The Netherlands in WWII : The Jews

This is the third post about impressions of American high school students of a presentation I did on the Netherlands in World War Two. Click here for the introduction to said presentation.

The Jews were by far the worst affected by the war. First they had to sew a star of David on their clothing, so they could be identified in public as being Jewish. Then they were not allowed on public transport. Then they weren’t allowed to enter certain stores. Eventually they were restricted to one area of the city, and in 1941 the deportations to concentration camps in Germany and Poland began. In Amsterdam alone more than 100,000 Jews were deported and less than 900 survived.

Those who couldn’t go into hiding or believed everything was just temporary, were taken to roundup camps in the Netherlands, like camp Westerbork, and from there they would go to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland.

Although I feel that the holocaust is the most important thing to learn from and about when it comes to World War Two, I didn’t elaborate too much on it, because I assumed the students would be learning more about it later on. I just focused on some aspects of the persecution of Jews in the Netherlands.

Most of them had heard of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who lives on in the diary she wrote while in hiding in Amsterdam. I also mentioned a book I read a long time ago, called The Footsteps of Anne Frank, by Ernst Schnabel. It follows Anne Frank via witness accounts to her death of typhoid fever in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April of 1945, months before it was liberated.

Everyone was excited to hear about this book, because they wanted to know what happened to Anne after she was taken by the Germans from her hideout.

Helping Jews was extremely dangerous, because if the Germans found out, you’d be interrogated (a.k.a. tortured) to find out who your contacts in the resistance were, and then you’d be put before the firing squad.

Jews hid in attics, like the couple on the right, in cellars, in crawl spaces, in barns, etc. Some Jewish children hid in plain sight on farms, and passed for cousins from the city whose parents wanted them out of harm’s way.

I also told the students a more personal story, of what happened to friends of ours. In 1965 our family emigrated to Australia. There, my parents befriended a middle-aged couple from Holland. I called them Uncle Ben and Aunt Gerda. To me, as a child, they were just this nice old couple, who had never been anything else but old.

My parents knew that Uncle Ben had hidden Jews during the war, and that that’s how he met Aunt Gerda, who was Jewish and had fled Germany into the Netherlands with her two children. That was about all they knew, because resistance fighters didn’t usually toot their own horn too much, and I imagine Aunt Gerda just wanted to forget.

Much later, when we were back in the Netherlands, my parents were on a day trip to the east of the country, and they visited a museum in a small town, and came across Uncle Ben’s name in a booklet about the town during WWII. It turned out that he ran an upscale hotel during the war, which was a popular stop for high level German SS and Gestapo officials on their way from Germany to The Hague and Amsterdam.

At the same time, however, Uncle Ben hid up to thirty Jews at a time in the cellar. To say that this would have required nerves of steel is no understatement.

This is where he met Aunt Gerda.

Her children were in hiding at a farm. It happened a lot that Jews in hiding were separated from their families, as it was easier for farmers to explain children, and it was harder to keep young children quiet in attics and cellars.


At some point while in hiding in Uncle Ben’s hotel cellar, word reached her that the farmer where her children were in hiding had been ratted out by a collaborator. Her children were deported and never heard from again.

After the war Ben and Gerda married and moved as far away as they could get.

The following are some comments of students after my presentation.

“The thing I found most interesting in the presentation was the treatment of Jewish people, where they were restricted and then attacked.  I felt the same way in Pakistan when the fundamentalists became powerful, because my family was treated different than other people because of being musicians and Sufis.”

“The biggest thing is for me in this presentation that has made the biggest impression on me was  the persecution of Jews.  They were frightened of German soldiers and threatened by them.  I can relate to this thing so I can feel how it would have been.  When we were in Pakistan we were threatened by Taliban; we were not safe there.  I can feel how it would be like to live where people don’t want to live with you and you feel unprotected.”

“I thought that the fact that people hid the Jews was interesting because I wonder sometimes about how they actually could get away with that.”

Later: Here‘s a personal account by an 80-year-old man who was in hiding as a child in the Netherlands.

The next post in this series is about the German occupation measures.

9 responses to “The Netherlands in WWII : The Jews

  1. How fascinating (and how sad) to hear the Pakistani children’s response to it all. What an amazing story about Ben and Gerda, as well. Hearing individual stories like that always makes it more personal and immediate. I think there should be more emphasis on stories like this — and on the stories of the Pakistani children — to remind people that there are very real, relatable people suffering and having their lives influenced by forces outside their control.


  2. Poor Aunt Gerda. What a horrifying thing to lose her children. And brave Uncle Ben. His story reminds me of Hotel Rwanda.


    • I still need to see Hotel Rwanda. Yes, brave and a little reckless, I think. He was young and only a young man who still has a bit of that “crazy student” in him would do such a thing, wining and dining the Gestapo and the SS upstairs while having thirty Jews in his cellar. Apparently sometimes the people in hiding would plead with him to let them out at night for some fresh air, and sometimes they’d be in the shadows of bushes and trees, looking up at the German bigwigs up on the balcony, and listening to the music.


  3. It’s great that you’re speaking about these matters, in which I have a long-standing interest. I’m old enough to remember the last 18 months of the Occupation, and although I am not a historian of the Netherlands I have read a good deal on the subject. I have recently translated Dagboek geschreven in Vught, by David Koker (1921-45). This translation was published a few weeks ago by Northwestern University Press with the title At the Edge of the Abyss: A Concentration Camp Diary 1943-1944, introduced by the noted Holocaust scholar Robert Jan van Pelt, a fellow ex-Netherlander and a fellow historian. It’s an absolutely fascinating document, offering a year-long view of life in the concentration camp between ‘s Hertogenbosch and Eindhoven that the Germans opened early in 1943. It served both as a regular concentration camp and as a transit camp for Jews.

    David Koker was a Jewish student and poet who landed there with his parents and his younger brother Max — he survived the war — in February 1943 and managed to stay there for almost 17 months because they were employed in the workshop that Philips opened in Vught in the spring of 1943. It’s very well-written and contains a number of David’s poems (translated by John Irons) as well as the only known description by any concentration camp inmate of a visit by Heinrich Himmler and his entourage.

    Robert Jan’s introduction contains David’s biography as well as a description of Jewish life in the Netherlands before and during the war. Anyone interested in the Holcaust should read this book. Robert Jan has also written a postscript describing David’s fate after the Koker family and the other Jews in the Philips workshop were deported to Auschwitz in June 1944.


    • Hi Michiel,
      thanks for the information about the book you translated. I’ve been debating translating some of the (much shorter) stories I’ve come across on the web about life in the Netherlands during the war, because I’ve found that the personal stories really bring it home much more effectively than anything else. I didn’t know you were a translator, too. Thanks for visiting.


  4. When I was growing up in the ’60s we had neighbors, a Dutch man who had married a German woman. Later I was told the story of how they had met.

    He was sent to Germany to a labor camp or factory to work for the Germans and the conditions, although not *as* bad as in the concentration camps, were really bad. He escaped and was taken in by farmers, fell in love with their daughter and they got married.

    When he got older he got senile and his mind went back to the time of the war and every time his wife spoke he cringed, because of her German accent. I can’t help to think “Poor people” and what they have gone through…

    Just wondering if you told the children about the “Februari Staking” (February strike) on Feb 25-26, 1941 where the population of Amsterdam stood up against the German invaders, the possibility of an NSB Government, and the deportations of the Jews?


    • How terrible. Poor guy! And his wife, too. Yes, I told the students about the February strike in the post about the resistance about the deportation of Jews in the post about the Jews. I touched briefly on the NSB in the post about the occupation, but I didn’t want it to be too dry for them, so I didn’t want to talk too much about political parties and governments.I focused mostly on what it was like on a daily basis for the Dutch people living under German occupation. Keep in mind, also, that I had less than 80 minutes to tell them everything I wrote in twelve posts!


      • Hello Barbara Backer-Gray! I have really learnt a lot about what it was like to live in the Netherlands during world war 2, and that’s all down to your posts. Thank You! I was just wondering, do you think that you might be able to answer some more questions I have on this topic? Its for a novel I’m writing and I haven’t been able to find the answers online. Tjanks again!


      • Yes, absolutely! There’s a lot of information online, but almost all of it is in Dutch. Just give me a list of topics or specific questions and I’ll research them for you. Those are the best writing prompts.


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