choice. She Knew Then-- as Now--That There's Really No Choice at All.

January 20, 2002|J.R. MOEHRINGER | Times staff writer J.R. Moehringer last wrote for the magazine about a former boxer living on the streets of Orange County

As the sun dips behind the Vermont tree line, the family sits down to dinner and the talk goes in a thousand directions--books, politics, the Red Sox. Eventually the conversation turns to Grandma, and the Nazi she gunned down.

Grandma looks into her lap, shyly. The adults discuss the story in low voices while the children strain to hear from the far end of the table. "What are you talking about?" says Marion Pritchard's 12-year-old granddaughter, Molly.

Silence. "Grandma and the policeman," someone says.

"Oh," Molly says--not shocked, but bored. She's heard that story a million times.

It often happens this way. Pritchard's family doesn't get too excited about her daring past. They glide over the fact that she rescued scores of children from the Holocaust, survived seven months in a Nazi prison and killed one Nazi who got in her way. They take for granted that Grandma is a war hero--or else they can't quite believe it. The stories of extraordinary bravery don't fit with the aproned woman they see before them, who is frightened of squirrels and public speaking and who feels guilty when she swats a fly.

Strangers tend to be less casual about Pritchard's past. Psychologists study her, biographers woo her, governments fete her and invite her to speak. Visitors occasionally appear at her door, unannounced, to meet her, shake her hand, thank her.

Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Contributor omitted--Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to "A Hidden and Solitary Soldier," a story by J.R. Moehringer that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on Jan. 20.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 10, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to "A Hidden and Solitary Soldier" (by J.R. Moehringer, Jan. 20).

Lately interest in Pritchard has grown even more avid. People want to be around her, now more than ever, because they know she's been here before: a nation under attack, a constant state of fear, a fanatic enemy bent on killing innocent civilians, especially Jews. The last time, Europe was ground zero, and Pritchard was one of those who ran into the fire.

But for a profile in courage, she keeps a fairly low profile. She lives at the end of a dirt road, in the middle of a sparse woods, on the outskirts of a town--Vershire, Vt.-- that doesn't appear on many maps. She spends her days reading, teaching, seeing patients--she's been a psychoanalyst most of her working life--and listening to her beloved Verdi. You might hear "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" wafting from the open windows of her big white farmhouse when you turn off the dirt road.

As history does its ominous U-turn, she watches quietly from a safe distance. This isn't her fight. And yet, when hatred hits closer to home, she reverts instantly from recluse to rescuer. When anti-Semitism and homophobia flared in her corner of Vermont not long ago, Pritchard fought back with everything she had.

People want to know where this 81-year-old woman gets her grit. She eludes the question the way she once eluded her pursuers. "There's nothing you can tell somebody that's going to make them less fearful," she says in her faint Dutch accent. "I was scared stiff all the time during the war."

She prefers to let her life speak for itself. And its lessons are clear:

You can't always hide from hate.

Or from history.

And sometimes it's best not to try.

Standing in her garden, not much taller than her sweet peas and daylilies, Pritchard doesn't look like the intrepid rescuer who defied the Third Reich. Sitting in her book-lined living room, speaking in a thin voice that crackles like a fire, she gives no hint of the cunning rebel who risked her life for strangers.

She hides the hero somewhere inside.

When the memory of an injustice comes up, though, her blue eyes darken, her voice takes on a ragged quality, like a gypsy violin, and there she is, in plain sight, Marion van Binsbergen, the young girl who tried to save the world one child at a time. It happens when she remembers Hitler's shock troops devouring Europe in 1940, smashing into Amsterdam, where she was living with her younger brother and her parents. Overnight, the streets were filled with Nazis, "all 6 feet tall" and smug, she says.

She heard stories. Mass arrests. Night trains. Camps. She knew what was happening, but she didn't really know, until one day: She was 20 years old, riding her new bicycle near the school of social work where she was a graduate student, when she saw a truck double-parked outside a Jewish children's center. Some Nazi soldiers were rousting the children--all between 2 and 8 years old--and rushing them onto the truck. The children were sobbing. The soldiers were pitiless and efficient.

"It didn't take long," she says.

One soldier grabbed a little girl by her pigtails and hurled her onto the truck.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Pritchard says. "Two women came from the other side of the street to try to stop them, and [the Nazis] threw them in with the kids."

She seems to be watching the 60-year-old scene play out in the middle of her living room, each detail as clear as the books and rugs and potbellied stove, and she becomes angry all over again. "That," she says, "was indeed the moment when I decided what was the most important thing to do."

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