01 August 2015

Jewish hero or Nazi pawn in Holland - Gertrude van Tijn

I have read Anna Frank’s diary and have visited the Frank home in Amsterdam. In fact I have read every story that has been printed in English of Dutch Jewish survivors from the Holocaust. But these were the victims. Now was the time to read the history of a fighter, a non-victim, a pro-active Jew in Amsterdam. Professor Bernard Wasserstein, the author of The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews (Harvard Uni Press 2014), came to Australia to launch his book in Feb 2014.

Gertrude Cohn (1897-1974) was a German Jew who did not seem to know much about her Judaism when she was a young woman. But by 1917 she was working for the Jewish National Fund, buying land in Israel for settlement by Jewish pioneers and training young people to be farmers in Israel. In 1920 she married Jacques van Tijn, a Dutch mining engineer and thus gained her precious Dutch citizenship. Gertrude van Tijn’s knowledge of English, German and Dutch led to her engagement as a translator of correspondence and of publications for the Jewish National Fund.

By 1933 Gertrude knew a great deal about what was going to happen to her parents, aunts and cousins, so she dedicated herself to organising Jewish emigration out of Germany, for as long as they were allowed to get out. (Jewish emigration was still officially allowed in December 1940). But as time went on, even had other countries allowed refugees in, the Germans would no longer allow them out.

 It was during this era that the Council for German Jewry was formed, constantly having to make choices about which Jews could be saved and which they could not save. Impossible circumstances emerged.

Gertrude van Tijn in her office at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, 1942.  
photo credit: the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

When countries in the New World would not issue visas for European Jews, times became even tougher for van Tijn and her colleagues. The Dora, a small coal ship sailing under a Panamanian flag, left Amsterdam filled with over 300 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany plus 20 Dutch Jews aboard. The Dora dropped its refugees onto the Israeli coast during one night in August 1939, the first successful boatload of illegal immigrants to survive.

But the worst years were ahead. van Tijn found herself in neutral Lisbon in May 1941, aiming to get thousands of German and Dutch Jews onto ships and out of Europe. van Tijn could have saved herself and her children in 1941 by jumping on one of these ships. But for some reason, she decided to move instead to German-occupied Amsterdam, to continue her critically important work. She became a social worker in Amsterdam and worked for the Nazi-controlled Jewish Council in that city. There was nothing wrong with this. The Nazis controlled every aspect of Dutch society, so van Tijn’s only way of getting refugees out was via the Jewish Council. But the life of this assimilated middle-class Jewish woman had to change radically. She became a passionate Zionist leader, dedicating her life to saving displaced Jews by whatever means available.

 van Tijn served as secretary for two committees dedicated to helping Jewish refugees: the Committee for Special Jewish Interest and the Committee for Jewish Refuge. Refugees required food, shelter, medical aid and child care; help in dealing with the Dutch bureaucracy; assistance in arranging onward travel; and in the case of those remaining in the country, guidance toward suitable jobs and language instruction.

Wieringen Werkdorp was originally set up for young Jews to learn a trade.
Here students were rounded up by the Nazis in Wieringen Werkdorp in 1941
photo credit: The Australian

Was she a perfect human being? Good grief no. Her husband walked out on her and on the children, so she had lovers; she made bad decisions and occasionally she naively trusted the Germans when it was clear that their word was worth sod all. At one stage Nazi Klaus Barbie guaranteed visas for a large group of Jewish under-graduates at the Wieringen Werkdorp training camp, if only van Tijn would furnish the boys’ names and addresses. Unbelievably she gave Barbie what he had asked for… and every one of these Dutchmen was taken to the Mauthausen and Schoorl concentration camps. Not a single lad survived!

 Despite the Jewish Council in Amsterdam being Nazi controlled, we moderns would be ethically condescending if we thought that helping people to escape annihilation during the Holocaust was “collaborating”. The Council staff asked themselves constantly how could they organise it so more more Jews would survive. The staff did their very best, even when they made the difficult decisions that would ultimately lead others to die. To my mind, and probably to Professor Wasserstein’s, heroes had to use any technique available, legal or otherwise, to save lives.

In the end, one can but ask how many Dutch Jews survived and how many were exterminated. Professor Wasserstein estimated that van Tijn and the Council saved 22,000 souls, out of the total Jewish Dutch population of 140,000. 75% of Dutch Jews were exterminated, one of the highest death rates in Europe. Nonetheless of those Jews who went into hiding in the Netherlands, a much greater percentage survived. Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (published by the Jewish Holocaust Museum Melbourne in 1992) documents in detail the heroic stories of The Dutch Reform Church, the Dutch Resistance and the Jewish Council of Amsterdam in successfully hiding Jewish citizens with Christian families.

Wasserstein demonstrated that heroism can have terrible consequences for the individual worker. van Tijn was first taken to the Nazi deportation camp, Westerbork, in North Holland and was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen in Northern Germany. After liberation, she was severely criticised for her role with the Jewish Council and the death of the Jewish lads at Wieringen Werkdorp. Yet in spite of this criticism, she continued to work as ever to help displaced persons, this time getting Jewish refugees in Shanghai onto boats going to Australia.

After the war, van Tijn immigrated to America and was reunited with her two children. She died in Portland Oregon in 1974.

Prof Wasserstein's bookcover

The book title is clever. Firstly The Ambiguity of Virtue is a pun on Hannah Arendt’s expression The Banality of Evil. And ironically, it was Hannah Arendt (writing from the safety of the USA) who most viciously criticised van Tijn for collaborating with the Germans. Arendt was unforgivable!

Secondly Gertrude’s story really does question whether all heroic lives need to be virtuous. Gertrude Van Tijn was an amazing woman of principle who understood the need to compromise in desperate situations. She was definitely not a spineless agent of the Nazi programme of genocide, but she did have to discover how to work with, and around evil.

Inside Story made an interesting comparison between Gertrude van Tijn and André Trocmé, Le Chambon’s pastor for the war’s duration in France. Trocmé, too, was an outsider. From northern France, near the Belgian border, and with a German mother, he was fluent in that language. Like van Tijn, he came from a wealthy family, and was the family firebrand. And like van Tijn, he was forever marked by what he saw at close quarters of the gruesome butchery of the Nazi war to end Jewish life in Europe. Pastor Trocmé said that godly Christians had to save Jewish lives, to resist the violence, even if it threatened the rescuers' own lives. He too was a very brave man.


Andrew said...

There doesn't seem to be a dilemma as so many survived because of her efforts. But I can see there could be a very fine line to not step over.

A little off topic but my niece is Europe bound next year and for a time will stay with a friend in Amsterdam. She recited, no gabbled, a list of her must sees and Ann Frank's house was high on the list, except she knows nothing of Ann Frank's story. Well, I suppose she will learn when she visits.

Deb said...

I can't remember if Prof Wasserstein interviewed Getrude van Tijn, to get her perspective on the war the Dutch Jewish community. She may have died to early for this book.

Hels said...


Amongst all of the European countries, Dutch experience during WW2 was probably unique. Your niece will love every minute of Amsterdam, including Anne Frank's house; but she should read an article or two before jumping on the plane. It is not obvious, for example, why two families would hide in hidden rooms behind an ordinary 17th-century canal house. Why could Anne's father Otto Frank not tell most of the employees in his business why the Frank family had suddenly left home and work?

Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities in the universe, both in lectures with the students and as a travelling tourist.

Hels said...


Prof Wasserstein was born in Britain just after the war, the son of European Holocaust survivors. So he could not have interviewed Gertrude van Tijn before she died in 1974. But three amazing sources of information were available to him:
1. The Jewish Council in Amsterdam kept "careful" minutes of all its meetings.
2. Some of her writings were destroyed but the family give Prof Wasserstein Gertrude's letters, and her unpublished memoir.
3. A man who later lived in her house in Amsterdam found a false wall, covering things Gertrude had hidden.

Australian in Amsterdam said...

If van Tijn could have saved herself and her children in 1941 by sailing out of Nazi Europe from a neutral port, she should have. A person's first responsibility is to save the family. Even heroic people have to.

Leon Sims said...

I learn something new with every one of your posts Hels. It makes my Blog very self indulgent. But then again, I guess that's what you aim to do.
Thanks for this insight.

Hels said...

Australian in Amsterdam

I too would have jumped on the first boat out of Europe, clutching my children.

So we have to ask why a person would give up a ticket to safety, to face certain danger and possibly death. van Tijn must have had a VERY powerful belief that she could make a difference against the Nazi machine. saving displaced Jews with food, health care, tickets on ships, job placements and so on.

What an enormous risk she took!

Hels said...


sometimes blog posts are carefully planned in advance and sometimes they just fall into one's lap. I happened to be in Adelaide when Prof Wasserstein launched his book. The topic was unusual, his speech was excellent and within a week I wrote to him at the University of Chicago for a copy of the book. He obliged :)

nerrida said...

One thing that wasn't destroyed were Dutch geneology records. Have just visited Harderwijk where my van Mentz descendants lived very well in 1700s and 1800s. As Blashki's we have multiplied mightily in Melbourne. But the ancestry.com tree has over 13,000 of us with Dutch Jewish roots.

Hels said...


your timing is perfect. I was just saying today that I wished I had Dutch ancestors... in the 17th century, at least, the Dutch seemed so cultured, well travelled, skilled in trade, musical, scientific and artistic.

But as you showed, so many of the descendants of Dutch citizens had to, or chose to leave the Netherlands for the New World. Perhaps that is why Prof Bernard Wasserstein came to Australia to launch his book in Feb 2014.

Yekkes said...

I read "The Ambiguity of Virtue" a couple of years ago when it was a featured title at London's annual Jewish Book Week. I think van Tijn was faced with impossible choices and wonder what her critics, especially Arendt would have done in her place. Hannah Arendt spent the war in the safety and comfort of the United States before writing about the crowds outside the Jerusalem courthouse during the Eichmann trial in terms that would have been deemed anti-semitic if written by a none Jew.

You have some very interesting posts on your blog. Thanks!

Hels said...


I agree with you, Gertrude van Tijn was a very brave women when she decided to stay in Nazi Europe to help her community, almost recklessly brave.

Hannah Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia in 1933 and then France. In 1941 Varian Fry smuggled her to safety to neutral Portugal and then to neutral USA. So she was much smarter than van Tijn but not nearly as brave nor as focused on saving other Jews. And I agree with you about the Eichmann Trial. In 1961 Arendt still seemed to be disinterested in honouring victims of the Holocaust.

Dr Dan Porat said...


You might find interest in an article published by Ido de Haan which discusses the Jewish Honor Court in the Netherlands (1946-1950). This article was published in a book entitled Jewish Honor Courts (Wayne U. Press) and published in 2015 (and in which I also have an article). de Haan makes a brief reference there to Gertrud van Tijn-Cohn.
Best regards from Jerusalem,
Dan Porat, Ph.D.

Hels said...


thank for a fascinating paper in Sydney at the AAJS. It was a new area for me to be reading in. Interestingly Tibor Krausz's long review of the book Kasztner's Crime by the British historian Paul Bogdanor was published in the Jerusalem Report on 6/2/2017. I will now go and read Bogdanor's book, but I am very glad I heard your paper, which put Kasztner in a wider context, first. Timing is everything!