AW­FUL QUES­TIONS

The com­pro­mised life of Holo­caust sur­vivor Gertrude van Tijn touches on some of the cen­tral moral-his­tor­i­cal ques­tions of our time,

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - writes Rose­mary Neill

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,

in 1941

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