Today was a sombre day. But a necessary one.
Today we learned about the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands and how that contributed to the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a persecution of races deemed inferior to the Nazi regime, including 108,000 Jews from the Netherlands.
Focusing on the experience of the Netherlands in particular during the war, there are two different perspectives. On one hand, the Dutch were firmly opposed to the Germans and often stubbornly refused to let the Germans change their way of life. The Dutch could be seen as victims in the war, suddenly invaded by a foreign nation and placed under oppressive rule.
While the Dutch were definitely victims of war, they weren’t the most vulnerable under the Nazi regime and the level of complacence in the Netherlands allowed the more vulnerable among the Dutch to be exposed – and by exposed, I mean shipped off from Amsterdam Centraal to concentration camps in Germany.
To provide some short context: The Dutch were invaded on May 10, 1940 and surrendered only four days later. The country was simply not prepared for being involved in the war, seeing as they had remained neutral in the first World War. The goal of the Germans was to get Dutch citizens to sympathize with the Nazi movement and join the Nazi party in the Netherlands. They did this by imposing a control on public opinion: banning political parties, adapting education to favor the Nazis, killing freedom of expression (newspapers, etc.). Other measures were imposed to help the Germans win the war, such as turning in everything made of metal for the war industry and relinquishing radios (because they were often tuned into Radio Orange, a broadcast from the Queen exiled in London).
However there was resistance to these measures. And later a small group of Dutch citizens risked their lives to go into active resistance including strikes, forging documents, organizing raids on food stamps, distributing illegal newspapers and media, and helping Jews in hiding. This resistance allowed the Dutch to feel proud after the war, having survived the Nazis without becoming them.
However, later in the 60s and 70s, more details emerged about the extent of terror in the Netherlands that made it difficult to maintain this rosy image. Most notably, there were 140,000 Dutch living in the Netherlands at the start of the war and 108,000 were deported to concentration camps, among which almost all were killed. The Dutch were unaware of the brutality of the Germans and what was happening to the Jews abroad. The Dutch, naturally, tried to make life go on even after the occupation. However, this meant that often the Dutch enabled the Nazis to locate, extract, and transport thousands of Jews. The Netherlands complied with a register of the population that told the government exactly where every Jew lived. The Dutch continued to run the trams and trains to transport the Jews.
It is a difficult situation. If the Dutch had resisted, that would have almost certainly resulted in more deaths and simply placing Germans in charge of more positions in the government and infrastructure. While in lecture I definitely sympathized with the position that the Dutch could do almost nothing.
However, while in the Resistance museum and seeing the details of the Nazi regime, it became clear that while the Dutch weren’t to blame, it is almost impossible to find their position to be honorable. So much tragedy was occurring! The passivity to the Nazis for so long made it possible for them to extract so many Jews. And perhaps the Dutch didn’t know exactly what was happening with the transported Jews but it can’t take too much ingenuity to know it must be horrible.
The three museums we visited during the day after lecture offered a good look at the progression of the life and experiences of the Jews in the Netherlands.
Jewish Historical Museum
The museum was dedicated to the culture, religion, and history of Jews in the Netherlands (and the world).
What I found interesting is that the museum actually opened in 1932 but naturally when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, they were forced to close and lost much of their collection. Luckily, it reopened in 1987 to a location of four Ashkenazi synagogues.
It was nice to explore the Great Synagogue in the museum and learn more about the religious aspect of Judaism. My first time in a synagogue was actually on this trip (in Antwerpen) so this is still a very new experience for me. I learned that Stadholder William V visited the Great Synagogue in 1768 and in 1924, Queen Wilhelmina, Prince Hendrik, and Princess Juliana visited the synagogue. The plaque stated that “Dutch Jews have always been grateful for the right to live in freedom in this country.”
The museum also featured an exhibition on Jewish contribution to sound and turntables. There was also a panel on Jewish art. Most moving was the room that explained the history from the Jewish perspective of the Nazi occupation.
I noticed that the second synagogue we visited featured chandeliers similarly to the ones I have seen in in the Old Catholic Church — Toon explained that it is a traditional Dutch style. I also had to where a kippah, a cap worn by Jews when entering a synagogue (or all the time as I learned).
The Resistance Museum
The museum presented a relatively detailed history of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. There were three questions the museum presented? Adapt, join, or resist. The Dutch had three options – they could join the NSB (Nazi party in the Netherlands), they could adapt to the conditions and continue to live as normally as possible, or they could actively resist the Nazi rule. We learned that very few chose to join the Nazis, which is a comfort. However, many instead chose to adapt and to continue to try to live.
Adapting to Nazi Rule.
While in retrospect it can be shameful for many that the Dutch were so complacent, for so long it seemed that there was not point in resisting (for risk of being killed). For JK Frederiks, the secretary general of Home Affairs, he stated : “If I step down, the highest positions of the Interiro Ministry will be taken over by NSB members. The rest will be the conscription of young Dutch men into the German armed forces. I don’t care if I am maligned by principled people.” Thus, many politicians and infrastructure workers continued to work, and thus inadvertently served the Nazi party.
And there also was active resistance at times. The February Strike of 1941 saw the entire city of Amsterdam shut down for two days. Unfortunately this resulted in massive raids and killings, squashing further rebellion.
I want to also mention some of the student resistance that occurred. The Nazis had dismissed Jewish teachers in the Universities and in 1940, students in Leiden and Delft went on strike to protest this dismissal. Many students were active in the resistance. In response, the Germans introduced a loyalty declaration early in 1943 which required each student to promise to refrain from taking action agains the nazis. A refusal to sign meant deportation to Germany.
The resisting students call on the rest of the universities not to sign the declaration and in a shocking success, 86% of students do not sign.
Naturally, the universities are shut down and more than half of the resisting students go into hiding.
From my unbiased profession of being a student, it makes me proud to hear to stories of students risking their lives and careers for what they believe in.
This museum was at times overwhelming with the amount of information and media presented to us. But in a way, it is a necessity. We may have been tired and it is not exactly enjoyable to learn about the atrocities of the before but it is crucial that we learn from the past. Too often, history is quickly forgotten and quickly repeated.
Anne Frank House
And at last, we visited the Anne Frank House – a sentimental peek into the life of perhaps the best-known Jewish author. For someone who wanted to be a writer, I am so glad that Anne Frank at last became famous for her writing.
I liked that the experience of the museum consisted largely of walking through the house with the audio guide, rather than hunting plaque after plaque to read a description. It also allowed us to hear the reenacted writing of Anne Frank which was inspiring. I have actually never read her book.
It is remarkable to me how Anne wrote at such a high level and with such a command over words. She and her family struggled through so much, after already having to move to the Netherlands. At the same time, she was one of the luckier ones in relation to other Jews in the Netherlands. She had an extra year or two with her family before being sent to Germany. It is such a sad pity that she died just a few weeks before she would have been liberated.
At last we were finished. I would like to make a final note that I wish there had been some mention of the other victims of the Holocaust. In addition to the Jews, there were millions of other victims that were deemed too inferior for the master German race. These included homosexuals, Romani, Pols, Slavs, and many prisoners of war that all were taken from their homes, tortured, and often killed. In the Netherlands most of the Holocaust victims were Jewish so naturally the choice of museums made sense but it would have been nice to have it mentioned somewhere that 6 million Jews is a gross underestimate of the full atrocity of the Nazi Holocaust. 11 million non Jews were also killed (cite). The huge numbers aren’t always the most important. As Stalin is quoted as saying, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Irregardless of the numbers, it is valuable to recognize all the victims of this great tragedy.