Rewriting Jewish history in the Netherlands

Rewriting Jewish history in the Netherlands

Martin Raffel in Amsterdam with Esther Voet, editor-in-chief of the Dutch Jewish weekly Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad.
Martin Raffel in Amsterdam with Esther Voet, editor-in-chief of the Dutch Jewish weekly Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad.

My wife and I recently returned from an enjoyable trip to the Netherlands, with most of our time spent in Amsterdam. Of course, there are many worthwhile tourist activities there, including visits to the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, two of Europe’s signature art institutions. Yet, it will come as no surprise to loyal Raffel’s Riffs readers that I followed my own advice and incorporated a Jewish dimension into the trip (“International travel tip: Put a little ‘Jewish’ in your plans,” May 2, 2017).

Our primary interest was to explore the Dutch Jewish experience during World War II, and to learn about challenges facing the community today. In terms of the Shoah, one must begin with a visit to the Anne Frank House, which has become such a popular tourist destination that we were well advised to make a reservation several weeks in advance. I anticipated that to walk through the house and museum together with so many other people might detract from its impact. Yet the opposite occurred. To observe young people from across the world solemnly absorb Anne Frank’s tragic story, some with tears in their eyes, made my experience even more

Moving from room to room, a variety of thoughts flooded my head. I couldn’t help but wonder what Anne would say if she magically appeared before us right now.  “What are Jews doing today,” I believed she would ask, “to prevent children and families from going through the kind of agony my family and I endured?” This led me to reflect on the enormous effort the Jewish community relations field justifiably invested in the Save Darfur movement, which responded to the first genocide of the 21st century. I also recalled how it had angered me when, on occasion, someone complained that activism on Darfur diverted attention from real “Jewish issues” like Israel and anti-Semitism — as though support for Israel and seeking an end to a genocide were mutually exclusive.

We unexpectedly learned about a wonderful example of caring for people at risk in what turned out to be our favorite restaurant, d&a Hummus Bistro. Its Israeli owner has made a conscious decision to hire, as kitchen staff, Syrian refugees fleeing the genocidal violence in their country. When I praised her for this step, she said, humbly, “It’s simply the right thing to do.”

World War II material always conjures thoughts of my late father. Between July and November of 1944, the same period when Anne and the others in the house were arrested (Aug. 4, 1944), my father flew 50 missions as a B-17 pilot trying to defeat the Nazi war machine and bring to conclusion the long nightmare suffered by Anne and millions of others.

Another one of our stops was Amsterdam’s National Holocaust Memorial. There we met a woman who was sent as a baby to live with non-Jewish foster parents in the northern part of the country. Her mother survived the war, and they were eventually reunited; her father was killed in the camps. The memorial is in a popular theater in a pre-war Jewish neighborhood. The Nazis had used the theater and adjoining courtyard as a deportation center for Dutch Jews who were sent from there to Westerbork, a transit facility, where they were herded onto train cars and sent to Auschwitz and other extermination camps in the east.

Across the street from the memorial is the National Holocaust Museum, just two years old, on the site of a Dutch teacher training school where Jewish children were kept separately from their parents, who were held across the street in the deportation center.

Some 500 of the children were rescued from the school in a covert operation. Of course, a far larger number were sent to their deaths.

There are many other related sites in the city we would have missed had we not signed up for a special World War II walking tour, expertly led by historian Peter Schaapman of History Walks.

Anne Frank’s story might suggest that the Dutch people were exemplary in efforts to protect the Jewish population. But were they really? Out of 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the start of World War II, only 31,500 survived. I asked a couple of people about this and was told, sarcastically, if you ask the Dutch, nobody cooperated with the Nazis and everyone was in the resistance.

On that subject, another important venue to visit in Amsterdam is the Dutch Resistance Museum, which highlights the dilemma that faced non-Jewish Dutch citizens: accommodate, collaborate, or resist the Nazi occupation. The exhibits don’t have a definitive answer as to the percentage of gentiles who fell into each category, but one thing was certain — during the war, more than 100,000 people joined the Dutch Nazi Party.

I did some of my own research on this topic and found an interesting analysis from 2011, “A Founding Myth for the Netherlands: The Second World War and the Victimization of Dutch Jews,” by two scholars, Matthijs Kronemeijer and Darren Teshima, published in a book, “Reflections on the Holocaust.” The scholars explain that according to the post-war “myth” widely embraced by Dutch society, “all Dutch citizens, Jews and non-Jews, were victims of the national trauma that was the Holocaust.” By converting the Holocaust into a national trauma, they wrote, “the founding myth erased differences between victims and their victimization.” In fact, only a small percentage of the Dutch population participated in the resistance, they observed, “while the majority of the population stood by and did nothing.” This is a broader perspective, and I want to stress that nothing here should detract from the tremendous courage of those non-Jewish Dutch citizens who, like those who hid Anne Frank and her family, risked their own lives to protect Jews.

I also spent some time with my colleague Esther Voet to find out whether rising anti-Semitism in other parts of Europe was affecting the Netherlands. Voet, editor-in-chief of the Dutch Jewish weekly Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad, told me that the level of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands is relatively low compared to that of countries like France, Great Britain, and Sweden.

On the other hand, she noted, extreme anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise, and the BDS movement is making deep inroads into Dutch society. Recent research, she observed, shows that “BDS activism has penetrated churches, universities, unions, mainstream media, banks, pension funds, and politics.” Anti-Israel attitudes have united traditional adversaries like the church and political left, she said. “It’s uncomfortable at times to defend Israel, but silence in the face of unfair and disproportionate attacks on Israel only results in an increase in anti-Semitism rooted in hostility to the Jewish state.”

On an uplifting note, our visit coincided with Simchat Torah. We were privileged to attend a lively service at the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam, and it was especially heartening to see so many children dancing around the Torah scrolls with their parents and grandparents. Despite the horrors inflicted on Dutch Jewry by the Nazis, Am Yisrael Chai — the people of Israel live! 

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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