Book Review // The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews

By | Aug 11, 2014
The Ambiguity of Virtue by Bernard Wasserstein

Impossible Choices

by Richard Bernstein

The Ambiguity of Virtue:
Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews
Bernard Wasserstein
Harvard University Press
2014, pp. 336, $29.99

At the very beginning of his probing, disturbing account of the Nazis’ destruction of Dutch Jewry, Bernard Wasserstein asks what is no doubt the most terrible question that can be posed about Jewish behavior during the Holocaust: “Confronting the absolute evil of Nazism, was there any middle road between outright resistance and abject submission?” 

The question is hardly new. It goes back at least to Hannah Arendt’s famous and infamous accusations about Jewish complicity in their own destruction. It was raised again more recently in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary The Last of the Unjust, his four-hour interview with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Jewish “elder” of the Theresienstadt ghetto who was among those Jews who helped to keep camp inmates obedient and orderly, thereby freeing the Nazis themselves from that onerous duty. Much has been made of the fact that Lanzmann appears to be rather indulgent, even affectionate, toward Murmelstein, perhaps out of respect for his willingness to tell the truth about his own cooperative submission. Or perhaps there is a deeper reason, a hesitation to judge the actions of men and women who were forced into a situation that, thankfully, nobody faces today, where there were no good choices and where the temptation to cooperate with murderers, so as to save themselves and others from murder, must have been overwhelming.

Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue is an examination of a group of Dutch Jews placed in exactly that situation. He does this essentially through a biography of one of them, Gertrude van Tijn, born in 1891 into a prominent German-Jewish family, an independent-minded, assimilated young feminist who moved to London as a teenager and then, during World War I, permanently to the Netherlands. When Hitler rose to power in neighboring Germany in 1933, she became secretary to two committees formed by prominent Dutch Jews, especially a Committee for Jewish Refugees that offered help to German Jews fleeing to Holland.

Wasserstein, who is professor emeritus of Jewish history at the University of Chicago and the author of several distinguished books on modern European Jewry, provides a sober, intimate, detailed account of van Tijn’s efforts over the next 12 years to mitigate the suffering of the Jews. In the early years, this consisted mostly of efforts to give aid to refugees, especially to find ways for them to get to other countries. She helped organize the Kindertransports by which 10,000 German-Jewish children were sent to England and other countries. She raised money from the American Joint Distribution Committee. She was on hand for the departure of the Dora, the aging ship that managed to land some 400 Dutch Jews in British-mandate Palestine in 1939. Wasserstein finds that were it not for the efforts of van Tijn and her committee, some 22,000 German, Austrian and Dutch Jews who otherwise would have perished at the hands of the Nazis were saved. 

But once the Nazis invaded and occupied Holland in 1940, everything changed, and the moral stakes became vastly larger. As they did in other territories they seized, the Nazis recruited Jewish leaders, whose function in the Nazis’ eyes was to help them as the Hitlerian program unfolded—first with Jewish exclusions from schools, businesses and professions, then with the wearing of the yellow star, and finally with mass deportation leading to mass murder. The leader of the Dutch Jewish community, David Cohen, dismissed from his job as professor of classics at the University of Amsterdam, became a director of the Jewish Council, which became the official point of contact between the Nazis and the Jews, modeled on the Judenräte set up in Poland, France and other occupied countries. And it was here that the most excruciating moral dilemmas appeared, that search for a middle ground between resistance and submission in the face of ultimate evil. 

In Wasserstein’s view, Cohen was certainly not an evil man. He was “cautious, amiable, and hardworking, but also vain and unimaginative,” and above all, he “believed that close cooperation with the authorities was the key to success.” Wasserstein lays out the ways in which this cooperation became ever more morally dubious, how it spiraled step by step into what can now be seen as a terrible, shameful mistake. First, the Jewish Council helped to register all the Jews of Amsterdam, which was very helpful to the Nazis when they got around to the task of eliminating them. In 1940, the Communist-controlled labor unions ordered a strike to protest the treatment of the Jews, and when the Germans warned that they would arrest 500 Jews if the strike continued, the Council pleaded with the strikers to resume work. 

The excruciating dilemma facing the Jews was clearly illustrated by this incident. The German threat that things would be much worse if the Council did not obey Nazi orders had a powerful effect, and so the Council did obey. In doing so, van Tijn, not a member of the Council itself but the head of one of its committees, and the leaders like Cohen, had close, regular even perversely collegial relations with the Nazi officers in charge of the anti-Jewish persecution. These included Klaus Barbie, then 26 years old and destined later to be the head of the Gestapo in Lyons, France. In 1941, in an incident that haunted her for the rest of her life, van Tijn was asked by Barbie for the names and addresses of Jewish students who had been expelled from a farm camp at Wieringen where they had been given refuge. Barbie vowed that he wanted the list so that the students could return to the farm, and, believing him, van Tijn gave him the information. But the young people on van Tijn’s list ended up among some 300 young Jewish males who were arrested and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp; very few survived. 

Learning her lesson from Barbie’s betrayal, van Tijn vowed never to give another Jewish name to the Nazis, but the Jewish Council made different choices. In general, the Council under Cohen and his co-director, a wealthy diamond merchant named Abraham Asscher, entreated the Jews in its jurisdiction to obey Nazi orders. In the summer of 1942, when the Nazis began the systematic deportation of the Jews of Holland, the Jewish Council prepared a card index of all Jews in Holland, foreigners as well as Dutch, with their names and addresses, which it provided to the Nazis. When the Jewish roundups began, ostensibly for work in labor camps in Germany but actually to death camps farther east, the Council sent letters to the conscripts “conveying German instructions to vacate their homes, hand over their keys, and present themselves, with their families, at the railway station”—this overt collaboration undertaken “to forestall worse measure.” 

But what could have been worse? At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, there were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands; by 1945, 35,000 were still alive. Van Tijn did what she could to help the deportees, providing blankets and toothpaste and the like to them. Meanwhile, the Jewish Council became more and more aware of the end result of these deportations, and yet, on the grounds that it was still of some practical use to the Jewish community, it declined suggestions that it disband itself. In May 1943, the Nazi official in charge of the deportations day-to-day, one Hauptsturmführer Ferdinand Hugo Aus der Fünten ordered it to furnish the names of 7,000 of its own employees for deportation, or else he would make the selections himself randomly. Van Tijn objected, but the Council dutifully searched the card files for non-essential personnel and sent out 5,700 summonses to Jews to report to the authorities—an action that in the words of the historian Yehuda Bauer crossed “the last moral barrier.” 

Eventually, in 1944, van Tijn herself was deported to Bergen-Belsen, though with extraordinary good fortune was chosen to be in a small group brought by train to Palestine to be exchanged for German citizens under British control there. She spent the last months of the war writing a first-hand account of what she had seen, which Wasserstein calls, “the single most significant eyewitness account of the destruction of Dutch Jewry.” But almost immediately, the questions arose about the actions of the Jewish Council. Van Tijn and Cohen, who had been deported to Theresienstadt and survived the war, got into an unseemly and distressingly public quarrel. Both were under attack for having cooperated with the Nazis, and both exerted considerable time and energy at self-exculpation.

Wasserstein provides a discerning and dispassionate analysis of the culpability of each of them, not entirely exonerating van Tijn but in the end defending her against her numerous detractors. The biggest difference had to do with that incident of May 1943 when Cohen in effect gave himself the authority to decide who would die so that others could live, an act that Wasserstein, in a fascinating passage of moral analysis, says violated not only the basic rules of humane behavior but Jewish religious law as well. Van Tijn, by contrast, kept to her vow after the Barbie incident never to give the Nazis the name of a single Jew.

 But lest we forget, it was not David Cohen or the members of the Jewish Council, whatever dread mistakes of collaboration they made, who caused the destruction of Dutch Jewry. Now it is clear that resistance, a refusal to cooperate with the perpetrators of ultimate evil, was the only good choice available to the Jews, that there was no middle ground between resistance and submission. But this is easy to see from the safety of our living rooms today. Gertrude van Tijn, in her account written in Palestine, made the case for caution in imposing harsh moral judgments, and her words are worth heeding: “Let those who have not lived under such terrible stress,” she wrote, “beware before they lightly judge those whose hands were forced to act against their own people and therefore—I am afraid when the real reckoning comes—against themselves.”

Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His new book, China, 1945, will be published in November.

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