Confronting the Unthinkable: Finding the History of the Netherlands' Jews Nicolaas P. Barr Clingan
German troops enter Amsterdam, 1940, Public Domain
Through her famous diary, Anne Frank has come to symbolize Jewish innocence and victimization under the Holocaust. Few who are familiar with her story, however, are aware that her father, Otto Frank, had brought his family to Amsterdam from Frankfurt am Main in 1933 following Hitler’s rise to power. Like many German Jews, the Franks saw the Netherlands as a haven with a centuries old history of shielding Jews from anti-Semitic persecution.
Following the Netherlands’ independence from Spain at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews, or Sephardim, were drawn to the Dutch Republic by the promise of religious tolerance. Although they were excluded from the guilds, some of the wealthier Sephardic Jews prospered by bringing their trade connections to the Mediterranean with them. Success was not guaranteed, however, as many other Sephardim continued to struggle financially.
Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam, Cornelis Springer, Public Domain
Shortly after the Sephardim arrived, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, or Ashkenazim, fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Arriving just after the Sephardim, the Ashkenazim often met with even bleaker economic prospects in the Netherlands.
Yet over the next few centuries, Jews managed to establish a foothold in the Netherlands, becoming increasingly assimilated during the late nineteenth century. Amsterdam, in particular, employed large numbers of working-class Jews as it was the center of the diamond-cutting trade. The Jewish quarter there, centrally located around the Waterlooplein (Waterloo Square), became a lively area for Jewish housing, education, worship, and trade.
When the Frank family left Germany, they joined a vibrant (although not unified) Jewish community in Amsterdam, where the majority of Dutch Jews lived.
By the time the Nazis bombed the Netherlands in May 1940, forcing a swift surrender, some 80,000 Jews lived in Amsterdam. They now faced increasingly repressive measures under the Nazi occupation.
Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Reichskommissar, The Netherlands
The Nazis hoped to incorporate their “Germanic” neighbors into the future Reich, but while some Dutch Gentiles embraced National Socialism and formed a domestic Nazi association, this attempt fell largely flat. In February, 1941, a massive strike was organized to protest the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews—one of the only major public expressions of Jewish-Gentile solidarity to occur in occupied Western Europe. But after the Nazis violently suppressed this strike, the precarious security of the Dutch Jews, built over the centuries, swiftly evaporated.
Of course, the worst was yet to come. From 1942 to 1945, approximately 100,000 of 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands, or nearly seventy-five percent, would perish in the Holocaust, the highest percentage in Western Europe.
The Netherlands’ efficient police and civil service were used to transport Jews to the eastern transit camp of Westerbork and to concentration and extermination camps, including Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen (where Anne Frank and her sister Margot died of typhus), Sobibor, and others. Adolf Eichmann allegedly said of the trains leaving the Netherlands, “The transports run so smoothly, it is a pleasure to see.”
Memorial, Westerbork Transit Camp, Public Domain
In the initial postwar decades, an image of Dutch victimization under the Nazis predominated. Much of the population tacitly identified itself with the anti-fascist Resistance, in contrast to the fascist minority who had collaborated. Those who didn’t collaborate were implicitly goed or “good,” and those who did collaborate were fout, or somewhat euphemistically, “on the wrong side.”
During the 1960s, knowledge about the true extent of the Holocaust expanded. In the Netherlands, the Dutch-Jewish historian Jacques Presser published his ground-breaking work, De Ondergang (Downfall, translated as The Destruction of the Dutch Jews) in 1965. Commissioned in 1950 by the Dutch government, De Ondergang became an immediate bestseller. This work demonstrated that most Dutch had adopted a posture of complacency and indifference towards the Jews during the Holocaust.
The reasons for the high Dutch deportation level are complex, and one should avoid decontextualized comparisons to, for example, the inspiring case of Denmark (where the overwhelming majority of Danish Jews were saved).
Unlike other countries occupied by the Nazis, the Netherlands was directly occupied and administered by the ideologically-zealous SS, rather than the Wehrmacht. Because the Nazis intended to incorporate the Netherlands directly into Germany, a rigorous commitment to making the Netherlands judenfrei or “free of Jews” was implemented.
Entrance Gate, N.P. Barr Clingan
Some Jewish survivors did survive the Holocaust and return to the Netherlands, most notably Otto Frank. Recently, Amsterdam even boasted a popular Jewish mayor, Job Cohen. Yet much of prewar Dutch-Jewish life is now irrevocably gone. To this day, historians and the wider public have continuously probed, assessed, and reflected on this troubling legacy.
Away from the crowds at the Anne Frank Museum, one can find a fascinating remnant of this loss. From the edge of the Indische Buurt (Indonesian neighborhood) and Zeeburg in the borough of Amsterdam-Oost, one crosses a bridge over a marshy canal and enters the city’s Flevopark through a stone gateway dated 1770 (although the stones used were actually transported from elsewhere in the city and rebuilt).
This park, developed in the early twentieth century by the naturalist J. P. Thijsse, now incorporates the site of one of Amsterdam’s two traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cemeteries. Built for poor Jews who could not afford graves, the Zeeburg Cemetery, which can be easily overlooked by the casual observer, served the Jewish community of Amsterdam for over two centuries.
Zeeburg Sign, N.P. Barr Clingan
A small sign near the entrance explains: “Between 1714 and 1942, an estimated 100,000 members of the Jewish community were buried here. Only a few of these graves still have gravestones.” Although the sign does not explain why burials here stopped in 1942, this year marked the beginning of mass razzias (raids), and deportations.
In a curious parallel, the number of Dutch Jews who would be killed by the Nazis was approximately the same as all those who had been buried in Zeeburg in the previous two centuries, which gives a sense of the immense scale of the destruction of the Dutch-Jewish community—itself only a small fraction of the Holocaust’s death toll.
In the middle of Zeeburg Cemetery, one of the surviving gravestones reads in Hebrew: “May this resting place remain undisturbed in the future.”