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.
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.
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”.’