The compromised life of Holocaust survivor Gertrude van Tijn touches on some of the central moral-historical questions of our time,
ALL along, Gertrude van Tijn knew there would be a reckoning. The German-Jewish mother of two might have risked her life helping thousands of Jews flee Nazi-occupied Europe; she might have spent months in Bergen-Belsen, convinced she would never survive that pitiless place of mud and death.
Yet she dreaded the “awful questions’’ that would inevitably be asked about her and her colleagues’ “co-operation’’ with the Nazis during World War II. Van Tijn was a social worker and migration specialist in Amsterdam in the 1930s and 40s, and she worked against daunting odds to help Jewish refugees escape from an anti-Semitic Europe. She could have joined her adult children overseas but felt she had to stay and put duty before self-preservation.
Even so, as Bernard Wasserstein’s sober, scholarly and often fascinating book, The Ambiguity of Virtue, makes clear, for all her heroism, van Tijn would end up being accused, by some, of being a collaborator. From 1941, she held a senior position with the Amsterdam Jewish Council, which ran Jewish affairs under the occupying Nazis. The council adopted a policy of following German orders in the hope of preventing greater atrocities against its horribly persecuted constituents.
This meant Jewish leaders in Amsterdam (like some Jewish leaders elsewhere in occupied Europe) were often obliged to carry out the Nazis’ dirty work. In this book — partly a biography, partly a history of the destruction of Dutch Jewry — Wasserstein reveals how, in 1942, the council urged Dutch Jews not to “shirk’’ their “unavoidable duty’’ to hand in the keys to their homes and report for Nazi labour camps. Van Tijn had misgivings about this policy. Yet she too warned “alien’’ Jews in The Netherlands who resisted a Nazi order to register for emigration, that “the German authorities would take the sharpest measures’’ if they [the Jews] did not obey the order.
Was van Tijn a spineless agent of the Nazi genocide or a woman of integrity faced with agonising dilemmas? Wasserstein, a Chicagobased academic, wisely avoids any rush to judgment. Rather, he writes that van Tijn’s life story “touches on some of the central moral-
The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews
By Bernard Wasserstein Harvard University Press, 324pp, $45 (HB) historical issues of the 20th century’’ and is “a study in the ambiguity of virtue’’.
On the one hand, the Amsterdam council’s submissiveness caused many Jews — from the people it was meant to represent to philosopher Hannah Arendt — to condemn it as being complicit with the Nazis. On the other, Wasserstein estimates van Tijn and the council saved roughly 22,000 German, Austrian and Dutch Jews by helping them leave Europe. Nevertheless, the author does not resile from holding up to scrutiny the morally hazardous decisions taken by van Tijn (who was never a leader at the council) and her colleagues.
He points out that by working for the council, thousands of mostly middle-class Dutch Jews were initially protected from deportation, and the implication of this was ugly. “A large minority of Amsterdam Jewry,’’ he writes, “thereby gained a temporary respite by helping to organise the deportation of the majority.’’
Paradoxically, van Tijn, who was born in 1891 to an assimilated German family, grew up barely realising she was Jewish. In the 30s, she settled with her engineer husband in Amsterdam. She was devastated when he divorced her but had thrown herself into helping Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany.
Even before the outbreak of World War II, this humanitarian work could be ethically compromising. As a surging tide of Jewish refugees tested Dutch tolerance, she and her emigration committee helped repatriate “illegal’’ arrivals back to Germany, even in the weeks following Kristallnacht.
Yet she also worked to the point of nervous exhaustion to get other Jews to safety, and the resistance she encountered has unmistakable parallels with the asylum-seeker situation today. There was condemnation of those “jumping the queue’’ and she noted that many receiving countries were anxious to move Jews on “somewhere, anywhere, just so long as they would go’’.
She could be recklessly, dangerously naive. In 1941, she gave notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie the addresses of dozens of Jewish youths in Amsterdam who were desperate to emigrate. Rather than help these young men, Barbie rounded them up and sent them to concentration camps.
A roundup of Jewish students at Wieringen Werkdorp, North Holland,