A recent apology to the Jews by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte for Holland’s war-time complicity with the Nazis, has re-opened a painful chapter of the Holocaust.
“Since the last survivors are still among us, I apologize today in the name of the government for what the authorities did at that time,” Rutte said. “Our government did not act as the guardian of justice and security.”
It was the first time a prime minister of the Netherlands acknowledged the heinous role of the Dutch police in rounding up and deporting over a hundred thousand Dutch Jews to the death camps.
Rutte, in office since 2010, has resisted calls for issuing such an apology, including by Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs in 2015 and by the Party for Freedom in 2012. Rutte always claimed there was not enough “objective information” upon which to determine the Dutch government’s culpability in the destruction of the Jews.
Of the Netherland’s pre-war Jewish population of 135,000, seventy-five percent were murdered in the death factories of Auschwitz and Sobibor. Of the 24,000 Dutch Jews who were in hiding, 8,000 including renowned teenage diarist Anne Frank and her family, were betrayed to the Nazis.
Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the government has finally acknowledged this inhumane conduct.
“Too many civil servants carried out the orders of the occupiers,” said the prime minister after having taken part in a silent march in January commemorating the victims of World War II.
“The bitter consequences of the drawing up of registers (of Jews) and of the expulsions have not been adequately recognized,” he said. “Seventy-five years after Auschwitz, anti-Semitism is still among us. That’s exactly why we fully recognize what happened and say it out loud.”
Dutch Railway Acknowledges Guilt in Shipping Jews to their Death
The government’s apology was prompted in part by a decision last July by the Dutch state-run railway [NS], to pay millions of dollars in compensation to Holocaust victims and their families, after accepting responsibility for transporting huge numbers of Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
The company built a new rail line during WWII and over time transported more than 100,000 victims to Nazi concentration camps.
After being expelled from their homes, plundered of all their possessions, and driven onto death trains, the Jews’ were subjected to a final humiliation; they were forced to pay for their death ride to Sobibor, Auschwitz and other killing centers.
The payment, collectively amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars (equivalent to many millions today) was stolen from the Netherlands’ Jewish Bank and the Dutch railway took its share.
The NS apologized years ago for what it called “a black page in the history of the company,” but failed to come up with any program for compensation. Finally, in July 2019, after pressure from Holocaust activists and survivors, the railway committed to paying over $74 million in compensation to surviving Holocaust victims and their families.
While the NS’s reparations proposal was met with effusive praise in many quarters, survivors noted that decades of foot-dragging had ensured that the majority of Dutch victims were no longer alive to benefit from the agreement.
Alfred Kurz, an elderly Jew who in 1943 was transported by the Dutch National Railway to Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, said he was glad that “something was finally done,” but was “very critical of the timing.”
Kurz, who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., told the Jewish Week that “the money at this point is meaningless. I’m 82 and one of the youngest survivors around. Ninety percent of those who survived are dead. Just the fact that they waited 70 years to make restitution for their bad behavior is a travesty. “
Kurz said he was six years old at the time, living with his family in Amsterdam. He remembers the Nazis “did a block-by-block roundup of the Jews. They came with sirens and dogs to rouse people out of their houses and onto the train. We were taken – my mother, sister and I.”
The train took the prisoners “about 100 miles” to a transit camp at Westerbork at the country’s border, recalled Kurz. From there, the Nazis put them on transports to killing centers outside the Netherlands. Kurz said his father had been taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz almost a year earlier and was killed there after about a month.
A pervasive myth of the post-war years in the Netherlands was that a great majority of the Dutch people had showed solidarity with the Jews, identified with their suffering, and had taken risks to help them.
The image of the compassionate Dutch has been reinforced by the impressive number of Dutch rescuers honored at Yad Vashem and cited at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Of all the nations of Europe, the numbers of Dutch heroes are surpassed only by Polish ones, writes Holocaust researcher Frank Bovenkirk.
Another factor contributing to the Dutch’s war-time image as noble rescuers is the fact that the Netherlands was the only country occupied by the Germans in which citizens participated in a general strike (in February 1941), mainly to demonstrate solidarity with the Jews.
In addition, Dutch student resistance managed to save three or four thousand Jewish children from certain death, by lodging them with foster families for the duration of the war. Under the Nazis, this was a crime punishable by death.
Lastly, there were no extermination camps in The Netherlands, and the Dutch did not actively participate in the killing of Jews. The mass atrocities, for which the Nazis had so many willing executioners in the occupied countries, did not take place on Dutch soil.
Annihilation of a Community
Yet the sheer magnitude of the destruction of Dutch Jewry overrides claims of staunch Dutch resistance to the Nazis. The image of heroic rank-and-file citizens protecting their Jewish countrymen begins to crumble in the face of the sweeping decimation of the Jewish community, and how it was carried out.
The historical record clearly attests that those who helped save Jews in the Netherlands comprised a small minority. The Nazis found little resistance to their occupation. The Dutch police and civil service and the national railway company were widely complicit in hunting down Jews and transporting them to killing centers.
No country in Western Europe had a higher percentage of its population voluntarily joining the ranks of the Nazis than the Netherlands, attests historian Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The flight of Holland’s Queen Wilhelmina and her top ministers to England days before Holland’s capitulation to the Nazis, cleared the way for the Dutch government to march in lock step with Nazi orders.
From her refuge in London over the next five years, Queen Wilhelmina made many speeches to her countrymen, infusing them with hope for victory and liberation. In all those speeches, “there was a total of five sentences about the Jews,” writes Gerstenfeld.
The laying of the groundwork for genocide began in the Netherlands with the typical Nazi pattern of social and economic discrimination against the Jews, followed by segregation. Jews were ousted from their jobs and professions and their freedom of movement restricted.
These ominous steps were followed by the identification and registration stage, in which meticulous lists were drawn up of all Jewish residents along with their addresses. Laws were then enacted requiring Jews to wear a yellow star on the armband, and have “J” officially stamped in their passports.
The Dutch bureaucracy assisted in all these stages. Assisted by the Dutch Jewish Council (who did not realize to what extent their efforts would be suicidal), Dutch authorities assembled comprehensive lists of all Jews residing in the country, identifying them by name and address.
Then came Nazi edicts confiscating Jewish property under a legal pretence of “registering” it, prior to the “resettlement” of the Jews.
The Dutch banks took an active role in the registration (and later partial confiscation) of massive amounts of Jewish property and assets, estimated by some historians as exceeding $12 billion in current values.
Until the death trains left Holland, the Nazis made limited use of their own troops, relying instead on Dutch policemen to do much of the dirty work. Dutch police arrested and rounded up the families, forcing them to board trains that transported them to the Dutch internment camps at Westerbork and Vught. There, Dutch guards carrying out Nazi orders prevented anyone from escaping.
From these transit points, the Jews were shipped directly to Auschwitz, Sobibor and Bergen Belsen. Only 5,000 survived. In Amsterdam, alone, 66,000 of the 80,000 Jews were murdered.
The systematic looting of Jewish properties had begun well before deportation, greatly enabled by Dutch banks. On German orders, Dutch banks sent out forms to Jewish clients “legalizing” the transfer of their deposits to LIRO, the bank the Nazis created to expropriate money from the Jews.
“Many Amsterdam stock market traders made good profits on the sale of shares and bonds stripped from the Jews,” notes historian Gerstenfeld.
Much of this collaboration came to light in the late 1990s as the Netherlands, following the lead of other European governments and in response to pressure from the United States, began to face up to some of its shameful wartime practices.
Postwar Abuse of Survivors
As the image of the “benign rescuers” began to unravel, the Dutch also had to deal with the issue of their immediate postwar attitude toward broken, impoverished death camp survivors.
This vulnerable group was given an ice-cold reception, reflected in post-war outrages committed by Dutch authorities.
“As soon as you registered after staggering back from the camps, you received a government notice demanding back taxes,” attested Dutch survivor Rabbi Joseph Polak, author of After the Holocaust, the Bells Still Ring, in an interview with Yated.
Polak and his mother survived Westerbork and Bergen Belsen, and were liberated from a death train by Soviet troops.
“The Dutch government also did nothing to compel insurance companies to honor policies survivors were entitled to,” Polak recalled. “My mother was refused on the ground that she hadn’t paid premiums during the years she was imprisoned in a death camp. The company was allowed to get away with this.”
The survivors were further hurt by the immoral application of Dutch inheritance tax laws. These laws allowed the state to claim a significant part of the assets of those who were murdered, instead of turning them over to their heirs.
Plight of Jewish War Orphans
Of the tiny Dutch survivor population, the most vulnerable were Jewish war orphans and children who had survived the war in hiding. The government’s indifference to their plight left them in dire straits. The survivor community had to wage an exhausting battle against apathetic or hostile government commissions that resisted returning these children to family members or relatives.
For decades, the Dutch denied any wrongdoing by the wartime government and refused to pass restitution legislation to enable survivors to reclaim their property. The stonewalling continued until books, documentaries and personal memoirs by Dutch survivors began to exert an impact, slowly eroding the narrative of heroic Dutch resistance under Nazi occupation.
In the face of mounting international pressure, the government’s stance on the issue of reparations began to shift. After prolonged negotiations, a restitution package was finally agreed upon in 2002 between survivor groups and the Dutch government, Dutch banks and insurance companies.
Noticeably absent amidst all these negotiations was any verbal acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
A Child Survivor Speaks Out
Not quite three years old when he was liberated from a Bergen Belsen death train, Dutch-born Rabbi Joseph Polak recounts a unique story of survival in his award-winning book, After the Holocaust, the Bells Still Ring.
Polak’s story of redemption is as miraculous as it is unfathomable. Infants and toddlers caught up in the Holocaust were the least likely to survive. But the thrust of the book is that for Polak, as for many survivors, liberation did not wholly liberate.
That is because the inner “holocaust” began where the outer one ended, as survivors battled for years to free themselves of their demons. These often took the form of society’s skepticism, ignorance and disbelief about horrors and atrocities they had lived through.
Having their war experiences invalidated, even mocked, often led survivors to question themselves and their grip on reality. Child survivors, particularly, were affected this way.
Presumed too young to have understood the horror, the terror and finality of death, these children began to doubt their memories and even their sanity, writes Polak.
In Bergen-Belsen, little Joseph Polak had wandered by himself among piles of corpses. He had witnessed indescribable evil and human anguish, although he was too young to articulate what he absorbed. After liberation, he was told he could not have been where he said he was; that he could not have seen the things he recalled, and survived.
Polak describes his mother sending him to shul as a six-year old to say kaddish for his father, who had died shortly before the war’s end. This was in Montreal where they had settled a few years after the war.
“No one asked that little boy why he was there, for whom he was saying kaddish, where his family was,” he recalls. “Total silence. This was the Jewish version of Holocaust denial. It felt like negation, and was profoundly disturbing.”
Escape from Death Row
Today an av beis din in Boston as well as Assistant Professor of Health and Law at Boston University and the head of a beautiful family, Rabbi Polak explains how the atrocities perpetrated against Dutch Jews began very slowly, in stages.
The early ones such as having one’s name, address and profession listed by Dutch authorities, appeared innocuous and sparked no protest.
But these official lists later became the deadly instrument used in the methodical pre-dawn roundups. Brandishing their lists, Dutch police and SS men arrested tens of thousands of Dutch Jews, block by block, building by building, and herded them to Westerbork transit camp in Holland.
Westerbork was a relatively well-ordered place compared to the depravity of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor and other death factories. People were fed, given a place to sleep and allowed to stay in family groups.
But the trappings of civilization in Westerbork–except for the barbed wire encircling the camp—posed the ultimate deception, reveals Polak. This ruse was aimed at lulling the Jews into boarding the death trains without resistance. Although fearful, they tried to cling to the Germans’ assurance that they would be “resettled.”
The trains ran every Tuesday morning. From Westerbork, the infamous lists were consulted by Dutch police whose job was to select a thousand prisoners every week for the freight train ride that took them to a destination unknown.
The fact that the elderly and infirm Jews were thrown together with the young and healthy signaled for some an obvious conclusion; the destination couldn’t possibly be a labor camp as promised.
“Many intuited that they had been sentenced to death, even though they did not yet know when the execution would take place, or by what means,” wrote Polak.
“At Westerbork, you lived on death row…trembling from the roar of imminent death in your ear…”
- • • • •
Decades later, returning to his birthplace for the first time, Rabbi Polak found himself in Amsterdam at the War Historical Institute, staring in disbelief at the infamous prisoner lists compiled in Westerbork more than half a century before.
Neatly preserved on microfiche, the fluttering lists of names, including those of his parents, bore the last earthly trace of tens of thousands of Dutch Jews who had been turned into ash in the killing fields of Sobibor and Auschwitz. Pondering the miracle of his survival, he visited the house where he was born, and a city called Troeblitz where his father was buried in a mass grave.
- • • • •
“So after 75 years there’s an apology…” the Boston-based rabbi mused in his conversation with Yated. “You’re asking how I respond to that?”
“Let me say this,” he said heavily. “Nobody betrayed the Jews like the Dutch. Jews in Holland suffered the highest percentage of destruction after the Jews of Greece. Over 100,000 murdered. Think of what that means, how so few were saved. Think of the level of betrayal and cruelty that made those numbers possible.”
We Opened A Museum, We Have Statues. Be Satisfied.
Another Dutch survivor, Salomon (Salo) Muller, had been campaigning for the reparations for years. His parents were transported from Amsterdam to the Dutch transit camp, Westerbork, before being taken to Auschwitz. In an interview with CBC Radio, Muller talked about his efforts to obtain compensation from NS, the Dutch railway company. Part of their conversation follows below.
Interviewer: Mr. Muller, in 2005, the rail company NS apologized for its role in transporting Dutch Jews to concentration camps. You weren’t satisfied with that apology. Why not?
Muller: All the Jewish victims lost their families, their children, their wives, their husbands. [The survivors] said to the railway, “You need to apologize. Better. Stronger.” They answered, “No, why should we? We did that and we did so much more. We opened a museum. We have statues at several places. So be satisfied.” But survivors were not satisfied with museums and statues and the whole story died. Until four years ago.
Interviewer: What happened four years ago?
Muller: For years I was thinking how the Jews who were sent to the camps had to pay [for] their own tickets. The railway sent bills to the Germans and the Germans stole from the Jewish bank. From that money, and all that jewelry and gold taken from the victims, they paid the Dutch railway. It came to much, much more than you think.
And four years ago, I read an article in the paper about the French railway [that deported French Jews the same way] that finally decided to give compensation to French Jews in America. I said, “If the French railway is owning up and paying back, why not the Dutch railway?” And then, I start writing letters about my story, my wife’s story…and about other Jews from Holland.
Interviewer: Mr. Muller, what was the extent of NS’s responsibility? Did management know the passengers they were transporting would be killed?
Muller: Oh yes. Mr. Roger van Boxtel, the president director, said, “Yeah, we knew it.” Letters were found from Dutch Jews asking the railway, “What happened with the Jews you took away? Where did you take them?” And they answered, “They were killed. We couldn’t’ stop it. We’re not responsible.”
Interviewer: And the rail company profited from that?
Interviewer: Can you tell us the story of what happened to your family? What do you remember of your parents being seized and then taken from Amsterdam by train?
Muller: I was six in 1942… My mother brought me to school and said, “See you tonight and be a good boy.” That’s the title of my book in English. My father and my mother were working at the same company. When they arrived, a German truck stood in front of the door and all the Jewish employees were herded into the truck. They were first sent to the Dutch theater [where Jews were forcibly assembled prior to deportation].
The same night, when I was at the home of my uncle and aunt, there was a knock on the door. Two German soldiers and a policeman had come to round up all the Jewish people from the houses and streets. They took us all in a truck to the same theater. And I spotted my father and mother standing on the stage.
Interviewer: You saw your parents?
Muller: Yes, I ran to my mother and held onto her hand but a soldier and a nurse came over and pulled me away. I was crying and screaming for my parents for four days and nights…. They were taken with other Jews to Westerbork. And after nine weeks, they were sent to Auschwitz. I was twelve years old when a letter came from the Red Cross stating that my parents died in Auschwitz. I had been praying all those years that they were alive.
Interviewer: Mr. Muller, I am so sorry for what happened to you and your family. What have you heard now from survivors about the amount of compensation? Are people telling you that that compensation is appropriate?
Muller: I received hundreds of [pieces of] mail from survivors and children of the survivors. They were satisfied.