The Holocaust in Netherlands

On the eve of the Holocaust in the Netherlands there were approximately 150,000 Dutch Jews.  This number includes the roughly 25,000 German Jewish refugees that had fled Hitler in years previous.  There were Jews in almost every town in the Netherlands, but the majority (more than half) were in Amsterdam.  The Dutch Jews were not a monolithic group by any means; they were extremely diverse in their socioeconomic status and there was a little bit of animosity between rich and poor. Furthermore, the Dutch Jews were not very religious and thereby not united in their faith community either.  These factors, combined with German efficiency and Dutch complacency, are what left a larger percent of Dutch Jews killed than in any other Western European country. Over 107,000 Jews – 93 trainloads – were deported from the Netherlands and only 5,500 of those returned. The rest were in hiding, or in mixed marriages, and survived that way.
Weimar Republic American Embassy

Dutch-Jewish families walking to the railroad station to be deported.

On 10 May, 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  They bombed Rotterdam so mercilessly that the Dutch  surrendered just four days later on 14 May, 1940.  The government was fearful of a similar fate for their capital city, Amsterdam, and they were severely under-equipped.   The immediate Jewish panic was most palpable with those Jews who had fled Germany; many committed suicide and many more fled to Switzerland, Spain, or France. The government was taken over by Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who was a fervent anti-Semite and enjoyed absolute authority over the Dutch civil administration.  Initially the government left the Jews alone for the most part – many testimonies of survivors affirm this relative calmness in the early days of the occupation. Anti-Semitic legislation would build slowly until the Jews were isolated from their fellow citizens and deportation became a viable option.

Anti-Semitic Legislation:

31 July 1940: Jewish ritual slaughter is outlawed.

20 October 1940: Businesses owned by Jews had to be registered.

21 November 1940: All Jewish civil servants were dismissed.

10 January 1941: All Jews must register with a local census office.

On 13 February 1941 the Nazis selected a Joodse Raad – Jewish council – for the city of Amsterdam. The council was to be responsible for all matters relating to the Jewish community of Holland.  It was headed by two chairmen, Mr. Abraham Asscher and Prof. David Cohen. The two men were also responsible for starting Het Joodse Weekblad – The Jewish Weekly, a newspaper that would disseminate the latest news on legal restrictions on Jews. The last issue of the Jewish Weekly came on 28 September 1943, after that time there was no need for a Jewish newspaper as most Dutch Jews had been deported.

The Jewish Council in the Netherlands did many good things to ease the suffering of their people.  Their apparatus was immense and there were many different working committees that helped the Jews of Holland during these times. This created a more palatable environment and prevented the streets of Amsterdam from looking like the streets of Warsaw.

Like all Jewish councils that existed, the Dutch Joodse Raad was the source of much controversy over whether or not they were collaborators.  The thought of the time was to just do what the Nazis asked and Jews of Holland would end up with fewer casualties. In the summer of 1942 the Joodse Raad was asked to write a list of Jews who were to be sent to “work camps” in Eastern Europe. After an intense debate amongst the councilmen, there was an agreement to provide the Nazis with 7,000 names. For this action and for other instances of compliance with German demands, the Joodse Raad in the Netherlands was severely criticised at the time. Ultimately, the Council was forced to do what it did and the members of the Council did not foresee that complying with German orders would lead to the demise of all Jews in Holland. 

Nazi party members Giving Instructions To Newly Formed Jewish Council 


Westerbork Transit Camp

Westerbork camp as viewed from a distance.

A wedding at Westerbork shows how normal the life of long-term inmates could be.

Westerbork, a camp that had been opened by the Dutch authorities in 1939 for the purpose of receiving Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, would become the last stop before over 100,000 Dutch Jews were “sent to the East” and never heard from again.

On July 1, 1942, the Nazi administration took control of the camp. Westerbork would now be known officially as a “transit camp.”  The first train arrived at Westerbork on July 15, 1942, and left the camp on July 16, 1942 with 1,135 Jews headed towards Auschwitz.  The transfers had to be done in public train platforms at first, but by November 1942 tracks had been built so the cars could arrive directly into the camp. Practically every Tuesday for two years a train packed with hundreds of Jews left Westerbork for Auschwitz or Sobibor. Of the nearly 110,000 Jews who went through Westerbork only a very small fraction survived. 

The camp of Westerbork was sanitized for the Western European people who could not take a sigh like Warsaw or Lodz in the East. There was a school; a barber; entertainment; and even a place to eat. If an inmate had enough money it was possible for him to buy luxurious comforts that weren’t even available in the Netherlands proper.

Life in Westerbork revolved around avoiding the deportation lists every Tuesday. Most people stayed in the camp for less than a week before they were deported. The longer one was in the camp, the less likelihood there was of being deported.  There was huge nepotism and power held by those prisoners who had influence over the weekly rosters.  Family members could help family members, and people with zero connections could do nothing.

Deportations of Jews from the Netherlands to Poland (Auschwitz and Sobibor) began on 15 June 1942 and ended on 13 September 1944.  By that time more than 75% of the pre-war population had been exterminated, and very few that were sent to the east were left to return.  Many factors are relevant to this high number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust.  First and foremost is the fact that the Dutch Jews had zero amount of time to escape, whereas German Jews had had years of progressively worse conditions that elicited immigration.  Secondly, the Dutch government was left intact in its entirety, so the Germans did not have to start from scratch when it came to identifying Jews.  Another factor was that Dutch Jews were Western European and many were unaccustomed to the harsh realities of Eastern Europe.

Many today are still shocked a how the highly assimilated Dutch Jews were able to garner the Netherlands its title of worst survival rate of all of Western Europe.  The complacency of the Dutch people; the gullibility of the Dutch Jews and their lack of unified religious community; the relatively in tact Dutch administration apparatus that was able to guide the Germans to their victims so efficiently; and the unfamiliarly harsh conditions they met in Poland, all played a part.  Less than 25% of Jews of the initial population of Jews in Holland, would live to tell their story; and of the 107,000 Dutch Jews deported (the rest survived in Holland in hiding or in a mixed marriage) only 5,500 would return.