ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Andy Holten has worn many hats in his life.
U.S. Air Force officer. Father. Speed skater. Hall of Fame soccer player. Message boy on Wall Street. Rio Rancho Public Schools substitute teacher. Survivor of the Holocaust.
Holten, 80, was born in Holland in 1938 to Jewish parents just as one of the darkest times in recent history was unfolding. The Holocaust took the lives of more than 6 million Jews, but Holten survived because his parents made the ultimate sacrifice, sending him to live with a Christian family.
Holten said as a small child he was mostly oblivious to the Holocaust and dangers of being Jewish.
“Being Jewish didn’t mean anything to me initially,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 that I began to understand.”
Holten’s parents, Aaron and Clara Houtkruijer, initially hoped to hide together but a family in Amsterdam that had agreed to take them in, got spooked at the last minute. They didn’t trust their neighbors, who were German sympathizers.
Holten said his parents contacted the underground resistance in hopes of finding a family that would be willing to take in their son. In May 1943, Johannes and Nel Meijer, a Protestant couple in their 60s living in the town of Haarlem, agreed to shelter the 5-year-old Holten and hide his identity.
The town is 20 miles west of Amsterdam, and in the 1940s its slower pace and location made it an ideal location to hide a Jewish child. Holten said the town received less scrutiny and residents were less likely to report on their neighbors.
“I didn’t quite fit in,” he said. “Their (the Meijers’) kids were all in their 20s. The neighbors kept quiet. One lady told her son, ‘You see that kid playing out there; never mention him.’ They could have caused a lot of trouble.”
Holten’s parents and maternal grandparents were arrested and sent to Auschwitz in January 1944. The train carrying his parents also contained 122 children. Holten’s mother, grandparents and all 122 children were immediately sent to the gas chamber. His father was allowed to live because he was capable of working but he later was also killed. His other grandparents were sent to the Sobibór death camp, where they perished.
“If I had been on the train, I most likely would have died immediately,” he said.
Holten’s family had only recently moved to Amsterdam to live with his mother’s parents. The family lived next door to Miep Gies, the secretary of Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank. Gies would go on to help shelter the Frank family before they were eventually discovered and sent to a concentration camp.
After the war, Holten and his foster parents learned his entire family had died but it wouldn’t be until Holten was an adult that he learned their exact fate.
The Meijers adopted him and he remained in Holland where he completed his education, which included learning English.
He immigrated to the United States in 1956, landing in New York City where he got a job as a message boy on Wall Street and enrolled at the City College of New York. It’s there that he earned a degree in physics and became a soccer star. The school inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1980.
In 1962, he became an American citizen and joined the Air Force. He served until 1967, working on aircraft. After leaving the Air Force, he continued to do contract work for them.
It was a job that brought him to Albuquerque in 1978, where he eventually retired. Or at least thought he was retiring.
Not too long after, a friend who was a principal in Rio Rancho suggested he become a substitute teacher. Holten thought it would be something he could do for a while part time. That was 1999 and the gig ended up being almost full time. He works almost every school day as a substitute in Rio Rancho’s two high schools.
“It suits me … I like being a sub,” he said.
Holten, who still ice skates every Sunday afternoon to stay in shape, has considered leaving his substitute job.
“But then they put me into the Hall of Honor,” he said. “I decided to keep doing it.”
Holten has traveled back to Holland and taken both his sons to the places he lived as a child. He said it was only as an adult that he began to understand the true gravity of the sacrifice his parents made.
“I have a great deal of respect for their decision,” he said. “It must have been very difficult. I feel their pain in a way for having to let me go.”