More than 700 Phoenix-area middle school children sat quietly Thursday morning in the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts’ auditorium. On stage, lamps overhead shone on Dirk van Leenen as he sat at an upholstered chair and recounted surviving a Nazi concentration camp.

The 83-year-old Mesa resident was the featured speaker following a performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Diary of Anne Frank” by Tempe’s Childsplay Theater Inc. As a Dutch boy, van Leenen and his parents were sent in 1945 to Bergen-Belsen — the same German concentration camp where a 16-year-old Frank died of typhus earlier that same year .

All these decades later, stark memories of the German death camp creep back to van Leenen in his sleep.

“I have nightmares about it sometimes,” van Leenen said about the concentration camp in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

This was the fourth appearance before students this week as Saturday marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Van Leenen’s appearance before school children was part of a broader effort to inform Arizona’s youth about the dangers of antisemitism.

Horrors persist

Those gathered in the auditorium listened intently as van Leenen recalled the harshness of witnessing camp prisoners die from starvation, falling into “heaps of dead bodies” with their lifeless faces visible.

His father was part of the resistance in the Netherlands, which van Leenen says saved more than


“(Oct. 7) began the same way as Hitler — taking children, taking families, killing the babies, raping the women. That happened in the war too — in the first year.”

Dirk van Leenen

Holocaust survivor

1,000 Jews who were relocated to different parts of the country and placed in hiding .

A clerical misspelling of his Jewish mother Johanna Schmall’s Jewish last name kept her from being found out for nearly the entirety of the Holocaust. But van Leneen said a “hellbound” Nazi searched until he found van Leenen’s resistance-leading father, Cornelis. The family was captured and put on a train to Bergen-Belsen. Van Leenen was 5.

The ordeal would be short-lived. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945 — two days after the van Leenens arrived. A British officer recognized van Leenen’s father as part of the resistance, securing their quick release.

Van Leenen came to Arizona in 1989 for a year to set up a flower processing plant as a horticulturist. He decided to stay after meeting his current wife, Cindy, whom he married shortly after. The couple had three children.

Van Leenen is the father of four children from a previous marriage in Holland. A grandfather of 12 and a greatgrandfather of 18, van Leenen has dedicated part of the last two decades to authoring a trilogy on the Dutch resistance.

A push to educate students

Recent events and trends prove there is a pressing need to teach students more about the Holocaust. A study from the Economist/YouGov that was conducted Dec. 2-5 found that 20% of U.S. respondents aged 1829 agree or tend to agree with the idea that the Holocaust is a myth.

Gov. Doug Ducey, in 2021, signed into law a bill requiring education on the Holocaust for middle and high schoolers. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne marked Wednesday as the deadline for state public schools to report their curriculum to the Arizona Department of Public Education.

Horne told The Republic his extended family died during the Holocaust, but his Jewish parents and sister survived because his father foresaw Nazi Germany occupying Poland. The state’s school chief was born in Canada before his family immigrated to the United States.

“My immediate family survived because of my father’s knowledge of history and ability to interpret current events. I believe that the survival of the younger generation depends on their knowledge of history and ability to interpret current events,” Horne said.

As of Thursday, Horne’s staff was reviewing public school educators’ Holocaust and genocide curriculum. Horne said he plans on reaching out to the state Legislature to specify time requirements and subject matter.

The Phoenix-based Arizona Jewish Historical Society recently instituted the Hilton Family Holocaust Education Center. Opening in 2026 as a $30 million digitally immersive and multimedia-focused facility, the center will be aimed at instructing middle and high school students about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Jewish people around the world have seen increasing violence in the past few months.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which claimed the lives of 1,200 Israelis, has been regarded as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. In the 16 days following the attack, the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism found a 388% increase in reported antisemitic incidents in the U.S. compared with the same period from the year before.

Valuable insight

Leslie Feldman was recently appointed the first executive director of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, founded in the 1980s as a volunteer-run organization. An Arizona native, Feldman is the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, including a grandfather who was in Auschwitz.

Holocaust education “has never been more important in my lifetime since Oct. 7, when the massacre in Israel happened and this wave of antisemitism hit the world,” Feldman said.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz. Feldman pointed out many Jews observe Yom HaShoah in the spring to pay tribute to those lost in the Holocaust. Honoring 1943’s four-week Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that saw Jewish resistance against the Nazis, the date alternates based on the Hebrew calendar. This year’s observation begins the evening of May 5 and ends at nightfall on May 6.

“Hearing firsthand from survivors, I believe, is probably the most important tool we can offer to students here,” Feldman said. She added the Holocaust survivors she has met “are good and kind people” and “after going through the indescribable they came out and raised loving families.”

Dirk van Leneen is one of approximately 38,400 living Holocaust survivors in the U.S., according to a study published Tuesday by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Approximately 65 Holocaust survivors reside in metro Phoenix, including some older than 100, according to the Phoenix Holocaust Association’s records.

As the number of individuals who faced genocide narrows, van Leenen warned about the parallels he sees between the foes of World War II and Hamas.

“(Oct. 7) began the same way as Hitler — taking children, taking families, killing the babies, raping the women,” van Leenen told The Republic in a postspeech interview. “That happened in the war too — in the first year.”

Republic reporter Nick Sullivan contributed to this article.

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