90 year-old woman brings ‘a name and a place to the world’ for Holocaust victims

Dini Hansma poses with a piece she donated to the library. The soon-to-be nonagenarian has worked at BYU’s family history center for 52 years. (James Hoopes)

When Dini Hansma started kindergarten in the Netherlands in 1937, she did not realize she was different from her Jewish friends. Hansma remembers playing with Rika and Sarah Philipson, daughters of the local Rabbi, in their home and admiring their Jewish traditions.

When World War II came along, the Jewish sisters were barred from public schools, and Hansma was forbidden from playing with them. 

This letter, written and translated by Dini Hansma, recounts her childhood friendship with a pair of Jewish sisters. Hansma and the girls hold hands in the bottom left corner. (James Hoopes)

“Who would have thought at that time that six years later both were murdered in Auschwitz,” Hansma wrote in a letter almost a century later. “In the photo, I hold hands with them physically. Now I hold hands with them spiritually.” 

Hansma survived the war and immigrated from the Netherlands to the United States, where she currently resides in Orem. She said she will never forget her young Jewish friends.

Hansma is in her 52nd year serving as a missionary at BYU’s Family History Library. Genealogy, she said, is her life’s mission. Her goal is to give a face and a place to the people who don’t have one, like her childhood friends who died in the Holocaust.

“I always have said I had not been able to do anything during the war because I was simply too small. But now I can,” Hansma said.  

Coming to America — the first time

A few years after the war ended, Hansma left for America. She undertook the journey on her own, leaving behind her mother, father and only sister. 

A photograph of Dini Hansma’s house during World War II. She lived there with her father, mother, and sister before moving to the United States. (James Hoopes)

Hansma crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a freighter called The Black Swan and described 10 pleasant but ordinary days at sea. The ship landed in New York, but that was not Hansma’s final destination. 

She was headed for Vernal, Utah, where a family friend whom she called “Uncle John” lived. She stayed with him, his wife and their six children. 

Converting on her own terms  

Hansma, by her own admission, is a chatter. She talked in detail about the many people she met as she made her way to Uncle John’s: the bus driver that bought her her first hamburger, the random man that showed her around New York City and Edith, the wife of the local dentist, who went to church with her.

This was Hansma’s first time going to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not Edith’s. “She was with one foot in the Church and one foot out,” Hansma said. 

Hansma said she liked attending. “I liked, for instance, fast and testimony meeting because I was interested in the stories people told,” she said. 

Hansma was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, but had become inactive. When she was born and about to be baptized, the local deacon told her father the rite could not take place unless the family came to church regularly.

“So my father said, ‘You know what? I will never come again,’” Hansma said, and he was true to his word. Still, Hansma said she grew up in a religious house, even though her parents were not church-goers.

In Vernal, Hansma approached her stake president and asked him to baptize her. He tried to refer her to the local missionaries, but she refused. It was going to be done by the stake president, or not at all. 

“I never was preached to by the missionaries, never asked to read The Book of Mormon,” Hansma said.

A stroke of misfortune 

A photograph of Dini Hansma’s dad. He died of a stroke while Hansma was in the United States. (James Hoopes)

One day, Hansma was visiting a relative in Cincinnati when she got a devastating phone call: her father had suddenly passed away after having a stroke. He was only 61 years old. 

After a flurry of phone exchanges with her mother back in the Netherlands, the family decided Hansma would return home. She sailed back over the Atlantic to her hometown, where she helped settle her father’s affairs and move her mother into a new place of residence. 

More photographs of Dini Hansma’s family. Most of her direct relatives have passed away. (James Hoopes)

The newly baptized Hansma came back to the Netherlands a little different, she said. Her decision to not drink tea or coffee, per the Church’s Word of Wisdom, was an obvious indicator of her chosen faith. “In the Netherlands, you have coffee at 11 in the morning,” she said, “and tea before noon and then coffee at night again.”

Her mother asked her if she joined this “new outfit.” Hansma said she did.

“So she said, ‘Better a religion than none at all.’ That was the last discussion we had about it,” Hansma said. 

Hansma never tried to convert her family, even though she felt pressure from some members in her Utah community to do so. In her mind, that wasn’t her job.

“I always said they have to see by example. (It’s) not for me to convert them,” Hansma said.  

Returning to America  

After helping her family, Hansma was ready to return to the United States. She submitted her immigrant papers and waited. 

Back in the early ’60s, immigrants were admitted to the U.S. by quota. The Immigration Act of 1924 established these quotas based on applicants’ countries of origin, offering visas to 2% of a nation’s total population.

Luckily, Hansma did not have to wait long before her paperwork was approved and she was able to move back to Utah. 

“I landed very well after immigrating. I was immediately introduced to a world of BYU professors,” Hansma said. She went back to school, got her teaching certificate and worked for about 30 years before retiring. Every Wednesday, she would go to the Family History Library to do her research after school. 

For 11 years, she lived with Stella Oaks, the mother of President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.

“Even today, Dallin calls me his surrogate sister. The whole Oaks family is very close to me.” Hansma said.

She said she has seen the hand of the Lord in her transition from the Netherlands back to America, saying God wanted her to be in the U.S. to do the family history research she does today.

A first-time genealogist

Hansma’s interest in family history started when she was young, and even today comes primarily from a place of curiosity. When she was little, she would ask her grandparents about their siblings. Where were they born? How old were they? Did they have any kids? 

Dini Hansma’s home is filled with pictures of her ancestors. Hansma spends much of her time doing family history work. (James Hoopes)

Her first time doing genealogical research, she went to Salt Lake to the Family History Library. She wanted to look up her grandmother, also named Dini.

Hansma said that task was more overwhelming than she expected. She could not seem to find her grandma’s records, no matter how hard she tried. So she made a plea to her deceased matron:

“Now grandmother, if you want me to find you, you’ve got to help me,” she said. “And then I stopped, and she was right there. The record was right in front of me.”

Hansma researched the entirety of her own family and found all the records for her direct lines and then the collateral lines. The more she worked, the easier it was to do. Soon, she finished her family’s work and did not know what to do next. She remembers thinking, “Well, now what?” 

Dini Hansma has books full of names of Holocaust victims. Here, she points to the names of Rika and Sarah, her childhood friends. (James Hoopes)

Foray into Jewish genealogy  

The answer came in the form of a memory from her childhood. Hansma remembered her Jewish friends, the Philipson sisters, and wondered where their records were. They died in the Holocaust and did not have any descendants to do their genealogical work. 

She started in the International Genealogical Index and found their names: Rika and Sarah. She soon found herself looking for the records of other Jewish people in her hometown, then the neighboring cities. Her work eventually expanded to include the four northern provinces of the Netherlands. Hansma has gathered 60,000 Jewish names in total.

“I thought, ‘Now what am I to do with all this?’” Hansma said. 

Through connections with a friend, she contacted a leader in Israel. She told him about all the work she had done and sent all her work over in flash drives — tens of thousands of names.

Now, it is impossible find her research on FamilySearch or Ancestry.com. “My work is nowhere to be found,” she said. Even today, much of Hansma’s work is sent directly to Israel.

A broader conflict over baptisms for the dead 

In a statement, the LDS Church said, “Unfortunately, some of the names inappropriately submitted for temple baptism have been Jewish Holocaust victims who were not relatives of Church members.” 

In 1995, Jewish leaders, including Holocaust survivors, and Church leaders met. In an agreement signed by all participants, the Church agreed to remove all Jewish names from their IGI index and provide those names to Jewish museums and organizations in Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and Israel. In return, Jewish leaders agreed to communicate to their community the “sufficiency of the agreement.” 

The Church’s “General Handbook” says, “Without exception, Church members must not submit for proxy temple ordinances any names from unauthorized groups, such as … Jewish Holocaust victims.” Church members that do so will be met with restricted FamilySearch privileges and other corrective measures, the handbook also said. 

Of these baptisms, Hansma said, “I think it is presumptuous of members of the Church to want to do that. Especially for those that were sent to the gas chambers, I think it’s not fair. I don’t think it matters to the Lord, really, if they have their work done or not.” 

For her, this work is not about finding names and performing temple ordinances for them, as is the case with many LDS genealogists. Hansma said she does it for the dignity of Jewish holocaust victims. “Like my childhood friends, their families came to an end. I’m trying to give these people a face and a place on Earth.” she said. 

Hansma said she’ll be doing this work for the rest of her life — or as she put it, for “as many years as I have left.”

Life at 90 

Hansma turns 90 years old this year and her only remaining relatives, the two daughters of her niece, will come to the U.S. to celebrate with her. Hansma never married and does not have any children. From 1966 to 2014, she traveled to the Netherlands every year.

When she is not doing family history, she likes to tend to the flowers in her garden, write down her personal history and embroider intricate tapestries. “I’m interested in life in general,” Hansma said. “I’m never bored.” 

One of the tapestries Dini Hansma embroidered. Many of her pieces depict her homeland. (James Hoopes)

Hansma still goes to BYU’s Family History Library every Wednesday morning. When she started genealogy, it was all done by hand and she read thick books, cranked old film reels and recorded what she found with pencil and paper. Nowadays, she said computers have taken over. 

Steven Bushman, one of the missionaries at the library, described Hansma as a force. He said she knows where everything is in the library — she’ll take anyone where they need to go upon request. When she sees the general authorities, especially President Oaks, Bushman said she will break through their security guards to greet them.

Hansma said she is always worried about the amount of love her heart could hold.

“I knew that my heart was as big as my fist. How would I provide so much for father and mother, so much for sister, and so much more? I would run out! I ran out of heart for love,” she said.

This fear, though, proved to be unfounded. 

She said she still feels deeply connected to her family, even though most of them are dead.

“I think distance is what you make of it, you know? I have never felt like they are all gone. Not actually here, but they’re here,” she said.

Luke Morrison, a student and family historian, has worked in the Family History Library for three months. He said he’s been struck by how quick Hansma is to welcome unfamiliar faces.

“Dini’s like the grandma that everyone has away from home. She’s so caring and loving and takes time to actually get to know you. And she’s not afraid to make herself known,” he said. 

Hansma said she’s still committed to contributing what she can and enjoying what she can too.

“You don’t know how much time you have left. So you have to appreciate every day. And see what the Lord has done. I mean, look outside!,” she said. “And when it is not such a gorgeous day, then that’s okay, too.”

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