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
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.