In March 1942 the Nazis started the initial round-up and transport of Jews in several European countries. However, there was a counter force. It contained a pioneering group of young Zionists who rescued Jews, an activity that became essential to Jewish resistance.
The first captured group of Jews from Slovakia left on 25 March 1942. On the same day a train departed for Auschwitz with more than 1,000 Jews seized in France. The transports heralded the deportation of Jews and their extermination, as discussed at the Wannsee Conference.
The deportation was to include Palestine Pioneers – young Zionists, who were training to become agricultural workers in preparation for aliyah (emigration to Palestine). To escape from deportation they formed a rescue and care group.
At the start of the war just over 800 Pioneers were training in several locations in the Netherlands, such as a pavilion near the small town of Loosdrecht. The chances of emigration to Palestine – the purpose of their training – disappeared during the early years of the war. Nevertheless, preparation for future settlement in Palestine was continued.
Among the Pioneers discussions took place about how to react to the deportations. Some felt that they shouldn’t try to hide but endure the suffering for religious and historical reasons. Others argued they had to try and flee to Palestine. An initiative for building a clandestine organisation that helped Pioneers to escape was taken by youth leaders in Loosdrecht, such as Menachem Pinkhof and Joachim Simon. When it also appeared that some of the Pioneers in Loosdrecht were preparing individual attempts to escape deportation, the leaders decided to plan for all Pioneers to go into hiding.
To organise hiding places the Pioneers relied on outside help. The Jewish Waterman family lived next to the Loosdrecht centre. Their daughter Mirjam became Menachem Pinkhof’s girlfriend and joined the initiative to prevent the deportation of Pioneers. She had worked in a nearby children’s institution. One of her ex-colleagues was able to find hiding places in surrounding towns and villages.
As Pioneers from different centres were looking for ways to hide or escape, more people learned about the plans of the Loosdrecht group and the national Pioneer office in Amsterdam became a centre of clandestine activity. In this way, different units came into being, but they collaborated on aspects of their work.
In August 1942 the group in Loosdrecht was warned that the Nazis intended to raid their centre. Within a few days the Pioneers went to their hiding places. After some months the group started to investigate an escape route to Allied territory. For this purpose, Joachim Simon, his wife and two Pioneers travelled to France. Joachim was able to make some useful contacts and returned to the Netherlands to set up the route after his wife and the two Pioneers crossed the Swiss border.
Joachim ‘Shushu’ Simon was a refugee from Germany. He had been born in 1919 in Berlin. In the summer of 1937 Shushu joined the Palestine Pioneers in Germany. He was rounded up during the Kristallnacht in November 1938 and sent to Buchenwald. After his release from that camp, Shushu moved to the Netherlands. To continue his Pioneer training, he worked on a Dutch farm. The physical labour couldn’t have been easy, because Shushu suffered from asthma. In his spare time, he continued to study, borrowing books in Amsterdam. After May 1940 Shushu was appointed youth leader in Loosdrecht and became an active member of the national Pioneer organisation.
Shushu personified the tenacity of the Pioneers. This resolve was a recurring theme in the letters he wrote to inspire others to be equally determined. On 20 November 1942 Shushu wrote to a friend in a concentration camp:
When I think about you, being incarcerated, I’m grateful that I can be active. I still have the opportunity to try – and that’s most important for us. It’s still possible to fight against fate – even if we’ll lose. And if I have an accident tomorrow, I can have peace. I’ll not regret for one moment what I’ve done. We had the courage to fight and if we failed, that is our fate. And the thought that we haven’t fought only for ourselves gives us courage.
Shushu struggled with what he saw as his shortcomings. At times, he found himself too impatient, wanting quick results. When he wrote about this, the escape work wasn’t yet well-organised and time was pressing. Shushu and the others had to make far-reaching decisions, while conducting a discussion with those who didn’t want to go into hiding. Shortly before or in January 1943 Shushu wrote to a friend:
If we had a meeting now […], would I not be forced to say […] that on the basis of deductive, logical observation of the general situation […] that this and this are our options and that our logical reaction should be so and not any different, that’s to say, not await our fate as cattle that is being taken to the slaughter? Should I not demand action from everybody […], especially as I feel this burdensome responsibility?!!!!
Shushu travelled several times to France to organise the escape network, but he was arrested. It’s presumed that in captivity he killed himself on 27 January 1943.
Menachem Pinkhof and Mirjam Waterman took over Simon’s role. Some Pioneers settled along a new escape route to Spain and the group was able to build a large organisation that helped Pioneers to escape in groups of two or three. After the summer of 1943 the number of escapees rose, including Pioneers who had managed to get out of the Westerbork transit camp; about 25 were able to escape deportation from this camp.
Following Shushu’s death, the group had several more setbacks. Mirjam and Menachem were captured and ended up in Bergen Belsen. In the spring of 1944 the Germans destroyed the Pioneer organisation in Paris and several Pioneers in the Netherlands fell into German hands, but others were able to maintain the group’s contacts with French Zionists and armed Jewish resistance fighters.
In total, the Loosdrecht group looked after well over 200 Pioneers. About 150 of them undertook the journey to Spain; 80 reached that country and 70 of them managed to settle in Palestine. Of the total of about 800 Palestine Pioneers in the Netherlands at the start of the war, just over 400 went into hiding and 393 survived the Holocaust.
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.