Opinion: Remembrance Day

POSTED: 05/6/14 10:51 AM

Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Minister Ronald Plasterk is apparently not a history buff, nor does he seem to be a fervent follower of the lectures the University of the Netherlands broadcasts on a daily basis. Otherwise, Plasterk would have known a better answer to a question he posed yesterday during Remembrance Day: How is it possible that so many Jews were deported from the Netherlands during the Second World War?

This is what Plasterk said: “Of course this was resistance, sometimes courageous and severe, but people also looked a lot the other way. How was that possible? And how do we make sure that this never happens again?”

In December 2003, Pim Griffioen and Ron Zeller presented at a colloquium in Amsterdam their comparative study into the persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The numbers are not pretty: of the 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands, 75 percent did not survive the war. Of the 66,000 Jews in Belgium, 40 percent perished and of the 320,000 Jews in France, 25 percent lost their lives.

In terms of percentages, the Netherlands does not look good and this has resulted in the perception Plasterk fueled yesterday. Historian Bart van der Boom recently tackled the prickly issue for the University of the Netherlands in a 13-minute video. “How come that so many Jews were deported from the Netherlands? That is due to the indifference of the bystanders. How do we know that those bystanders were indifferent? Because so many Jews were deported.”

Van der Boom calls this a circular argument – one that will only hold up if there are no other explanations possible. Griffioen and Zeller presented plenty of alternative explanations more than ten years ago.

One conclusion from their extensive study is this one: there was much more resistance against the deportation of the Jews in the Netherlands than there was in Belgium or France. Van der Boom notes that churches protested repeatedly, and that people protested against the dismissal of Jewish civil servants. “The University of Leiden went on strike and was closed down. Student associations preferred dissolving their organizations to expelling Jewish members. In 1941, there was the February strike in Amsterdam against the hunt for Jews. That was exceptional – it was the only strike by non-Jews in solidarity with the Jews,” Van der Boom points out.

On the other hand, the Netherlands had its share of black marks, like the Supreme Court that expelled its Jewish president.

That there was more protest in the Netherlands than in Belgium and France is not surprising, Van der Boom says. “In France there is much more anti-Semitism. In the thirties professional organizations already pleaded for expelling Jews. The Vichy regime took all kinds of anti-Jewish measures on its own initiative. And in Belgium the relationship between Jews and non-Jews was not as good as in the Netherlands, because they were almost all foreigners – recent immigrants from Eastern Europe.”

Griffioen and Zeller also looked at the nature of the occupying Germans. The Netherlands was under a civil administration. “The influence of the SS was immense and they were the most highly motivated Jew-hunters,” Van der Boom says. “They reacted inconsiderate to resistance. Belgium and France were under a military administration. They were much less ideologically motivated and they were more interested in order and peace.”

In France, surprisingly maybe, the Vichy-regime came (up to a point) to the rescue of the Jews. “They had no problem with the deportation of foreign Jews, but when the Germans wanted to begin with the deportation of French Jews in 1943, the Vichy-administration said: we don’t accept this,” Van der Boom says. “The military rulers yielded and said, let it be. For months there were no deportations from France. During that same period, 19 trains carried 34,000 Dutch Jews to Sobibor. Only 18 of them survived. The percentages would have been totally different if this had this not happened.”

The Jews in Belgium were mostly foreigners and they were used to anti-Semitism, unlike the much better integrated Jews in the Netherlands. So the Jews in Belgium arrived quicker at the thought of going underground than Dutch Jews that had more confidence in authority.

Van der Boom says that wanting to go underground is one thing – it must also be possible. In the summer of 1943, the Germans intensified their Arbeits Einsatz and started to use Dutch non-Jews for forced labor. Many Dutch went underground and this triggered an underground-industry with fake documents.

In Belgium the Arbeits Einsatz escalated much earlier. Result: the underground-industry caught on earlier as well and the Jews benefited from it.

All in all, it seems that Plasterk has missed this little history lesson. That is a pity, but it is never too late. Next year there is again a Remembrance Day.

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