One From the Vaults for Yom Hashoah
When I was out in Los Angeles for the Genesis Awards in 2005, I knew I had to meet up with Coby. I had the honor of interviewing her at her home in nearby Northridge. Without a doubt, Coby is one of the warmest, most compassionate people I've ever met. I keep the picture of Coby and Hans that she gave me in my bedroom. Below is the article that I wrote for a journalism class in college.
Coby of Compassion
by Michael Croland
Visitors often stumble upon opening the front gate outside Coby Siegenthaler’s home in Northridge, Calif. But once they enter, they are treated with the warmest hospitality.
“I never stayed anywhere else in Los Angeles, that’s it, in almost 13 years,” says Mad Cowboy author Howard Lyman. In 1983, Lyman, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Montana, gave up his business in favor of animal advocacy. After he walked away from his livelihood and all he knew, lifelong vegetarians Coby and her late husband Hans came to treat Lyman like an adopted son. “They are my parents,” he says.
Lyman is far from the only houseguest to have stayed in the Siegenthaler residence – a quaint, European-flavored home with an antique Dutch spinning wheel in the front hallway and a cuckoo clock that sounds hourly. Many companion animals have lived there through the years, although currently just a cat named Kitty. The blind and homeless join famed nutritionists and animal rights leaders in having stayed at this place of lore. Coby loves to serve all guests organic, decaffeinated tea- and grain-based “fake coffee” with soymilk.
Coby’s willingness to house those in need traces back to her childhood in the Netherlands. Her family helped hide a half-dozen Jews in their attic during World War II.
Coby DeCrasto was born on June 7, 1925 in Driehuls, Holland, and went to school in Velsen. During the war, Germans took her family’s home and relegated them to Amsterdam. They lived in what Coby’s mother called a “matchbox” apartment, where they had to wash in the kitchen because there was no shower.
Above the apartment, however, were two little rooms in an attic. Other residents of the apartment complex shared the staircase, but that didn’t stop Coby’s family from hiding Jews up there. After all, lives were at stake.
“Anybody in their right mind, I think, would help,” recalls Coby.
At least six Jewish refugees, some of them strangers, inhabited the attic during the war. Coby would sleep with the refugees in the attic, which had a window that led to a rooftop, thus enabling a quick escape if need be. Food was in short supply, but Coby’s family shared with their guests anyway. Because it was not safe, they never stayed for more than two or three weeks.
As a public schoolteacher, Coby’s mother had to sign a pledge that she would not do anything to hurt Germany’s war efforts. The entire family could have been sent to a concentration camp if the Germans discovered their secret operations.
Coby met Hans through the Witte Guilde, a vegetarian youth group in Holland. Hans’s family also helped rescue Jews, for which they were formally honored as “righteous among the nations” by Holocaust remembrance societies in 2001. The soulmates married in December 1951.
Many friends and observers have recounted how throughout their marriage, Coby and Hans still looked at each other with twinkles in their eyes. “They are the only couple I have ever met, who after 51 years of marriage, were still like newlyweds, still thrilled to be in one another’s company,” said close friend Marr Nealon after Hans passed away. “I believe their secret has been sharing the heartfelt bond of a cruelty-free lifestyle.”
In 1955, with poverty still gripping post-war Europe, the Siegenthalers decided to move to the United States. They would not go anywhere but California, which they viewed as a progressive hotbed, ahead of the rest of the country.
At one point, it looked like it might be easier to move near their friends in Alabama. But they absolutely refused. They knew they would have gone to jail immediately for protesting against segregation. “If they hate some sort of people, it’s just crazy,” recalls Coby.
After moving to California, Hans worked as a chemical engineer for 3M. The couple settled in their current home, across the street from Northridge’s 3M plant, in 1973. The Siegenthalers were often torn about supporting 3M, particularly because of the company’s animal testing practices, which have recently come under criticism in animal rights circles. Coby attributes Hans’s pancreatitis in 2001 and death in 2003 to his work with “foul chemicals.”
Coby made her living as a registered nurse. She thrived on being able to work in tandem with others to improve patients’ health. She has always been very health-conscious: she and Hans never smoked nor drank, and their son and daughter never missed school because of illnesses.
For Coby, concern was never limited to people’s health. It extended to animals and the environment, as well. “It’s all connected,” she insists. She never sprays herbicides or pesticides in her luscious green garden, which flourishes with ladybugs, snails that eat other snails, and Mother Nature living in peace.
When Coby learned of the Animal Protection Institute several decades ago, she donated money and became a member. Today, animal protection groups compose the majority of the 44 charities she contributes to annually. (There used to be 80, but as a widow living off of Social Security checks, she had to cut back). She certainly supports a host of other causes, but she chooses the Salem Children’s Trust over other children’s homes, for example, because it is the only vegetarian one in the country. She volunteers at an animal shelter and tries to educate people about animal suffering whenever possible.
In the early 1980s, Coby and Hans became vegan, a vegetarian diet that also shuns eggs and dairy products. She has participated in protests against zoos, rodeos, circuses, animal experimentation, fur, fast-food restaurants, and nearly every other animal issue under the sun. The Siegenthalers won the Grassroots Animal Advocates Award at the national Animal Rights 2002 conference.
“She never met a critter that she didn’t have love for,” said Lyman. “It didn’t make a difference whether it was a skunk or a porcupine or a rattlesnake; she loves all critters.”
For nearly fifteen years, Coby has hosted vegan potlucks in her home on the fourth Saturday of every month. Sometimes when a prominent speaker like vegan nutritionist Dr. Michael Klaper appears, up to 27 people attend and spill out from the living room to the outdoor poolside patio. The Siegenthaler home was also well-known for its alcohol-free New Year’s parties.
Coby also hosts monthly meetings in her home for the Green Party, whose presidential candidate received 0.10 percent of the popular vote in last year’s election. Coby finds comfort in the Greens’ progressive ideals and opposition to the Bush administration. “In this so-called democratic land we had better get with the 10 points of the Green Party,” she told Vegetarians in Paradise in 2001.
A who’s-who of prominent figures have stayed in the Siegenthalers’ spare “Lincoln bedroom” – including Lyman, Klaper, Farm Animal Reform Movement founding president Alex Hershaft, sports nutritionist Douglas Graham, and anti-vaccination activist Viera Scheibner.
Temporary housing is not limited to their heroes. The Siegenthalers have hosted vegan exchange students from Sweden and Germany. “Because they are vegan, we helped them,” Hans told Vegetarians in Paradise. They also hosted a blind California State University, Northridge student for two years and several homeless men and women for over a year.
As an immigrant, Coby says that her proudest accomplishment in life is that she owns her home. She recognizes how difficult that struggle can be, which is why she is eager to help homeless people, particularly those who are motivated to work.
In Hans’s absence, Coby is fighting to stay active, welcoming, and kind. She spent seven hours distributing free literature about veganism at the twentieth annual “National Meat Out” last month. “I promised him I would do it alone. I’m doing it, but it’s not easy,” she says.
The doors to Coby’s home and heart are still wide open for all in need. As she promoted in a recent Jewish Vegetarians of North America newsletter, “I have a 3 bedroom home very cruelty free and there for [sic] trust all Vegan friends who need a temporary place.”