Rev. John J. Opmeer
Missions Fest 1996
I was eight years old when my country was invaded, and so my personal memories are limited. A member of the Dutch underground was hiding for a while in our home in Rotterdam, but no Jews. I do remember seeing Jews on the streets with their yellow stars, but later we didn't see them anymore. They were either in death camps in hiding. The following is a brief account of the hiding. Thousands of Jews survived because some brave Dutch families saw
the hunted and haunted Jews as their neighbours and took them in, as they would have taken in the Jew Jesus.
The New Jewish Encyclopedia (1976 ed.) writes under the entry "Holland"; "Many Jews were saved by good Christian people of Holland during the Nazi occupation." How many? That question is difficult to answer.
Ernest Cassutto, young Dutch Jew who miraculously survived Nazi imprisonment, writes in his autobiographical "The Last Jew Of Rotterdam" (Whitaker House, 1974) that some 150,000 Dutch Jews perished during the war. He may have included what the Germans called "Halbjudon" (half-Jews), many of whom were captured later during the war. Another figure, of full-blooded Jews, is much lower. Dr. L. De Jong, who wrote the government-sponsored Dutch history of the second World War, estimated the number at 102,000. The total number of Dutch Jews in 1940 was probably between 150,000 and 175,000.
Depending on the figures, at least some 30,000 Dutch Jews escaped the Holocaust. Of these, 5,000 survived the concentration camps, 3,000, mostly rich, fled the country just in time, and another few thousand escaped the worst because of mixed marriage, or membership in a Christian church. Of those who went underground, 16,000 are known to have escaped discovery by the Nazis, including some 4,500 children. However, many more Jews were hidden by Dutch families. Thousands of them, including the now well-known Anne Frank, were betrayed or discovered, and perished. The same lot was usually suffered by the host families! The total number of Jews, adults and children, offered shelter by Dutch families during the war is therefore much higher than 16,000.
The deep gratitude of the Jewish community to the heroic men and women who took in Jews who were hiding from the Nazis really came home to me when my wife and I visited the Yad Veshem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in 1981. Outside the museum is a memorial tree garden. Under the trees are plaques with the names of "righteous Gentiles" who had been particularly brave in helping Jews during those tragic years. We were deeply moved as we realized that almost all these people had paid the ultimate price for their rescue efforts. Then we saw the first Dutch name, and another and another - many of them. A wave of pride moved through me as I realized that these countrymen, fathers and mothers, often with children themselves, had loved the Jews beyond the call of duty.
The story of the Dutch and the Jews during the war years is not a perfect one. After all, well over a hundred thousand Dutch Jews were killed, and the Dutch population had not been able to prevent it. Much more could have been done. Many Dutch doors stayed closed for Jews, out of fear or perhaps out of indifference or, for some, out of a false theology that saw punishment of the Jews as God's will! No, not perfect, for sure, but the record speaks for itself: in large numbers the Dutch rose to the occasion and made true on their heritage of providing a safe haven for refugees and of being stubborn defenders of freedom.
In addition to the tens of thousands of Dutch underground forces (De Ondergrondse) hiding in Dutch homes, churches, barns and factories, there were some 20,000 plus Jews that found a hiding place. In fact, the total number of families involved in providing refuge to Jews or Jewish children must have been far above the 20,000, since the average hiding place lasted for only a few months at best. Sooner or later a message would arrive from the Underground that the place had become "hot" and was found at once. Ernest Cassutto, who was in hiding from Summer 1942 to Spring 1944 when he was caught, writes that he was hidden in those two years by some 40 Dutch families!
Many, if no most, of these families were Christians, a large number of them Dutch Calvinists. As I surveyed the documents of the Dutch Reformed Church relating to its resistance against the Nazis during the years 1940 - 1945 (Rev. H.C. Touw, "Het Verzet der Hervormde Kerk", 1946), I was deeply moved the courageous, consistent and principled approach of the average leaders in the Reformed churches as they faced an avalanche of inhuman German orders pertaining to every aspect of life and particularly to the Jews. It began in September 1940, when Dutch Jews were deprived of certain of their rights. The Dutch Reformed Synodical executive immediately responded with a strong letter to the German high command urging that the orders be withdrawn. he following Sunday a pastoral letter was read from most pulpits. There was no response from the authorities. Quickly, the screws were tightened. In 1941, Jews were forced to register. Most did. On May 2, 1942, Jews went on public display as they were ordered to purchase and wear a Yellow Star, a replica of the Star of David with the Dutch word for Jew "Jood" in mock Hebrew letters. In July, the mass deportations of Jews began, from the holding camp in Westerbork to Germany and Poland - first in the hundreds, then the thousands. Children were separated from their parents, husbands from their wives - a Holocaust more cruel than death!
The Dutch churches exploded with anger. Having been warned already severely that further "interference" might result in the closure of many churches, the Synod executive sent a very strong letter, calling the measures an attack on everything human and decent and a declaration of war against the Christian church. The response of the authorities was swift. The most outspoken ministers were arrested, two of them were killed. Many others were to follow. But the nazi intimidation had the opposite effect. The consistent protests against anti-Semitism, and the calls for practical help for Jews made from the majority of pulpits inspired and encouraged the church members to do their part. The arrest and sometimes death of their beloved pastors led only to greater defiance of the hated Nazis and increased motivation to help.
Motivation was not hard to come by. The ground had been well-prepared. The Dutch had earned a reputation for giving refuge to persecuted Jews ever since the 1400's when large numbers of Sophardic Jews from Spain and Portugal found a safe haven in the Lowlands. The Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where Jews have never been persecuted. The Dutch Calvinists, with their heavy emphasis on the Old Testament, had always considered Jews to the God's people, suffering the due penalty for rejecting their Messiah, but still "the apple of God's eye" and eventually to be received by grace when "all Israel" would be saved. Pulpits in The Netherlands delivered an unusually large number of messages on Romans 5 to 11 in those days! It was taught that behind anti-Semitism hides hatred against the Old Testament and therefore against the Bible, and finally against the God of Israel and against the Jew Jesus. Anti-Semitism, the church taught, was worse than cruelty; it was clearly demonic. As a result, born-again believers in The Netherlands had a special place in their hearts for Jews and often were almost jealous of them for being God's chosen people. It was only natural for them to open their homes to the hunted Jews.
Ernest Cassutto writes about the summer of 1942 when Jews became a visible minority with their yellow stars: "We (Jews) noticed a marked difference between Christians and Gentiles. Christian people went out of their way to be courteous and kind. They risked their freedom to visit us in our homes. Soon, we would be shown an even greater measure of their love." (pg. 57) Respect for Jews and awareness of their special place in God's plan of salvation was and still is common among Dutch Calvinists, and many others. That's the way I was raised myself. I remember that my father taught me and my brother and sister not to hate the Germans but to pity them for the judgment that was sure to fall on them for hurting the "apple of God's eye."
An unintended by-product of so many Jews hiding in so many Christian homes was the melting away of resistance to the claims of Jesus and a discovery of the real Jesus "who came to His own, but His own people received Him not" ; who left His "hiding place" in heaven and identified with His people; who died in their place and rose from the dead. Representative of many is the story of Johanna-Ruth Dobschiner, a Jewish girl born of Dutch parents in Berlin. When Hitler came to power, the family fled to Holland. Then, when the Nazis took over in Holland, Hanna saw first her brothers and then her parents taken away to Germany, never to see them again. In 1943, the Rev. Ader, a Dutch Reformed pastor in the northeastern province of Groningen, took her under his wings. He paid for it with his life. In her book "Selected to Live" (Pickering and Inglis, 1969), Hanna recounts the very moving story of how she read the New Testament for the first time, with tears, and how she found her Messiah. Because of Hebrew Christian young people like Hanna, a Hebrew Christian youth organization came into being, already during the war. This organization, numbering about 250 shortly after the war, was also the place here Ernest Cassutto, who had become a Christian himself shortly before going into hiding, met his future wife, Elly, herself a Jewish girl who in the home of a Christian teacher had been loved to Christ! I met both Ernest and his wife Elly when I was a minister in Toronto. He had in the meantime become an ordained pastor and evangelist among Jews in the eastern United States.
I learned from my limited war experience that culture and civilization can be a very thin veneer. People quickly lose their principles when their personal comfort and security are at stake, especially in the face of blatant evil. Euphemistic slogans quickly dry up the remaining morals of the majority (from "final solution" to "right to choose" to "death with dignity!"). Only a faith that is anchored in the God of the Bible is a safeguard for morals and principles and Christian action. The story of the Dutch Christians is not without blemish. But it serves as a moving illustration of the power of God over human fear, and of the power of God's love as the best motivation for being a neighbour. Those who have no fear of death because they belong to God in life and death are best prepared and most free to be neighbours. May God help us to be such neighbors in our own generation.