On 26 March 1942 German Jews were ordered to attach a star on their home door. This news affected Irma Seelig. She and her boyfriend Leo Frijda were Jewish members of the resistance group CS-6. Their story is one of love and tragedy.
The introduction of the Jewish star, first in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, then in occupied western Europe, preceded the deportation of Jews and their extermination, as discussed at the Wannsee Conference.
Irma Seelig came from Germany. She had been born in 1916, had two brothers, one of whom died in 1925, and three sisters. Their parents ran a shoe shop in Homberg, but the Nazi persecution caused her father to fall in a deep depression and he was admitted to a psychiatric institution. Irma’s father was murdered by the Nazis in 1941 in the Hadamar Euthanasia Centre, her mother died in 1943 in Auschwitz. Irma’s younger sister died in 1944. Irma and probably the two other sisters had fled Germany before the outbreak of war. By 1938, Irma was the Netherlands, where she worked from April 1940 as a domestic help in a Jewish hospital in Amsterdam. There Irma fell in love with Leo Frijda.
Leo had been born in Amsterdam in 1923, a son of a professor. Leo was a quiet and somewhat introvert boy, who played piano and wrote essays and poems, some of which appeared in clandestine publications. He intended to study Medicine, but when Jews were barred from universities, he started training as a medical analyst in the Jewish hospital.
When Irma became pregnant, she had an abortion, which was performed by two doctors who were connected to various resistance groups. Irma convalesced in the home of a mother of a CS-6 member, after which she returned to live with Leo, mostly doing shopping and cooking as well as acting as a courier for CS-6.
Anger and desperation
In the course of 1942, CS-6 actions turned increasingly violent. It had become obvious that Jewish resistance was powerless against the deportation and extermination of the vast majority of Jews. Jewish individuals and groups could only save a limited number of people, often not even themselves or their families.
This powerlessness was the outcome of the overwhelming military might of the Nazis, the growing competence of the German police in catching resistance members and destroying their groups, the common preparedness of the leaders of the Dutch civil service and other national organisations to ignore the persecution or even to support it, and the widespread indifference and more limited collaboration in the general population.
That caused anger and desperation among Jewish resistance members, which was expressed in an extremely violent manner. In the summer of 1942 Leo abandoned his medical training. He underwent a change of character. According to a housemate, Leo became ‘a caged animal’.
Assaults on Nazis
CS-6 tried to derail trains summoned to transport Jews and attempted to firebomb a deportation collection centre. They combined these attacks with assaults on prominent Dutch Nazis and traitors.
One of the most remarkable CS-6 actions took place on 5 February 1943. Leo had just acquired a pistol; the group was constantly short of arms. He and a fellow CS-6 member shot and fatally wounded a Dutch army leader and collaborator, who headed the Volunteer Legion of the Netherlands, a unit of the Waffen SS.
Four days later they forced their way into the home of Herman Reydon, a Dutch Nazi who served as one of the Secretaries General – the heads of the national civil service departments that continued their work after the German invasion in May 1940. Reydon wasn’t at home, but his wife was, and she was killed. A Nazi newspaper wrote:
[…] the Communist Jew […], with all the heartlessness of his race against Aryan people, waited by the corpse of Mrs Reydon in the lounge for the homecoming of Mr Reydon […]
Reydon was shot when he arrived and later succumbed to his wounds.
The first arrest
Shortly after this action, a CS-6 member fell into a trap set by the German police. He was arrested and taken for interrogation to the German police headquarters. During the questioning he suddenly jumped up and threw himself out of a second-floor window. He didn’t survive the fall.
The remaining group members continued the attacks. Early in April they started preparations for an assault on the Dutch Nazi leader, Anton Mussert, but the group was unable to implement the plans. Instead, they shot a representative of Mussert. Leo also killed a police informant. In 1943 CS-6 conducted no less than 24 liquidations.
Condemned to death
This activity was bound to put the police on the trail of CS-6. The group was infiltrated by German agents. In the spring and summer of 1943 most CS-6 members were arrested, including Leo. During his interrogation and a trial conducted in September, Leo accepted responsibility for attacks committed by others who were still free. The court found that he was one of the main culprits.
On 30 September Leo and 18 other CS-6 members were sentenced to death. They were executed the next day. Three weeks later eight more group members were condemned to death.
Meanwhile, Irma, who had been arrested with Leo, was forced to act as an agent provocateur. She had to arrange meetings with group members still at liberty, who were then arrested.
In the confusion of the final half year of the war, Irma was able to flee. But shortly after the war she was apprehended and tried. In 1948 the court heard evidence about five betrayals involving people who were caught after Irma’s arrest. Witnesses also spoke about awards Irma was said to have received for her alleged betrayal, including a ‘beautiful flat’ and clothes, such as a fur coat and silk underwear. In her defence, Irma said she had been ‘forced’. The prosecutor demanded 15 years imprisonment. Irma was convicted to 12 years. In the public eye she turned from good to bad.
Others before me have questioned the post-1945 perspective that viewed all wartime actions as either good or bad – resistance or collaboration. It overlooks a wide spectrum of human behaviour, through which people simply tried to continue their life or, as in Irma’s case, survive. The court sensed that, reportedly stating that it had ‘considered that the suspect would have been executed and by committing treason had saved her life.’ Newspapers commented that the sentence also overlooked Irma being only involved ‘indirectly’ in four arrests; the group had been infiltrated by German agents who were directly responsible for the arrests. Furthermore, the group should have been more alert after the early arrests.
There seemed good ground for an appeal, but if failed. Irma went to prison. She was released in 1952.
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.