Part II: Occupation and the Holocaust
After Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany in 1933, Dutch Jews still continued to lead normal lives that were increasingly indistinguishable from their fellow city dwellers throughout much of the 1930s. But when the first German refugees began making the short journey across the border to Groningen, the Jewish men and women of the north grew increasingly alarmed.
“The arrival of the German Jews made the threat in Germany all too real for many Groningen Jews, evoking feelings of fear, disbelief, resistance and recognition because these were ‘civilized’ Jews who were similar to them”, professor Stefan van der Poel writes in “Jewish Life in Groningen”. That fear and resistance informed the initial standoffish reception that some German Jews faced when seeking refuge in the Netherlands. “The Groningen Jews feared that other Jews would somehow jeopardize their own position in society, and they often kept them at arm’s length”, Van Der Poel writes.
But Jewish religious life continued more or less as normal throughout the ‘30s: in 1935, Abraham Salomon Levisson was appointed the Chief Rabbi of Friesland, and his rabbinical duties also covered Drenthe. As more and more Jews fled Germany, Rabbi Levisson’s responsibilities shifted and he became very active in refugee relief efforts.
After the Kristallnacht, the German campaign which destroyed synagogues and Jewish shops and left scores of Jewish people dead in 1938, another wave of refugees sought shelter in the Netherlands. “But the doors were closed to them”, writes Harm van der Veen, author of “Westerbork 1939 – 1945: The story of refugee and deportation camp Westerbork”. “The only people who were allowed in were those who could prove that their lives were in immediate peril.”
The limited numbers of refugees who were allowed in were placed into rotating camps that would open and close unpredictably – many of which were privately funded by Dutch Jewish citizens – and eventually, the Dutch government decided to open a central refugee camp. But finding a location for the camp proved challenging due to local objections.
The first potential location was Elspeet in the Veluwe, but the ANWB – Royal Dutch Touring Club, a travellers’ association which still exists today – objected on the grounds that a refugee camp would drive tourists away. Another idea was to open a camp 12 kilometres away from ‘t Loo palace, but Queen Wilhelmina (via a secretary) personally wrote to the minister of the interior to protest such a facility so close to the royal residence. The government finally settled on a stretch of land owned by the Dutch forestry service in Drenthe. “Isolated, wild, desolate and empty… ideal for the Central Refugee Camp”, Van Der Veen mirthlessly notes.
In August 1939, construction began on the camp, and the first Jewish refugees moved in on 9 October 1939. By April of 1940, there were 749 refugees living at Westerbork. The facilities were decent – lodgings were comfortable and food was fairly readily available – and there was talk of eventually building a school and a hospital. But the Drenthe terrain remained rough: muddy and flecked with puddles in the winter and susceptible to sand storms in the summertime. The winters during the first years of the Nazi occupation in the camp were extraordinarily cold: in a jarring sign of how life continued largely as normal for many non-Jewish Dutch citizens during the war, there was even an Elfstedentocht ice skating race held in 1940, 1941 and 1942.
Rabbi Levisson regularly visited the camp to provide moral support and spiritual guidance to the refugees living there. As reports came in of German forces drawing closer to the Netherlands, he informed the camp inhabitants, unnerved by Westerbork being a mere 30 kilometers from the border, of an escape plan: if the Germans entered Drenthe, he would help them to escape to the unoccupied provinces in the south and west.
On 10 May 1940, German forces crossed the lightly defended Dutch border. Levisson “travelled to Westerbork and helped the refugees into a train headed west, but a rail bridge near Zwolle had been destroyed”, Hartog Beem writes in “The Jews of Leeuwarden: History of a Jewish cultural centre”. They rerouted via Leeuwarden and tried to reach the Afsluitdijk, but the 700 people didn’t make it further than the Frisian capital. The refugees were taken into homes in Leeuwarden and the synagogue became a temporary shelter, but their stay in the city was short lived: they were returned to Westerbork on the 27th of May. On the 1st of July, the camp officially fell under German rule and became a deportation camp: Polizeiliches Judendurchgangslager.
Hartog Beem is a Holocaust survivor himself: born in Harderwijk in 1892, he was a school teacher, and he and his wife Retje had two children, Salomon and Eva. In 1929, they moved to Leeuwarden for Beem’s work. After the German invasion in 1940, Hartog and Retje went into hiding with friends, and their children hid with a family in the town of Ermelo in Gelderland. The children wrote 61 letters to their ‘aunt and uncle’ in Leeuwarden while in hiding, but Eva and Salomon were discovered in February 1944 and transported to Westerbork – a month later, they were murdered at Auschwitz. Beem and his wife lost all of their immediate family in the camps during the war.
The Jews of Leeuwarden
In 1974, Beem published, “The Jews of Leeuwarden”, which traced the history of the lives, jobs, leisure time and religious practices of Jewish families in Leeuwarden starting in 1651. He acknowledges his own role in the modern history of the city as a teacher, a translator and a member of the Leeuwarden synagogue’s council both before and after the war.
He described the gradual and deliberate steps that the German forces took in the Netherlands to isolate the Jewish population from the rest of Dutch society. In Leeuwarden, signs banning Jews were put up in the Rengerspark, the Prinsentuin and on market days in the center, which was especially tricky for Jews who lived on the Nieuweburen which was part of the Jewish quarter. The methods used to cut off the Jews followed a playbook across the country:
First, Jews and other minority groups were no longer allowed to be part of the air raid protection groups, then kosher butcher methods were banned, then public servants of Jewish descent could no longer be promoted or hired. By November 1940, all Jewish public servants had to leave their jobs. Then, Jewish citizens received a “J” stamp on their passports, and their finances had to be registered and then seized. Jewish children could no longer attend public schools, Jewish shop owners had to close their doors, work camps for unemployed (or forced jobless) Jewish people were opened, telephone lines were cut, and money and valuable assets had to be turned in. Jews were not allowed to go to hotels, cafes, parks, markets, theatres, cinemas, pools, sports facilities, concerts, libraries, reading rooms, hair salons, waiting rooms at the station – they were all off limits, marked with signs that said ‘Forbidden for Jews’. After they started wearing the stars on their clothing, the Germans deemed them to be sufficiently isolated and began preparations for deportation under the pretext of ‘work expansion’
The first formal wave of imprisonment began in 1942 when around 800 able-bodied men were sent to work camps across the north. There were five such camps in Friesland which served as gateways to Westerbork, and professor Van Der Poel says that similar camps existed in the province of Groningen, but many of the camps were in Drenthe and Overijssel: “Kloosterhaar, Twijlhaar, De Vlete: These are camps that we often hardly know of even today”, Van Der Poel says.
The work camps were a prelude to the deportation camp at Westerbork. Even as the trains, which always departed on Tuesdays, began transporting Jewish people and the 245 so-called “gypsies” – Sinti and Roma descended people – to the concentration camps in 1942, life remained relatively normal at Westerbork. People had jobs and there was a large hospital providing high quality care (thanks to the Jewish doctors in the camp). Detainees could enrol in classes, participate in sports, go shopping with currency created for the camp, dine in the canteen or have a drink in the café on the grounds – there were even regular musical performances by Jewish musicians who were also being held in the camp. There was day care for children under the age of 6 and a primary school – “but if the Tuesday train had taken a lot of teachers, it would take a while for classes to get back to normal”, Van Der Veen writes.
Most of the trains from Westerbork travelled to Auschwitz: 68 of the 97 total train journeys from Drenthe ended up at the camp. Out of 60,330 people from Westerbork who were taken there, 4,000 survived. At Sobibor, 34,313 Westerbork prisoners were detained – a mere 18 survived. The trains also took Jews and Sinti and Roma people to Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Ravensbruck. Out of 107,000 Dutch Jews who entered the camps, fewer than 5,000 lived to return to the Netherlands after the war. Among the 245 Sinti and Roma prisoners, 215 died in the labour and extermination camps in Germany and Poland.
Leeuwarden’s Chief Rabbi Levisson was taken prisoner in Amsterdam in 1943, transported to Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen. Levisson continued serving as a rabbi as much as he could manage while inside Bergen-Belsen, and the rabbi ultimately died in the town of Trobitz. In “The Jews of Leeuwarden”, Beem shares a prayer that Levisson wrote for Passover in 1944:
Our Father in Heaven
You know in your wisdom
That it is our will
To serve Your will
To celebrate Passover by eating matzo
And abstaining from leavened foods
But our hearts are saddened
That our slavery prevents us from doing so
And we are in mortal danger
We are ready and willing
To honour Your command to survive
And not to die
And to heed Your call
To honour you and protect your spirit
This is why we pray to You
To keep us alive
To sustain us and soon liberate us
Because we respect Your laws and carry out Your will
To serve you with all our hearts, amen
In the third and final instalment of this series on Jewish history of the Northern Netherlands, we will focus on how the surviving Jewish people of the North returned – or didn’t – what became of the synagogues in Groningen, Drenthe and Friesland, and how the North remembers its Jewish communities.