Manfred Gerstenfeld reviews: Hetty Berg and Bart Wallet, eds., Wie niet Weg is, is gezien; Joods Nederland na 1945 [Who Is Not Hidden Is Seen:1 Jewish Netherlands after 1945], Zwolle, The Netherlands: Waanders/JHM, 2010, 224 pp.
Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Published in JPSR Fall 2013, Volume 25
In November 2010, the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam launched an impressive exhibition on post-war Dutch Jewry. This collection of twelve essays with many illustrations was published concurrently with the exhibition.
In May 1940 the Germans occupied The Netherlands. The Jewish population numbered about 140,000. During World War II, the Germans deported most of the Dutch Jews, mainly to the death camps of Sobibor and Auschwitz, where over 100,000 were murdered. Most of the 5,000 who returned from the camps were those who had been in Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. A smaller number of Jews survived Auschwitz and made their way back to The Netherlands. In addition, some 16,000 of the original 24,000 Jews who went into hiding survived, while 8,000 were betrayed to the German occupiers mainly by Dutch collaborators. Survivors also included Jews who were married to Gentiles and therefore, were not deported and those who passed as non-Jews or found refuge abroad.
After the war, the surviving Jews had to rebuild their personal lives, reconnect with their families and reclaim their place in Dutch society. Part of this group reestablished and joined the reconstructed decimated Jewish communities. For decades, they remained nominally Orthodox, despite the fact that the majority of the members of both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious communities were not observant. At the same time, significant numbers of survivors chose not to identify at all with Jewish organizations because their wartime experience had made them wary of being “listed,” which could be life-threatening.
We shall review a few of the essays in this book. The editors acknowledge Dr. Joel Fishman, now a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, as the pioneer of the historiography of post-war Dutch Jewry. In his essay on the change in post-war government policies toward the Jews in the mid-1950s, Fishman demonstrates that during the first decade after the war, the reemerging Jewish communities were confronted with major difficulties. Dutch authorities frequently discriminated against them and only partially reversed the policies of the campaign of delegitimization and defamation that the Nazis and their local collaborators conducted against the Jews of The Netherlands. In 1955, ten years after the Liberation, a memorial meeting took place in the Amsterdam New Church (Nieuwe Kerk), attended by Queen Juliana, her husband Prince Bernhard and representatives of the government and main churches. At this commemoration, the Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam, Aron Schuster, declared that “an anti-Semitic ideology [Nazism] has left its traces in The Netherlands, even in circles where this had been inconceivable before.” Schuster is quoted as saying that the official government attitude toward the Dutch Jewish community was “as if we did not exist.” Fishman shows that ultimately most of the grievances of the Jewish community were rectified after a discreet meeting between Chief Rabbi Schuster and the president of the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament, Jan Anne Jonkman, a member of the Labor party. He points out that this meeting took place at the initiative of the Royal House and represents an exceptional intervention on the part of a constitutional monarch in Dutch political affairs.2
The chapter by Hetty Berg of the Jewish Historical Museum consists of interviews of one hundred Jews, mainly in The Netherlands and Israel, and records their life stories. Many of the interviewees were child survivors. Those born after the war, the so-called “second generation,” often recounted how they too suffered from trauma as a result of the emotional problems of their survivor parents.
Bart Wallet contributed a chapter devoted to the reconstruction of religious Jewry in The Netherlands between 1945 and 1960. He notes that the Ashkenazi religious community again became the dominant group. Immediately after the war, a new body, the Jewish Coordination Commission ( JCC), which was financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ( JDC, the Joint), played a leading role in the revival of Dutch Jewry. However, it could not maintain its position after the Joint withdrew its funding in 1947 and several of its members immigrated to Israel. What remained of the JCC was the Jewish Organization for Social Work (JMW), which, over the decades, has gradually become one of the most powerful organizations in Dutch Jewry. Another legacy of the JCC was the coordination of Jewish childcare, an important task as there were many Jewish war orphans. It is to his credit that Wallet mentions the long-forgotten history of the yeshiva (Talmudic academy) which existed in Leiden for several years.
Ido de Haan analyzes the role of prominent Jews in post-war Netherlands. Before the war, Jews had played an important role in many fields. Therefore, anti-Semites argued that Jews were over-represented in the country’s cultural, economical and political elite. This claim led to further anti-Semitic accusations, such as the lie that Jews formed a group that wished to impose its views on Dutch society. For example, in the 1930s, four out of six aldermen in Amsterdam were Jewish, while the Jews comprised less than ten percent of its population. During the post-war period, these anti-Semitic stereotypes occasionally reemerged. In 2010, a journalist falsely claimed that three Jews had formed a lobby in order to form a cabinet of the Labor party and the Liberals. The cabinet that was formed did not include Labor. Furthermore, one of the three “Jews” mentioned was Amsterdam Labor party alderman, Lodewijk Asscher, who had married in a church and whose father was Jewish. In addition, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen of the same party frequently has made a point that his Jewish background means nothing to him. Only former Liberal senator Uri Rosenthal identifies with the Jewish community. This disparity is but one of numerous examples that show that anti-Semitic stereotypes are still alive and well in Dutch society.
Before the war, there had never been a Jewish mayor in The Netherlands. After World War II, there were four Jewish mayors of Amsterdam and some in other cities. Their identification with Judaism varies greatly. The most Jewishly active was Amsterdam Labor party mayor Ed van Thijn who focused much attention on the fight against racism and anti-Semitism and made the annual Auschwitz memorial ceremony into an important date on the calendar of the municipality.
De Haan concludes that there is no common denominator regarding the Jewish identity of well-known personalities who identify as Jews, or are considered as such by parts of society. One may disagree with his conclusion that “Judaism occupies an important place in post-war Dutch society, not only because Jews cannot and do not want to forget [their Judaism] but also because non-Jews in various ways draw benefits or satisfaction from the cultivation of Judaism in the Netherlands.” In contrast, the following statement by Wallet seems closer to the truth: “From 1967 until 1990, the Shoah became the central iconic story of the Second World War in the Netherlands. The Jewish community turned into a kind of moral conscience for Dutch society in which it acquired an important role.”3
This pioneering book by Berg and Wallet provides a solid basis for further research on post-war Jewish history. Events of the past few years indicate that such research also may be useful in increasing our understanding of the place that Jews occupy in postwar Dutch society.
* * *
1. Expression from the Dutch children’s game of Hide and Seek.
2. Joel Fishman, “Een keerpunt in de naoorlogse geschiedenis van de Nederlandse joden. De toespraak van opperrabbijn Schuster in de Nieuwe Kerk (1955),” Wie niet weg is, is gezien. Joods Nederland na 1945, Hetty Berg and Bart Wallet, eds. (Zwolle: Waanders, 2010), 118–129.
3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Bart Wallet, “La Communauté juive hollandaise d’après-guerre: des enseignements qui prennent sens pour l’Europe entière,” http://lessakele. over-blog.fr/article-la-communaute-juive-hollandaise-d-apres-guerre-des-enseignementsqui-prennent-sens-pour-l-europe-e-112660443.html
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a former member of the Board of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as its Chairman from 2000–2012. He founded and directed the Center’s Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism program.