Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Hans and Coby Siegenthaler for their humanitarian efforts on behalf of humans and animals for over three quarters of a century. Although they live in the Los Angeles area, the Siegenthalers are known across the country and internationally because of their work in animal rights, vegetarian, and human rights issues over the years. The two have hosted monthly vegan potlucks at their home for the last twelve years. Vegetarians know that they will always be welcome at the Siegenthaler home for a potluck the fourth Saturday of each month.
In December the young couple will celebrate their 50th Wedding Anniversary with their friends.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Hans (H) and Coby (C).
VIP: Hans and Coby, when did you become vegetarians? How long have you been vegans?
C: We both were fortunate that our parents raised us as vegetarians. So we are life-long vegetarians. We are vegans for about 20 years. Many people told my mother that she could never have children when she started being a vegetarian at age 16. The conference of "Life" in San Francisco in 1981 made it so clear that we could not go on with kefir and cheese.
Alex Hershaft of FARM impressed us during the first vegan convention on the West Coast, north of San Francisco, that a vegan lifestyle is the right way. We are ethical vegetarians, not for health reasons. We both have donated blood, Coby close to 30 times, I over 30 times. We do not drink or smoke.
C: Over the years we have met Alex Hershaft of FARM, Luke Dommer of anti-hunting, Cleveland Amory of the Fund for Animals, and Henry Spira of Lethal Dose 50. The manager of Peoples Grains and Greens Coop helped us by saying protein is in everything that grows. Dr. Klaper says, "The human body does not need any animal products."
VIP: How did your families view vegetarianism?
C: They were all ethical vegetarians. We always went to a yearly gathering of the Vegetarian Society of Holland in the middle of the country. My sisters never became vegans. One died at 79, the other is in a convalescent home at age 80. She has the same problems as meat eaters, like obesity and a cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal.) Both our mothers were Theosophists. We had a little group studying theosophy together in our home. In Holland, Theosophists are vegetarian. Not here, I found out.
H: My mother became a vegetarian when I was born. My father didn't become vegetarian, but he ate very little meat. He didn't object to my mother and I being vegetarians.
VIP: Coby, where were you born and where did you live during your childhood?
C:.I was born in Driehuls and went to school in Ijmuiden Oost in the city of Velsen. During the war the Germans took our home, and we had to live in Amsterdam in what my mother called a "matchbox." We had neighbors above and below, left and right and all using our same stairs. For our Jewish friends it was always a temporary hiding place, never permanent. They came and went. I went to school while my sisters and my mother worked. My mother was an art teacher. I was 15 years old in 1940.
VIP: Hans, where were you born and where did you live during your childhood?
H: I was born in Helmond in the southern part of Holland. At age 7 we moved to Enschede in the middle-eastern part of Holland where I spent my childhood. I went to high school there, but when I was 14, my folks sent me to Werkplaats by Kees Boeke in Bilthoven. I lived in a boarding house with 25 other children of the same school
VIP: We understand both of you lived in Holland during World War II. What are some of the difficulties you faced during the war?
C: Plenty of difficulties. During the pogroms the Dutch people stopped all traffic by train, streetcars, or buses in September 1944. But the Germans took them (the Jews) anyway by their trucks to Westerbork in the middle-eastern part of Holland. We were slowly starved to death. All food that was raised was sent to the front. Some soup kitchens were started for people that had nothing. Some had enough money to "hamster" food (hoard food), not us. My mother did not dare eat that soup because there could have been slaughter products in it, although people said everybody had to be vegetarian now. There were indeed no more heart attacks and gall bladder surgeries, and diabetes went down.
We had curfew as soon as the sun went down. We had black paper for the windows so light would not shine through from the inside. We had bicycles but when the tires were too old, you got wooden strips. I went in fall or early winter with a bobsled behind the bicycle to the polder. The polder is a lake that was pumped dry for use as agricultural ground. There we picked up the last wheat kernels left in the field by the harvesters and put them in a burlap sack. My mother put on heavy gloves and rubbed them over a galvanized corrugated washboard in a tub. We held the kernels in the wind to get rid of the chaff. Then we ground it in a hand-held coffee grinder to flour to bake a loaf of bread.
When the young vegetarians came together in their homes, we planned little outings, swimming, and rowing. Many places were forbidden for Jews, so we could not go there either. We once all stayed overnight in a big chicken coop in the Veluwe where we acted out a wonderful play written by one girl in the group.
We had to dig for tulip bulbs and other roots or tubers in the park and ate the first leaves out of trees and sugar beets. Hans brought us a very salty bottle of syrup from the plant where he worked. We cooked on a "wonder stove, " an empty coffee can with holes in the bottom. We placed it on an ordinary potbelly stove. The food was put on top of the coffee can. In the can we made a fire with small sticks.
I fled Amsterdam dressed as a nurse in uniform with a children transport. We sat for hours waiting in a stairwell until a truck arrived with German-clad helpers. Through Amsterdam South we sailed through every checkpoint, speaking German and with false papers. We arrived in Groningen in the Northeast part of Holland. We were in the Harmony, a terrible place where thousands arrived from war-torn areas, children galore with their families.
I spoke with a social worker there, and I was placed in a farmhouse where I had to scrub big milk cans with hot water outside on a platform. I had no warm clothes and nearly froze.
My sister arrived with a coal boat over the Ijselmeer in the neighborhood and worked as a helper in a milk and butter factory. Later I went to stay with a farmer in Groningen who had a gorgeous home surrounded by water. I took care of the children. At that time the Germans wanted to hide because the Canadians, American, and English were rounding them up. The Allies were cruel to the Nazis. When I said, "How dare you be so nasty!" the father of the house reprimanded me. "Keep your mouth shut," he said. "They may later think we are pro-German! In war everything goes. Every side can be as nasty as they want."
There was really nothing to eat. Bread was rationed with coupons. My oldest sister took a big screwdriver and tried to get the wooden blocks from the streetcar rails to use for cooking. A German soldier saw this and took her screwdriver away.
I was wearing a felt and leather orange lion on a blue background as a pin. A NSBer, a Dutch Nazi in with the Germans, saw the pin, and I had to go with him to the Sicherheits Polizei, the Security Police. Their headquarters was in a big, beautiful canal house they had taken over. They questioned me a whole day. They believed I was a courier, but I wasn't carrying anything. Why was I not in the Hitler Jugend (the Hitler Youth)? My mother came when it was dark, and they let me go with her. But she gave them a mouthful.
VIP: Hans, we would like your response to the same question. What was it like for you during World War II?
H: During the war there was suppression of free thought and expression. Underground newspapers were used and passed on, carefully, to others. We sat together around the radio to listen to broadcasts from England. When the electric power was cut off, I had a little crystal radio we hid in a chimney connection.
Food became more and more scarce. Everything was rationed. Bicycle tires were hard to find. We used two on top of each other. Our bicycle lights had to be partially covered. Of course, there was a curfew time of 8:00 p.m.
In the hunger winter of 1944-1945 I went to the countryside, and sometimes I came home with one bottle of milk I exchanged for a pair of suspenders. But one time I returned with 200 pounds of potatoes, 3 bags on my back and one bag on the front of my bike.
In January, 1945, I had a chance to visit my folks. I was hidden as we passed German checkpoints. Food was less scarce there than in the western part of the country. My father worked in a textile plant, and I went on my way with four pieces of textile. I exchanged one for a liter of cooking oil, but the others were robbed from me by Dutch Nazis.
When Allied bombers were flying over, two men assigned in our lane were standing guard. When it became very busy in the air, they awakened all the others, and we all stood guard to be ready when something happened. One time a firebomb fell on our house. It came through the thatched roof and ended up in the toilet. My father threw sand on it, and that was the end of that incident. Fortunately, it was a rainy night.
VIP: We're aware your families were instrumental in saving Jews from extermination by the Nazis. Can you give us some of the specifics?
C: Our Amalia Street apartment in Amsterdam had two little attic rooms, and there is where I slept with the new arrivals, Jewish people we often did not know. Some heard from others that Mamma would always help, but it was not safe to stay. They could go out my window over rooftops in case of a search. I still remember some of their names.
H: My mother was wearing a Jewish star upside down out of protest. One day the local Sicherheits Polizei or security police called her and asked her, "Are you wearing a Jewish star?'
"Yes," she said because she did it openly.
An aunt staying with us at the time called my father at work right away. He was blazing mad, and couldn't care what he said to them.
"I would not let my wife do that," said the German.
"My wife is of age and can do whatever she wants," my father said.
The German replied, "My wife would not do that."
"That's the difference, " my father said. "Your wife is German. My wife is Dutch."
In the local police station my father could see her for only a moment. She stayed in a jail in Arnhem for six weeks. She was in a cell with six other women. The cell was big enough for three.
VIP: Coby, could you tell us about your education and your work? Is Coby a nickname?
C: In Holland Coby is always short for Jacoba, a very common name. If I were a boy, I would have been named after my father, Jacob. I went through high school and two years of home economics school, Het Zandped, a very well known home economics college in Amsterdam. It's now a Youth Hostel. Specialties I learned were soups, main courses, potatoes, vegetables, and a couple of things that replace meat. At that time we never knew about tofu, tempeh, seitan, hummus, soy milk, etc. And, of course, I learned to make cookies and apple taart (torte) and the use of almond paste at Christmas time.
I was a telephone operator for one year and went into nurses training when I was 20 to 23 years old. Our home was finally repaired after the war, and I did my obstetrics training in Haarlem, close by so I could help my mother. When the director of nursing heard I rode the special train for blast furnace workers, I was reprimanded. I had to go by bike after that. Misplaced haughtiness.
VIP: Hans, tell us about your education and your work? How long have you been retired?
H: I have a B.S. in chemical engineering from the college in Amsterdam. I have worked all my life in chemical factories. Through Swiss newspaper ads, I landed a job in a pharmaceutical company in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. That was extraordinary because normally the Dutch were not allowed to go abroad shortly after World War II. There was no money for spending outside of Holland. I enjoyed very much living in the country of my ancestors.
Back in Holland I kept applying for jobs elsewhere, like Manchester, England. I went there and got the job, but I couldn't get a work permit. In 1954 we obtained visas for the U.S. and left in 1955. Go west, young man, and we did. I worked in several plants until I retired in 1986.
VIP: We understand you have a special anniversary coming up soon? Tell us about it. Where and how did you meet?
C: December 22 we will be married 50 years and since we have no family here, but marvelous friends out of rows of demonstrations against animal cruelty, we hope to find out all the addresses from our "real family" here. We met in the youth group of the vegetarian society. Hans told me he knew me approximately10 years before we were married. When he asked me, we were reed sailing in a little rowboat.
H: We met by design. We were both members of Witte Guilde (White Guild) which was a vegetarian youth group. There was a terrible shortage of housing, and officials tried to put you in with relatives. Since neither of us had any relatives in Zaandam, where my work was, half a house was assigned to me. My boss told me this on November 30, 1951 and said you have to move in before Christmas. So we had to get married! At that time that was a source of jokes that don't apply anymore.
I picked up Coby at the hospital with my bike. She rode on the luggage carrier on the back of my bike in her white nurse's uniform. We rode up to the town hall for our marriage license. We married on December 22, 1951, the first day of the year when it starts becoming lighter, 50 years ago. You'll hear more about the party in coming months.
VIP: When did you both come to the United States? How long have you been in the Los Angeles area, and what brought you to the West Coast?
C: We came in 1955 and had friends, the Renselaers in Tarzana, who picked us up from the airport. We also had friends in Alabama, but we could never live there with segregation. We would be in jail right away. We lived in Lynwood for 17 years where our children went through school. We moved to this house because of Hans' work for 3M across the street. No more depending on cars and driving 80 miles a day. We have lived here since 1973.
H: On February 23, 1955 we entered the United States after a ten-day boat trip. Sea Sick! Why to the west coast? Too much rain and cold weather in Holland. When you're on your bike, the wind is always against you. In 1961 we became U.S. citizens.
VIP: What sparked your interest in the animal rights movement?
H: We have always loved animals and would not like to see them hurt. In 1970 I saw a magazine article about the Animal Protection Institute. We joined them. We found more and more societies for animals.
VIP: Tell us about some of the activities and demonstrations you have participated in.
H: Every year we have participated in the Fur-Free-Friday march. We have been in many protests against rodeos, circuses, zoos, lobster festivals, McDonalds, animal experiments at UCLA, UCSB, and UCSD. We were active members of two food coops, People's Grains and Greens and Demeter. For one, we would pick up a truck full of vegetables near San Diego.
VIP: What progress have you seen since your activist participation?
H: Vegetarianism was sometimes mentioned on the last pages of a newspaper, but gradually it moved forward. One recent vegan Thanksgiving potluck at Rancho Park in Los Angeles was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times with a picture of live birds. It is no longer odd. On airplanes we can get vegetarian meals and now also vegan.
VIP: What do you personally find rewarding about your efforts?
C: We made so many real friends. When Hans was hospitalized for three months, they all shined through brightly, bringing fruit and goodies mainly for me, but they did anything to help us. They are Menschen (upright, honorable, decent people). As soon as you are among vegans, you belong. You have contact. They pour their hearts out, and there is never a question of religion or politics. We are together in it here. The non-human voices need to be heard by everyone. It is a pity when people bicker among themselves instead of working together toward the same goal.
VIP: What organizations do you support?
H: We support a lot of organizations, sometimes with enough money to be a member, sometimes by merely sending in some money. Coby is a life member of the American Anti-Vivisection Society and the American Vegan Society. We also contribute to and support Last Chance for Animals, HSUS, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Wildlife Way Station, EarthSave, Sea Shepherd, Humane Society of the United States, American Civil Liberties Union, Farm Animal Reform Movement, Farm Sanctuary, San Fernando Valley Greens, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Amnesty International, Legal Defense Network, Civitas Committee to Abolish Sports Hunting, ArkTrust, Salem Vegetarian Home for Children, Mountain Lions, and the Museum of Tolerance.
We subscribe to Mother Jones, Vegetarian Times, Vegetarian Journal, and Vegetarian Voice.
VIP: Who are some of the vegetarian VIP's you have hosted at your home?
C: Dr. Michael Klaper, Dr. Doug Graham and his parents, Howard Lyman and his wife Willow Jean, Jerry Cook who is the ambassador for EarthSave, Alex Hershaft from FARM, Gabriele Kushi from the Kushi Institute (macrobiotic), Dr. J. Yiamouyiannis (author), and Jeffrey and Sangeeta of WorldFest.
H: I had to drive John Robbins and Deo to the airport in my VW bug. They insisted that she sit on his lap. I could not get the seatbelt on!
VIP: What do you see as the ideal in man's relationship to animals?
C: Go to animals where they belong, to see them. Don't take them away from their families. They are another nation. They have their own language that we don't understand.
H: Be friendly and caring for house pets. Leave wild animals alone. No more tropical birds, monkeys, tigers, or elephants should be brought here.VIP: If you were in Congress, what legislation would you propose?
C: Animals have a right to fly if they have wings, to swim if they have fins, to run if they have legs.H: Steering everyone to a plant-based diet. For the time being, proper treatment of all animals before slaughtering them.
VIP: In case we overlooked important areas, are there other thoughts you would like to share with our readers.
C: In this so-called democratic land we had better get with the 10 points of the Green Party. Capitalism has the upper hand in this two-party system. With vegan radio and newspapers we are on the way to awareness. I am so glad that Senator Byrd said what we vegans would have said to congress.
H: We had two children, our daughter Noor and our son Hugo, both born at home with a midwife and a nurse. Hugo had many interests. He was an excellent swimmer and a scuba diver. He was an Eagle Scout. Hugo was captain of the ski team at CSUN and head of the ski school at SkiSunrise in Wrightwood. He bought a 1929 Whippet automobile that he beautifully restored. In 20 minutes he removed the engine of a VW bug and put another one in its place. Alas, he lost his life in a car accident at age 24.
Noor is very artistic with drawing and painting. She is a cosmetologist by profession. Of course, we get free haircuts. She is also an excellent swimmer and was first in her class in junior high school. In grade school our kids were the only ones who never missed a school day due to illness.
We are not very athletic, but we did swim, skate, sail, and ski. In Holland we skated from one village to another over frozen canals. Here we have sailed to Catalina Island and around Anacapa Island.
We helped to develop a vegan passport that is issued in England. It shows in 39 languages what we eat and don't. We did travel a lot.
We attended several international vegan conferences: Neu Ulm, Germany in 1982, The Hague, Netherlands in 1994, Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1999, Toronto, Canada in 2000. We hope to go to Edinburgh, Scotland next year.
In 1986 I retired, and the next day we left for a six-month trip to Europe. We visited the Refuseniks in Russia, in Moscow and Leningrad, and then in Riga, Latvia. At the airport the Russian customs agents were suspicious about the books and jewelry, especially the Star of David. We had two suitcases loaded with things for them, like wool and clothes. When we visited a home, when they opened the door a little bit, we said, "Shalom." The door opened wide, and we were warmly welcomed.
We have had foreign exchange students in our home, a boy from Germany and a girl from Sweden. Because they are vegan, we helped them. A blind CSUN student lived with us for two years, and two homeless men and two homeless women stayed with us over a year.