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Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

The battle of Waterloo Square

On 5 februari 1942 Lard Zilverberg died. He was a Jew who refused to be terrorised. Lard fought the Nazis on the streets. The streetfighting culminated in the battle of Waterloo Square.

Jewish streetfighters
Jewish streetfighters.

The deportation and extermination of the Jews, as discussed at the Wannsee conference, was preceded by a campaign of terror. In the Netherlands black-uniformed Dutch Nazis made their presence felt. Early in 1941 they attempted to implement German measures that prohibited Jews from entering public buildings and spaces.

The Nazis brought signs with the words ‘Jews unwanted’ and attempted to put them up in restaurants and bars, which caused fights, because not everybody wanted to be told what to put on their walls and windows. On Sunday 9 February 1941 one of these altercations erupted into a large fight on the Rembrandt Square, one of the entertainment centres of Amsterdam. The Nazis marched on to the square, were beaten back, returned in greater numbers accompanied by individual German soldiers, smashed windows and forcefully entered pubs to impose the ban on Jews. The last place to fall to the Nazis was a bar called Alcazar. The Dutch police arrived belatedly, but they withdrew when faced by German soldiers.

An attack

Encouraged by their victory, the Nazis crossed the river Amstel into the Jewish neighbourhood just after six o’clock at night, kicking in doors, destroying possessions and beating up people. Some Jews fought back. One of them recalled: ‘We were in a pub. With snooker queues we flew at the Nazis. One of us had a knife. Another beat a guy from the tram.’ There were more clashes, but when the fight-back started in earnest, the Nazis began leaving the area and the German military police arrived to restore order. However, the damage had been done. Jewish families reported crimes of violence and theft at a nearby police station.

On Monday rumours abounded that the Nazis had announced they would be back. The Jews in the neighbourhood were distressed, but there was also an atmosphere of determination, to hit back if the Nazis returned. A diarist captured the mood:

Shattered windows fell on the street and in the store fronts. That was the first assault on the Jewish neighbourhood. The next day the resilience awoke. There were men on the street, trained wrestlers and boxers, and they dared to look their man in the eye.

Small groups on the streets were debating the news. Young men also met in coffee houses and bars. In the evening an incident took place outside a theatre. The police had to break up a scuffle between a small group of Nazis and several men, including a scrap merchant and two of his friends, who had thrown a Nazi into a canal.

Tuesday 11 February 1941

The unrest continued the next day. The question in the Jewish neighbourhood was: what to do now? It was asked on the streets and in workplaces, shops, coffee houses and pubs. Those who had fought before or were used to streetfighting did most of the talking. The idea was mooted of forming defence groups, which could fight back if the Nazis came again. Some individuals took charge and different groups were formed. The earlier-mentioned scrap merchant told other men to come to his yard and pick a piece of metal as a weapon. A trainer from a neighbourhood boxing school assembled about fifty boxers and wrestlers in his gym. They trained and worked in shifts. The group used a small haulage truck as a transport van, enabling them to move quickly in case new attacks were reported. There were other groups, usually based in pubs, and arrangements were made to get together when trouble was expected. However, despite the will to organise, there was little organisation. Hundreds of men milled the streets, coming and going, exchanging news and gossip, for example, about a Nazi plan to attack a synagogue.

Lard Zilverberg was among the outspoken leaders of the defence groups. He had been born in 1916 into a large family in one of the overcrowded tenements of the Jewish neighbourhood. When employed, Lard worked as a sign painter. He wasn’t tall, but you couldn’t help noticing him — a hothead with fierce eyes and a fiery voice, and a boxer who was fleet of foot and packed a punch. He told his men: ‘Bring ten of your guys and hide yourself over there’ – Lard indicated strategic street corners, but in the heat of the debate not everyone listened and confusion reigned.

A foreboding

In the afternoon of Tuesday 11 February 1941 a fight broke out in front of a neighbourhood shop owned by a Nazi. Three people were wounded. A Nazi went by car to report the incident at the police station. A metal bar was thrown through the windscreen of his car and he drove into bystanders; three of them got hurt, one later succumbed to the injuries. It was an indication of the tense atmosphere as well as a foreboding of what was to follow that night.

It was a misty evening. Just after half past six a formation of about 40 Dutch Nazis left their unit’s headquarters on one of the canals. According to a police detective, ‘with the intention to march unannounced through the Jewish quarter.’ They were probably singing and thereby attracting attention. The group crossed one of the bridges into the Jewish neighbourhood and continued until they came to the Waterloo Square. 

Map of the Waterloo Square
Map of the Waterloo Square (SPEELPLAATS means playground).

On the square they turned left, towards the uneven-numbered side and along the tram tracks. From there they could have marched towards another square, where no less than five synagogues were shrouded in darkness. However, Jewish fighters were awaiting them, mostly hidden in doorways and side streets off the Waterloo Square. Lard and his men stood in one of the unlit alleys.

Hatred and revenge

One Nazi was on a bike. Coming onto the Waterloo Square, he took a sharp left to the even side and got separated from his group by the playground in the middle of the open space. Somebody called: ‘There’s one. Grab him.’ A piece of metal was thrown at the cyclist and hit the man’s head. Stones followed. His comrades heard the commotion and started running towards him.

At that moment the Jewish fighters emerged. Knives were drawn. Men also attacked each other with rubber hoses enforced with lead, belts, iron bars and bats, mostly hitting heads and shoulders. One of the fighters, nicknamed Jumbo, was said to have hit Nazis in the face with pavement stones. They fought as if their lives did depend on the outcome. Hatred and feelings of revenge were released. Two men on the even side of the square saw a Nazi named Hendrik Koot on the northwest corner of the play area. One of them stated later:

Yes, I was there. First Koot was arguing with someone and shouted that he would wipe out the Jewish scum. We shouted back that he should try. There were several of us lined up. When one of them started the fight, they all came at the same time.

They hit Koot, who fell under their blows. He stood up and tried to get away, but they grabbed him again, after which Koot succumbed.

The battle was decided quickly. Some Jewish fighters arrived almost too late: ‘When we got there, some were already fighting. On the square we heard: “They’re coming.” All you had to do was hit the uniforms, that was a good target.’ Others missed the fight, which was over in minutes. The Nazis withdrew across a bridge, leaving the Jewish neighbourhood.

The wounded

At quarter past seven the first wounded men arrived in a first-aid post located just off the Waterloo Square. The staff at this post noted their names and injuries. Koot had head wounds and the base of his skull was fractured. He was taken to hospital, where he later died from his injuries. There were Jewish casualties too. One of them was stabbed in the upper torso. Another had a head wound and was soaked as he had fallen or was thrown into a canal. They were sent to a Jewish hospital. More injured men came to the post. At quarter past nine the last casualty was treated. A non-Jewish man had been knocked down and beaten up. He was sent to a Jewish hospital, possibly because he had fought alongside the Jews.

Meanwhile, the alarmed German police cordoned off the area. They made twenty arrests among Jewish men who had remained on the streets, including Lard. According to a witness, Lard ‘still had a piece of metal in his possession.’ The detainees were beaten. Three of them, including Lard, were forced to pose with weapons for a photograph (see above, Lard is in the middle).

A few days later the Dutch police investigated Koot’s death, but their report disappeared in a desk drawer. Some of the arrested men were released. But not Lard. A year later the police started a new investigation into the disturbances. Another twenty arrests were made. Like the earlier detainees, the men were transported to concentration camps. Lard died in February 1942 in Mauthausen.

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My new book, Individuals and Small Groups in Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust. A Case Study of a Young Couple and their Friends, is published by Anthem Press.