Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

A Museum view

Last week the New York Times asked my opinion about the controversy in the Netherlands over the new permanent exhibition of the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. Here’s my view.

The Resistance Museum

For me, two of the main tasks of the science of history are to increase our knowledge of the past and deepen our understanding of what happened. For knowledge we require facts. And for understanding we need to view historical actors in their own perspective – they had to react to developments without knowing where these developments would lead and without knowing what the end-results of their actions would be. Unlike us, they didn’t benefit from hindsight.

Collecting, preserving and presenting heritage, a historical museum also has to engage the public and educate people. It has to bring the past to life with limited resources, such as space and time. By concentrating on the Second World War, the Resistance Museum faces an additional challenge. There was no such thing as ‘the resistance’ in the Netherlands during the years of German occupation between May 1940 and May 1945 – not one united movement, a single membership organisation or a common strategy. Instead, many different individuals, groups and networks conducted many different forms of resistance. And not all of this can be presented in a single exhibition.

My first impression is that the new permanent exhibition – with its chronology, use of film and personal stories – achieves these aims. There’s attention for Jewish resistance, which has previously been somewhat overlooked. The space devoted to different people, including National Socialists, which has been criticised in some media columns, doesn’t strike me as unbalanced. But it’s early days; only time will tell whether the Museum succeeds in the long run.


Some of the publicity around the opening of the Museum has caused controversy. For example, about the using the word hero. ‘Hero’ or ‘heroine’ is a very subjective term, which has different meanings to different people. Its use suggests a value judgement being made, for example, expressing admiration.

During the 1980s I interviewed former resistance members, most of whom had so far never spoken publicly about their wartime activity. None of them wanted to be seen as heroic. They said they just did during the war what they felt that had to be done.

Furthermore, why denote people as ‘heroes’ when they took up arms, shot National Socialists and thus made a name for themselves, while overlook parents with children who couldn’t find a hiding place for their family, decided to let themselves be deported in the hope that they could continue to care for their children, and thus remained anonymous? Were they less courageous?

That’s why, like the Museum, in my work on Jewish resistance I’ve tried to avoid terms like ‘hero’ and ‘courage’, because the historian’s task isn’t to judge from a present-day perspective, which often distorts our view of the past. Instead, I’ve looked at group characteristics and personal circumstances that are measurable. Thus, I’ve found that Jewish resisters, for example people who saved Jews from deportation and cared for Jews in hiding, came from different population segments, differed in social position, age and gender, and ranged from individuals who were ideologically motivated to persons who simply wanted to help other Jews. Because they all fought against the odds, had a formidable enemy and constantly faced betrayal and arrest, resisters required a relentless energy as well as the ability to think quickly and act swiftly. They also had to be prepared to pay a heavy price – many of them lost their life.

Not new

Actually, controversy about wartime resistance isn’t new. Some resistance activity, such as the killing of traitors and collaborators, was already controversial during the war.

After the liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, what the Dutch still call ‘de oorlog’ (‘the war’) has remained a sensitive subject. For a long time a ‘goed of fout’ (‘right or wrong’) view has dominated various public and political debates about contemporary issues. This view was purposefully related to the period of occupation with a perception of there being a simple wartime choice between resistance that was right and collaboration that was wrong, pertaining that in modern matters a simple choice is still appropriate. That perception is factually incorrect. In reality, during the war, the choice whether or not to conduct resistance, if at all possible, was much more complex for the vast majority of the Dutch population.

Why has controversy flared up again? At present, as before, people try to make sense of who they are, what to do, the reasons for doing it and how to do it. They search the past for examples in the shape of persons and acts they can emulate. Wartime resistance members and their activity can provide these examples. They are easily labelled as ‘heroes’ and their acts are called ‘courageous’. That’s fine, because searching and labelling is what humans do. But idolising resistance members now says something about the present; it doesn’t explain the past. 

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Boxer in Auschwitz

The starting point of my research into Jewish resistance to the Holocaust was a series of interviews I conducted in the 1980s with surviving members of that resistance. They told me some remarkable stories, including the account of Dutch Jews who boxed in concentration camps.

‘The SS guy at the gate recognised me. “Pity you’re Jewish,” he said. He knew me as a boxer and I had to fight a match. Against a Polish officer, one of the last. Well, they didn’t force me, but I was told it would be better if I boxed. A friend of mine, another inmate, also said I should do it. So they could come and watch. He never got a chance; only SS guards were allowed to watch.’


Leen Sanders finds it difficult to tell his story. When I interview him many years after the Second World War, he still resembles the Dutch boxing champion he once was, fighting in the feather to middle weight categories, when he proudly wore the Star of David on his shorts. His formerly athletic and muscled body wears the scars of numerous fights – the thickened ears and a broken nose.

Well hidden under his shirt sleeve, he has another scar – the tattooed number of a prisoner of Auschwitz. As we talk, memories return of his wife, his two young sons, his family and his friends, who all peristed in the Holocaust. He starts crying silently, unable to continue. The former fighter is brought down by mental images of scenes that no human can describe.

Boxing was a popular sport in the poor Jewish quarters of prewar Dutch cities. Training and matches offered an escape from the daily routine. It also built self-esteem as the art of self-defence required courage, stamina, quick reactions and technical skills such as fist- and footwork. 


Boys like Leen Sanders entered the ring at an early age, in fights where the Queensbury rules were disregarded. Hard fighting continued until one boxer stayed down to satisfy the gamblers. Those who passed these early stages and kept their appetite for the game, joined clubs that occasionally produced fine skilled boxers.

From these ranks young men joined resistance groups after the Nazis occupied their country in 1940. They showed determination. ‘Do you think I would allow these Nazis to get me?’ asks another interviewee, Bennie Bluhm from Amsterdam. ‘No. When you’re a boxer, you think you’re stronger and faster. You’re self-conscious. We were young and in the strength of our lives.’

In February 1941, these men were able to prove their courage. Dutch Nazis started to terrorise the inhabitants of the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam. But the Nazis ran into defiance from Jews who were prepared to put up a fight. During the ensuing street battles the Jewish fighters managed to defeat the Dutch Nazis, but the German SS broke their resistance. Several of Bennie Bluhm’s friends were arrested. One of them was  Lard Zilverberg, a national fly-weight boxing champion who had organised Jewish fighting groups. Bennie saw a photo of his arrested friend, but never saw Lard alive again.

One of Bennie’s friends who initially escaped was Ben Bril.


Ben had been born in Amsterdam. As a young boy he fought on the streets, occasionally against the boys of the next neighbourhood. But when Ben joined a boxing school he learned to control himself and avoid street brawls. He was also taught discipline. Ben worked in a butcher’s shop, where he solely used his left hand, being right-handed, to chop meat and bones in order to strengthen his left jab. He distinguished himself in the fly-weight category at the 1928 Olympic Games, at the age of 16, and reigned for almost a decade as boxing champion of The Netherlands. In 1935 Ben won a gold medal at the Maccabiade in Palestine. He also started to wear a Star of David on his boxing shorts.

Ben and his family went into hiding after the deporation of Jews from the Netherlands started in 1942. In 1943, however, the family was betrayed and transported.

In a transit camp Ben was quickly labelled ‘The Boxer’. After the war a fellow inmate testified that Ben was ‘the only man I saw during 2.5 years in concentration camps or heard about, who risked refusing to carry out a formal order of the SS, yes, without any hesitation to refuse.’


When I interview him, Ben remembers: ‘They knew I was a boxer. At one point there was a roll-call. A boy had attempted to escape. In women’s clothing. He had been caught. The boy was placed in front of a rack and was to get 25 whiplashes. Suddenly, the under-commandant called: “Boxer austreten!”. I had to come forward to carry out the punishment. I refused. The commandant said: “If you don’t do it, you’ll get 50.” So I took the whip, but when I had to strike, I aimed too high. The commandant got mad. “Not so,” he cried, grabbed the whip and started beating like mad. I walked back to my line.’

Ben organised boxing training and matches to get some extra food for the boys. 

Meanwhile, Leen Sanders had been active in the resistance against the German occupiers of the Netherlands. He and his family went in hiding after the deportation of the Jews from the Netherlands started. However, they too were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz, where Leen’s wife and sons were murdered on or shortly after arrival.


Separated from his family, Leen used his boxing skills to survive and help others in Auschwitz. He explains: ‘It saved my life. I was given a job in the kitchen, providing I taught the boss how to box. I managed to get some extra bread, which I handed out among fellow inmates. I could save lives, because of the food. At my own risk. I had to hide it under my clothes. If you were causght, then, then … then they pushed you in the dirt; so far you’d never be able to get out. I was lucky.’

Again traumatic memories prevent Leen from continuing. After the war he received letters from people, thanking him for his help. He tried a come-back, but couldn’t box again. Just like many other Holocaust survivors, he was unable to return to normal life. Leen soon emigrated to the Dutch West Indies and from there to the United States. When I spoke to him, he had just returned to Rotterdam in Holland. An old man had come back to his birthplace to die.


An earlier version of this article was published in the Glasgow Herald: ‘The Boxer of Auschwitz’.

The journalist Matthew Kenyon wrote an article about Ben Bril for the BBC Sport website: ‘The Dutch Jewish boxing champion sent to Nazi camps by Olympic team-mate’.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Desperate but courageous

Eighty years ago the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands was well under way. After numerous measures had gradually segregated them from the rest of the population, Jews were ordered to wear a yellow star on their clothing. From July 1942 they received a summons for deportation. The advice was to pack suitable clothing and sturdy shoes, because they would be sent to a ‘labour camp in Eastern Europe’. An existing refugee camp in the east of the Netherlands, Westerbork, was turned into a transit camp. From there, the first transport to Auschwitz left mid-July 1942.

Jews had been involved in resistance from the start of the German occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940. The deportation increased that resistance and changed its character.


Not every Jew obeyed the deportation order. In total, almost 28,000 tried to evade deportation by going into hiding – one in every five Jews registered in the Netherlands in 1941. They refused to be terrorised by German threats and ignored the advice of the Jewish Council to obey (see The problems of hiding).

Many Jews in hiding were betrayed or discovered and deported, but more than half of them were saved by non-Jews and Jews, who operated individually or in small rescue and care groups that consisted mostly or entirely of Jews. Before July 1942 some of these groups had already looked after people in hiding, perhaps several hundred, but now that figure rose to thousands. The growing and constant demand for hiding places, falsified documents, news, food and other life essentials for people in hiding such as fuel caused an enormous extension of clandestine activity.

Find shelter

Student Judith Oostenbroek remembers that after she had helped her boyfriend to find a shelter in July 1942, she ‘was inundated with requests from others.’ So, she found more addresses where Jews could hide. And she often had to care for ‘her’ people in hiding. Not for a short while, but sometimes for over two and a half years.

Judith stopped studying (Social Work) and became a courier for several resistance groups, including the Oosteinde Group, which focussed on the care for people in hiding and the distribution of clandestine newspapers; it was named after the Amsterdam street where before the war a centre for Jewish refugees was located. Judith survived the war.


Another group operated in one of the main deportation centres of the Dutch capital and managed to rescue hundreds of children. Walter Süskind had been appointed as a manager in the centre. He had fled Germany in 1938 and lived from 1942 in Amsterdam. This spirited organiser used his position, knowledge of German and subtle ways of handling German officials to develop an initiative to smuggling children out of the centre. He closely worked with Henriëtte Pimentel who was director of a nursery across the road, nurse Virginnie Cohen who succeeded Henriëtte as director, and other nursery staff.

Adult Jews awaiting deportation were unable to leave the centre, but babies, toddlers and young children were taken daily to the nursery. Walter and his co-workers asked the parents whether they wanted their child to be rescued. The question was asked because the rescued children would disappear and they wanted to prevent parents from panicking when their child was suddenly gone. Following parental approval, the registration documents of the children were removed from the centre’s administration. Then they took the children over a path through the back gardens of the two houses next to the nursery to a Protestant school, where members of general resistance groups collected the children and took them to foster parents. Sometimes children were transferred on the street when the nursery staff had permission to take them for a walk in the neighbourhood. In this manner, hundreds of children were extracted from deportation.

Walter and Henriëtte couldn’t or didn’t want to go into hiding. Walter and his family went on transport towards the end of the deportation and succumbed in camps and on death marches, which the Nazis started after their evacuation of the camps during the advance of the Soviet armies. Walter died aged 38. After deportation in 1943, Henriëtte was murdered in Auschwitz, aged 67. Virginnie survived the war.

Against the odds

Jewish resistance people couldn’t save everybody, often not even themselves or their families. They not only fought against the overwhelming German military might, but also against the preparedness of the top of the Dutch civil service and other organisations to ignore the persecution of Jews or even support it, and against widespread indifference and incidental collaboration amongst non-Jews.

Furthermore, non-Jewish resistance groups, which were able to look after large numbers in hiding, only developed during the final two years of the occupation. By then it was too late for the deported Jews: the last large transport from Westerbork left in September 1943.


The powerlessness to stop the deportation turned Jewish resistance into a desperate, but courageous struggle.

Take, for example, Werner Stertzenbach, a Jewish refugee who was interned in Westerbork. He worded this despair when writing on 14 June 1942 to his girlfriend Stella Pach, a Dutch-Jewish course leader in vocational training in Amsterdam: ‘If you review the situation and possible outcomes, you may well come to the conclusion that we haven’t yet reached the nadir of our suffering.’ A few days later he added:

[…] I’m very downbeat […] I received a message from my parents, informing me that […] they have left on a transport to Poland. They write that what they’ve long feared is now happening […] It’s a tragic fate we all face […] Yes, we must realise that our life hasn’t yet reached its lowest point.

Werner was in touch with the Oosteinde Group. After the deportation of his parents, Werner helped more than 20 people escape from Westerbork and he was involved in another 20 successful escape attempts. For this purpose, he made use of the work he was forced to conduct on the sewage system of the camp. Part of the system was situated outside the barbed wire fence, where Werner was allowed to come. This way he could occasionally smuggle people out of the camp, mostly in a wheelbarrow or dump cart. These fugitives were awaited by warned members of the Oosteinde Group and taken to a hiding place.

In September 1943 Werner himself escaped form Westerbork, went into hiding and with Stella participated in the resistance work of the Oosteinde Group. They both survived the war.


Another German-Jewish refugee was Joachim Simon, who came to the Netherlands after the Kristallnacht in 1938. He was a member of the Palestine Pioneers, an international organisation of young Zionists who prepared for emigration to Palestine (see A pioneering group). Of the 820 Pioneers in the Netherlands in 1940, spread across different Pioneer centres, 393 survived the war, many with help from a group named after the non-Jewish teacher Joop Westerweel.

The Westerweel Group helped Pioneers in finding hiding places and supplied food ration cards and vouchers and false identity papers for more than 200 of them. They also set up escape routes to neutral Switzerland and Spain. About 150 Pioneers escaped from the Netherland with assistance from the Westerweel Group: 80 of them reached Spain, of whom 70 settled in Palestine.

Heated discussions

Joachim was one of the founders of this group, but his fellow Pioneers didn’t all agree with him about going into hiding. There were heated discussions – in the Pioneer centres and in letters – whether they had to hide and flee, as Joachim and other members of the Westerweel Group suggested, or whether they had to resign to the fate of deportation because of religious and cultural reasons. Should they face their destiny together with other Jews?

On 20 November 1942 Joachim wrote in a letter to a friend:

There’s so much to do. I do my uttermost to succeed, but who knows, maybe it’s too late and then I cannot do what’s necessary. Everything is so depressing, sometimes I don’t see an opportunity to persist. But you shouldn’t think too much. Even if everything seems almost hopeless, we may achieve something.

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 we’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.

Joachim did indeed have an accident: he was arrested just across the Belgium border during one of his journeys for the group to establish an escape route. Imprisoned, he probably committed suicide on 27 January 1943, aged 23.


The sense of powerlessness was also expressed in clandestine publications such as Lichting. The April 1943 issue of this publication contained the poem ‘Arrow’:

A word of thanks for this view?
I know that it
Was aimed at an early death
And born from it.
The Arrow indicating where to sail
Also points at that.
Soon, we’ll all be submerged.

The author was Edgar Fossan, a penname of Leo Frijda (see Love and tragedy). He was studying as a medical analyst in a Jewish hospital in Amsterdam. Leo had joined CS-6, a not specifically Jewish group, which conducted espionage and sabotage. After the start of the deportation CS-6 got involved in rescue and care work, but it also took further action to prevent the deportation of Jews. The group tried to set fire to a collection centre in Amsterdam for Jews who were transported to Westerbork. They also attacked a train intended for deportation. Both attempts were unsuccessful.


As a result, Leo’s personality changed dramatically, as happened to many other resistance people: from a quiet boy he turned into a roaring caged animal, undertaking actions that would have been unthinkable for him earlier.

Early 1943 he was one of the CS-6 members who started to kill Dutch Nazis and collaborators, including Hendrik Seyffardt, head of the Dutch Legion of volunteers in the Waffen-SS, and Herman Reydon, Secretary General of a Dutch government department. Leo was closely involved in their shootings, exactly how we don’t know; but it’s certain he killed two other traitors. Shortly after these assaults he was arrested, tried, sentenced to death and executed on 1 October 1943, aged 20.


The liquidation of collaborators and traitors was controversial, even in resistance circles, also because of the severe German reactions. As reprisals the Nazis randomly took hundreds of hostages and publicly executed them and other prisoners. Several resistance groups revenged these executions by killing more opponents. It created a spiral of lethal violence.

Other resistance organisations, including the Oosteinde and Westerweel groups, remained non-violent because of the reprisals or for principal or practical reasons, for example because they didn’t have access to firearms and explosives. Nevertheless, all Jews who individually or in small groups conducted resistance contributed to the Holocaust survival of thousands of Jews in Netherlands, among whom were many children.


A shorter Dutch version of this post was published in Geschiedenis Magazine (2022): ‘Joods verzet tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog: “Wij hadden de moed te vechten”.’

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

How many were involved?

After the publication of my book Individuals and Small Groups in Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust – A Case Study of a Young Couple and Their Friends (2022) I have been asked several times: How much Jewish resistance was there; how many people were involved? The answer is that we don’t know exactly.

An example: Jewish resistance members smuggled children out of a nursery in an Amsterdam deportation centre and took them to hiding places, but we’re unsure about precise figures.

However, since 1961 we have an idea. In that year the historian Jacques Presser published his thesis, stating that Jewish resistance in the Netherlands was as much overestimated by the German occupiers of the country as it was underrated by the Dutch population and that resistance by Jews in the Netherlands had relatively exceeded resistance by non-Jews. He based his thesis on the Roll of Honour, a list of fallen soldiers and resistance members. Presser had identified a large number of names on this list as Jewish. He also found hundreds of names of Jewish resistance members in the documents he examined in the course of the research for his work Ondergang (1965), a figure which he compared to what was known at the time about numbers of general resistance members. Presser didn’t mention exact figures, but on the basis of his thesis the following calculation can be made.


During the last pre-war census, which took place in 1930, over one hundred and eleven thousand Jews were in the Netherlands. They formed 1.41% of the total Dutch population of 7.83 million. In 1941 about one hundred and forty thousand Jews were registered in the Netherlands according to Nazi yardsticks (that represented 1.56% of the total population which had grown to 8.92 million).

According to the historian Loe de Jong, in his work Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog (vol. VII, 1976), in total an estimated forty-five thousand illegal workers were active in the Netherlands during the entire period of German occupation between 1940 and 1945. This corresponds with a half percent of the total population. De Jong defined an illegal worker as somebody who was active clandestinely as an individual or member of organised collectives in their resistance to the German occupiers.

In 1990, I mentioned almost a thousand names of Jewish illegal workers in my book Zelfs als wij zullen verliezen. That’s more than two-thirds of a percentage of the Jewish population in the registration of 1941, which confirms the second part of Presser’s thesis.

A low estimate

The figure of a thousand illegal Jewish workers I mentioned in 1990 is a low estimate. Since then, more research has been conducted, which has brought to light the resistance activity of numerous, but until then unknown Jewish resistance members.

In the above example of the people who smuggled children out of the deportation nursery, we knew that Walter Süskind, Henriëtte Pimentel and Virginnie Cohen were involved, but recently more information has come to light about the role of the last two women and another child carer, namely Betty Oudkerk, who with others all helped to save perhaps hundreds of children.

However, it’s presently impossible to give an exact number of Jews involved in resistance. Does that matter? I don’t think so. Figures are important, but to gain a greater knowledge about Jewish life during the Holocaust and get a deeper understanding of Jewish resistance we can also look at personal circumstances and characteristics of Jewish resistance members and the formation of small Jewish resistance groups. And that’s what I’ve done in the 2022 case study.


My 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.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

The problems of hiding

The deportation and extermination of Jews by the Nazis, as discussed at the Wannsee Conference, started in the spring of 1942. Jews who wanted to avoid deportation had to go into hiding. This post highlights the problems they encountered and the help they got from Jewish individuals and groups.

The first deportation train left the Netherlands in the night of 14 to 15 July 1942. Its destination was Auschwitz. By September 1943 more than 93,000 Jews had been taken from the Netherlands. This figure rose to about 107,000 in September 1944. Only a few thousand survived. Most of the others were gassed in the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor, often on arrival after a gruelling train journey in locked goods wagons or cattle carriages that lasted several days. The remaining victims died quickly, mostly of hunger and disease in slave labour camps.

In the Holocaust, 71 percent of Dutch Jewry perished; of the about 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands just over 100,000 were murdered by the Nazis. When Amsterdam was liberated in 1945, only about 5,000 of the more than 65,000 Jews who had lived in the capital of the Netherlands five years earlier were still living in the city. That loss of life was proportionally higher than in other western European countries.


Nevertheless, there was resistance. In July 1942 more than one-third of the total number of persons who were summoned for the first transport from Amsterdam refused to turn up. In other Dutch cities the disobedience was even relatively greater.

Ignoring the deportation order meant disregarding the advice of the Jewish Council, which instructed people to obey. It was outright dangerous, because if you were caught disobeying a German order, you were threatened with being sent to notorious concentration camps such as Mauthausen, from where nobody seemed to return. When despite the Council advice and the German threat, many didn’t show up at the deportation centres, the Germans took Jewish hostages as a reprisal. Later more Jews were rounded up in razzias on the streets or collected from their houses at night by Dutch policemen, including special units, who forcefully gathered many Jews from their homes.


For most Jews in the Netherlands it was therefore difficult, if not impossible to extract themselves from deportation. You could flee, but neutral or Allied territory was far away and hard to reach. The Dutch landscape offered little cover as the flat countryside had no large forests or deserted areas where you could hide. Going into hiding in the home of a non-Jew seemed the only plausible option.

However, you needed an awful lot to go into hiding. For a start, a shelter. Often the first place was close to your home, in towns or cities, with friends or colleagues. When this hide-out became unsafe, you had to find another. And how long would that one last? Nobody was able to predict accurately the time you had to hide — weeks, months, years?

For example, typographer Fré Cohen was determined not to be deported – she moved from hiding place to hiding place, but was caught and committed suicide.

Furthermore, you could only get food and other essential goods when you had official ration cards and coupons, but you no longer received these cards and coupons when you went into hiding. You might be able to buy food or ration documents on the black market, just as you could purchase falsified identity documents, but they usually were expensive. Few Jews had the financial means to pay for it all. You could steal or falsify documents yourself, but who had the ready skills to do that properly? And finally, without these papers you couldn’t go out on the street or travel by public transport because of frequent roadblocks and checks.


The problems grew infinitely worse for people who had children. There weren’t enough hiding places, never mind shelters for families. Often, they had to leave one of more of their children with non-Jewish helpers. That resulted in terrible dilemmas and questions you couldn’t answer. Can you hand over your child? Will it be safe with people you don’t know? How long will the child be secure with them? And after that? Would it be better to stay together and face fate? Similar issues arose with elderly parents and other family members. It was simply impossible to take them with you when you went into hiding.

Plus, there was the constant danger of betrayal or of being discovered by accident, and then your punishment would be severe.

One in five

Despite all the problems and risks, many Jews tried to hide. Possibly about 28,000 Jews went into hiding in the Netherlands (about one in every five Jews in the country). Almost 12,000 of them were betrayed, discovered and deported, which illustrates the difficulties Jews met when they tried to escape deportation.

Help from Jews

Many Jews in hiding were assisted by Jewish individuals and small Jewish rescue and care groups. There were several of these groups, including the Palestine Pioneers.

Jews helped other Jews avoid deportation, escape from transport trains, deportation centres and the main transit camp, Westerbork. Fleeing that camp was extremely hard. It has been estimated that in total just over 250 prisoners escaped. More than 60 of them were smuggled out of the camp by Jewish groups. These groups also looked after Jews in hiding, providing them for almost three years with safe shelters, false documents, clandestine publications and essential food.

Other Jews who had gone into hiding worked individually or within general resistance organisations. They all fought against their fate, desperately trying to beat the odds, but saving thousands of lives, so that in the end, the Nazis failed to reach the Wannsee aim – they couldn’t destroy European Jewry. 


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.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

Love and tragedy

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.

Post-war trial

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.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

A pioneering group

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.

Different units

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.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

An outstanding individual

Lodewijk Visser, who died 17 February 1942, was an outstanding individual. He defined what Jewish resistance meant and was a leading figure in that resistance.

The Nazis installed Jewish Councils to implement measures that resulted in the deportation and extermination of Jews, as discussed at the Wannsee conference. Lodewijk Visser was one of the most publicly outspoken Jewish opponents of these Councils.

He came from a privileged Jewish provincial background. Born in 1871 in the small town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands, Lodewijk graduated from university and obtained a doctorate in Law. However, his early career was jeopardised by discrimination. For several years the young lawyer acted as an advisor in the Dutch foreign ministry. He left that post in 1903, seeing no opportunities for promotion as a result of anti-Jewishness, which increased at the time of the Dreyfus affair in France.

After working in a law firm, he was appointed as a judge in a district court. Later the judge sat on the Dutch Supreme Court, becoming its vice-president in 1933 and president in 1939, losing that position in 1940, after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands.

The choice

Not known as religiously observant, the judge held several positions in pre-war Jewish organisations, for example, in Zionism, despite disagreeing with other Zionist leaders about fundraising matters. He was a typical Jewish establishment figure, comparable with the leaders of other population segments, who were prepared to take responsibility for their group, represent them and work with the authorities.

With the formation of the Jewish Council, Jewish leaders had to decide whether and how to work with the Nazis. Some choose for pragmatic cooperation and implemented anti-Jewish measures – sometimes under private protest – to avoid the Nazis executing the measures violently. In contrast, the judge emphasised the illegal character of the measures and didn’t accept the authority of the Nazis. He took a principled, legal stand, which resulted in resistance.

He wrote to the chairman of the Jewish Council:

It’s possible that in the end the occupier will achieve his aim [in relation to the Jews], but it’s our duty as Dutchmen and as Jews to do everything that will prevent him from achieving that aim, to refrain from anything that will pave the way for him.

The judge thus not only defined Jewish resistance, but he also set a personal example.

A personal example

When the synagogue where he lived was attacked by Nazis, he successfully urged the lay leaders of the congregation to continue the services. On the following Sabbath the judge walked demonstratively to the synagogue wearing a top hat and holding his prayer shawl and prayer book under his arm (in September 1941 he became chairman of the congregation).

He also refused his official identity papers because they were stamped with a J. The judge openly condemned segregation of Jews. He worked with people who published a clandestine resistance paper (his son, Ernst Lodewijk was a member of the group that produced and distributed the paper; he was arrested in July 1942 and murdered in Mauthausen).

When the Jewish Council on behalf of the Nazis threatened the judge with deportation to a concentration camp if he wouldn’t end his actions, he replied on 14 February 1942 that he took note of the threat but refused to sit still.

However, these were almost Visser’s last words; he died three days later.


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.

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.

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. 

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.


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.

Jewish resistance to the Holocaust

A fight for life

On 20 January 1942 top-ranking members of the SS and Hitler’s government met in a Wannsee villa. They came to the Berlin suburb to discuss the destruction of European Jewry. The conference turned Jewish resistance into a fight for life.

The Nazis had already massacred Jews in occupied eastern Europe and the Balkans. But now SS General Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office and deputy of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, stated that about 11 million Jews across Europe were to be annihilated. The figure included Jews in the Reich, occupied countries, other Axis and satellite states, neutral countries and the United Kingdom.

Heydrich said these Jews were to be deported to eastern Europe and submitted to forced labour. He omitted detailing the planned extermination but added:

a large number will doubtlessly be lost through natural reduction. Any final remnant that survives will clearly consist of the elements most capable of resistance. They must be dealt with appropriately, since, representing the fruit of natural selection, they are to be regarded as the core of a new Jewish revival.

This determination to destroy Jewry altered the nature of Jewish resistance.

So far, Jews had reacted in various ways to Nazi persecution. They upheld their religion and culture. They refused to be terrorised. They fought back. They protested loudly and publicly. They produced clandestine publications and helped distribute them, often with great risk to their own safety. They co-founded or joined general, that is not specifically Jewish resistance groups. Compared to non-Jews, a relatively large number of Jews joined these groups. They provided shelter, false documents and food for resistance groups. Jews were also forerunners of armed resistance.

All this activity continued, but now Jewish resistance became a desperate fight for life.

How Jewish resistance to the Holocaust developed and saved lives is described in a series of posts, to be published on this website over the next few months.


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.