In a notable move, Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte apologized on January 26 for how his kingdom’s wartime government failed its Jews, a first by a Dutch sitting prime minister. Rutte offered “apologies for the government of those days, while the last survivors are still with us."
The Dutch are leaders in Holocaust Remembrance. Few signs of a nationalist or anti-Semitic backlash are visible.
The Holocaust devastated Dutch Jewry, killing 75% of the country’s Jews. Many local Dutch
authorities and police departments participated in the Nazi occupation, helping to round up and deport the country’s Jews.
The Netherlands is committed to Holocaust remembrance and commemoration, funding various remembrance activities, memorial sites, commemoration events, and museums. Dutch commemoration efforts are undertaken with active collaboration with the Jewish community. A monument celebrating Amsterdam’s Jewish community recently was erected and the National Holocaust Museum was opened in 2016.
Yet some issues remain. Although the government has recognized and expressed sorrow over this collaboration, it still has not issued an official apology. The belief of the liberal Dutch accepting of minorities allows Dutch people to continue seeing themselves protectors of liberty, rather than enablers of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust in the Netherlands
Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940 and the Dutch army surrendered four days later. The invasion was so swift that only a small proportion of the country’s Jews were able to flee. Jews accounted for 1.41% of the country’s population, with 50% of the Jews clustered in Amsterdam, making up 8.65% of the city’s population.
After capitulation, Queen Wilhelmina fled to Great Britain and established a government-in-exile, leaving behind the Dutch civil service and municipal authorities. Dutch police and local authorities collaborated with the Nazi forces in registering, rounding up, and deporting Jews. Dutch civil authorities fell under the control of SS Reichskommissar Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Nazis enjoyed support from Dutch far-right anti-Semitic political parties.
Jews were forced to register themselves in 1941 and 159,000 Jews were listed on national
documents, around 25,000 of whom were recent immigrants. German occupying forces
established the Zentralstelle für Jüdische Auswanderung (Central Office for Jewish Emigration) to round up and deport all Jews. In 1940 and 1941, German authorities issued anti-Semitic legislation and in March 1942, they instituted the Nuremberg Laws in Holland.
Before the war, Westerbork was established in the northeast of Holland as an internment camp for Jews fleeing Germany in the wake of Kristallnacht. When Nazi forces arrived, they turned the camp into a transit centre where Jews were detained before being deported to death camps. Around 25,000 or 30,000 Jews managed to evade deportation by hiding with assistance from Dutch partisans, and about two thirjds of those in hiding survived.
The best known case of a Dutch Holocaust victim is that of Anne Frank, a young German-
Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family in Amsterdam in 1942 after her sister was
served a deportation notice. A Dutch collaborator was most likely for betraying the family. When discovered, the Germans deported the family to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne, her sister, and her mother died, with her father left as the sole survivor.
In all, 107,000 Jews from the Netherlands were deported to concentration camps. Less than 5,000 survived. By liberation, 75% of Dutch Jewry had been exterminated.
- 8 May 1945: The State Institute for War Documentation (RIOD) is created to study
Holocaust history in the Netherlands, fund independent research
- 27 November 1987: National Committee for the 4 and 5 of May created by royal decree
- 1999: the Netherlands joins IHRA
- 1999-2000: “under a settlement agreed with the Jewish community, the Dutch state
made a sum of EUR 181.5 million available in recognition of failures in the past treatment
of the victims of WWII persecution, the shortcomings in post-war restitution, and the
impact of this on people’s subsequent lives.”
- 2005: “government supervision of the allocation of these funds ended but collective
project applications can still be submitted”
- 2011: appointed an independent advisory committee to assess individual art restitution
- 2016: Amsterdam City Council approves memorial of 102,000 victim’s names
- 2016: National Holocaust Museum opens (still under construction)
- 2017: government officials approved and supported the building of a Holocaust memorial
in Amsterdam, including a ‘memorial of names’
- 2017: Dutch Red Cross apologizes for inaction to protect Jews
- 2018: Dutch Railroad says it will pay compensation to victims it transported to camps
- 2018: Dutch Foreign Ministry apologizes to Family of 'Dutch Schindler' Who Was Rebuked for Saving Thousands of Jews
In the immediate postwar period, Jews who returned to the Netherlands were discouraged from talking in public about their trauma or the persecution of Jews. The Dutch were also victims of a brutal occupation, and many risked their lives or even died to protect Jews. The May 4th commemoration originated as a day of remembrance of the members of the resistance and Dutch soldiers fighting against the Germans, rather than a day dedicated to the memory of the Jewish victims.
Many Dutch citizens felt that Jews should be grateful for the activity of the Dutch resistance. The postwar period was primarily interested in discussing Dutch heroism and resistance and recognizing the suffering of the country under German occupation rather than the unique pain felt by Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
Starting in the 1960s, Jewish community groups and victims’ organizations pushed for the
ceremony to emphasize the unique suffering of the Jewish victims. By the 1970s and 1980s,
World War II education had shifted from a focus on Dutch heroism and Dutch suffering to an emphasis on the Jewish victims and willingness to understand and confront Dutch complicity and collaboration with the Nazi regime.
The government has come a long way. In December, 2018, the Dutch Foreign Ministry has
apologized to the family of diplomat Jan Zwartendijk (“the Dutch Schindler”) who saved
thousands of Jews during the Holocaust but after the war was rebuked for his actions. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok acknowledged this week that his ministry’s treatment of Zwartendijk was “inappropriate,” expressed Holland’s admiration for his actions during World War II and relayed an apology to his family. According to the Yad Vashem website, in the summer of 1940 Zwartendijk issued from 1,200-1,400 forged documents to Jews in the city of Kovno, Lithuania, where he was the Dutch consul, to enable them to enter the Dutch colony of Curacao.
The Dutch government has yet issued a formal apology for the country’s complicity and
collaboration with German occupiers, despite repeated calls from the international community and opposition parties. In 2005, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende made a statement calling the Holocaust a “pitch-black” chapter of Dutch history and lamented Dutch complicity in the deportations - but without formally apologizing for the actions.
Aside from his lack of official apology, considerable efforts are made to accept and atone for Dutch guilt. The federal and local governments cooperate with museums, memorials,
community organizations, and commemorative sites to plan and fund Holocaust-related
education and events. In 2016, many government officials approved and supported the building of a Holocaust memorial in Amsterdam, including a ‘Memorial of Names’.
The government funds commemorations on UN Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom
HaShoah, which are well attended by government officials, members of the Dutch royal family, and citizens. No recent efforts of official revisionism are visible.
The incitement of hatred or discrimination against a group on the basis of race or religion is illegal and Dutch courts have ruled Holocaust denial as hate speech, criminalizing it. No official law makes genocide denial a crime although a coalition party in Parliament has been working on legislation. Dutch courts have made efforts to try Dutch Nazis and Nazi collaborators for war crimes. In 1945, the Netherlands set up special courts to process war crimes, and sentenced a total of 14,562 people by 1950, when the courts ceased operations.
The federal government provides schools with a list of subjects to be covered including World War II, for which it requires that primary school students learn the “certain consequences of German occupation during the Second World War and the process of Nazification and the persecution of the Jews.”
Most textbooks describe the Holocaust as a brutal result of the painful German occupation, but few examine Dutch complicity or collaboration in the tragedy. According to a study by the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, many students “lack both a factual and conceptual understanding of the Holocaust.”
The Anne Frank House Foundation organizes various education initiatives for the thousands of students who visit the museum every year The annual Anne Frank Newspaper reaches over 100,000 11 to 12 years old students.
A new proposal is to include Holocaust education within federally-mandated citizenship
education. In this regard, the Holocaust would be used to demonstrate that tolerance and
freedom are vital and to discuss the evils of racism and discrimination. Many citizenship
education efforts use the Holocaust to learn about violence, persecution, and discrimination.
The biggest Holocaust commemoration event occurs annually on May 4th and 5th when the Dutch mark the end of German occupation. The Netherlands also recognizes the United Nations’ International Remembrance Day on January 27th, and Dutch Jewish communities commemorate Yom HaShoah.
On May 4th, the emphasis is on commemorating the suffering of the Dutch Jews. More than 20,000 attend a ceremony, which is broadcast live on national TV, on Dam Square in
Amsterdam. The Royal Family lays a wreath along with Holocaust survivors, initiating a two-
minute silent period that is recognized throughout the country. The winner of a national poetry contest reads their poem and prominent politicians give speeches. Flags are commanded to be flown at half-mast.
May 5th is Liberation Day, recognition of the date that the German army capitulated in the
Netherlands. It commemorates Dutch heroes and the resistance movement to fought for Dutch freedom. The day also provides an outlet for reflection on the state of freedom across the world. Liberation Day began immediately after the war which demonstrates political strength and efficient organization of the Dutch resistance that they were able to set up this event so soon after freedom. This day is celebrated separately from May 4th’s Remembrance Day, since planners thought that it was “inappropriate to mourn the victims of war and celebrate the liberation on the same day.” In the annual lecture, which is held in a different province each year, a prominent figure is invited to speak on the vulnerability of freedom. At night, a huge concert is arranged on the Amstel River, and the Prime Minister, government representatives, and representatives of the monarchy are in attendance. The concert is broadcast to over a million Dutch citizens each year.
Another commemoration initiative is the Jewish Monument managed by the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam. This project explores personal and local stories and invites Dutch people to discover the history of their family, house, town, or city in the Holocaust. More than 8,000 people have online profiles associated with the Jewish Monument. Additionally, the Jewish Historical Museum organizes the Oral History Project which collects stories from survivors and victim families, and holds storytelling events annually on May 4th.
The Jewish Historical Museum in the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam has an extensive collection of documents and photographs pertaining to persecution and deportation. Another source of non-government archives is in the library at NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, an organization which carries out research on the Second World War, the Holocaust, and other genocides. The NIOD archives are all digitized and accessible online.
Many government records are held in municipal archives, owned and operated by individual cities across the Netherlands. Documents regarding the federal government and the Holocaust are available in the central archives in The Hague. Dutch archives are easy to access and almost all are available to the public. By the year 2020, 70 years since the archives were created, all government archival materials will be available.
In 1996, an international investigation into restitution efforts to Jewish victims proved that the Dutch government had been “insufficiently sensitive to the damage inflicted on the Jewish community during the war.” In 1999, a series of discussions between the Dutch Jewish community and the government, culminating in a settlement in which the Dutch government issued EUR 181.5 million. The Jewish community managed the money, with prospective beneficiaries submitting applications. Although this program was discontinued in 2005, individual project applications can still be submitted.
When Dutch Jewish survivors returned from the concentration camps, they found their property repossessed. Many were even fined for not paying property taxes on their land during the German occupation. In 2017, the Dutch government finally offered the Jewish community $2.7 million in restitution for the “immoral” implementation of taxes, as part of a reparation fund for Jewish property and land that had been repossessed or had taxes still calculated during the war.
The government also implemented a Restitutions Committee in 2001 to evaluate individual art restitution claims, after the government received criticism for displaying seized Jewish artwork. In many ways, the Dutch are leaders in art restoration, having established an archive detailing provenance. In 2018, this Museale Verwervingen project reported that it had found 170 works of art that they suspect may have been stolen or confiscated under duress during the Nazi era. At the same time, Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe and Wesley Fisher of the Jewish Claims Conference complains that the restitution committee prioritises the interest of a museum in keeping a work of art against the claimant’s interest in recovering it. The policy in handling Nazi-looted art claims for works in public museums puts the Netherlands “at risk of becoming a pariah” as the “smallest and most chilling distinctions are being made in order to allow museums to keep their collections intact,” they wrote in an opinion piece published in December, 2018 on the website of NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper.
Opposition parties follow the government lead in commemorating the Holocaust . Even Geert Wilders, the far-right leader of the Party for Freedom, supports remembrance and
commemoration and has demanded that Prime Minister Mark Rutte issue a formal apology.
At the same time, Wilders and other Party for Freedom members often cite instances of
Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab community as a reason why the
Netherlands should not accept Muslim immigrants. Wilder’s party’s xenophobia has led many critics to wonder if the party is a real ally of Jews and if the party is as committed to Holocaust remembrance as they claim to be, since they seem to be repeating the same xenophobia and intolerance that Jews faced in the Holocaust.
Holocaust revisionism and even denialism tend to be found only in discredited extremist groups or the far reaches of the Internet and revisionists are shunned by the vast majority of Dutch society. Some politicians and citizens do draw parallels between the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or are unwilling to confront the Holocaust because of the complicated political entanglements that it has with Israel.
Several public organizations have recently made attempts to atone for their role in the
Holocaust. In particular, the Dutch Red Cross apologized in 2017 for their inaction in protecting Dutch Jews during the German occupation. Additionally, the railway firm Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) apologized in 2005 for the role of the company in deporting 107,000 Jews to death camps in Germany and Poland. In 2018, the railways agreed to set up a commission to compensate Holocaust survivors and their relatives.
Dutch media coverage of Holocaust commemoration efforts is encouraging. Most pieces written about commemoration and remembrance projects, such as the recently unveiled Memorial of Names, are published by Jewish or Israeli news sources although Dutch figures are often consulted and interviewed.
The Dutch press covers incidents of vandalism and protest of commemorative sites, always with the intent of protecting the memory and legacy of these sites. The press also covers
Remembrance Day and Commemoration Day, on the 4th and 5th of May.
Sources estimate that there are anywhere from 30,000-50,000 Jews in the Netherlands, with a sizable proportion living in and around Amsterdam. Although the community is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, about 270 Sephardic Jewish families from the Netherlands’ historic Portuguese Jewish community. There are about 30 active synagogues around the country and various Jewish day schools, summer camps, community organizations, and youth movements mostly located in Amsterdam.
Even before the Holocaust the Dutch Jewish community was well integrated into Dutch society and there were high levels of integration. This situation still stands today, with most Jews being secular.
-Authors: Lindsay Dougherty and Ilana Luther