The idyllic countryside of Sobibor bears no resemblance to the large, efficient extermination camp once located in that remote corner of eastern Poland. Among the 250,000 Jews murdered during its 18 months of operation were the members of my mother’s family. I didn’t learn the details of their deaths until I was an adult, but I understood at a very young age that I had no grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins because someone called Hitler had killed them.
Sobibor is also the final resting place of 34,000 Dutch Jews. The Germans tried to hide their heinous crimes by plowing under the secret killing fields of Sobibor. Sixty years later, however, the letters of a Dutch teenager have surfaced to bear witness and to warn us to stay vigilant. Found by a workman demolishing a house in Amsterdam in 1995, the 86 letters were written by Philip Slier to his parents, Seline and Leender, between April and September 1942, while he was in the Molengoot labor camp.
The workman who discovered the letters, hidden in the third floor bathroom ceiling of 128 Vrolik Street, immediately recognized their significance but didn’t know what to do with them. Two years later, as if by divine providence, he was hired to work for the Dutch Institute of War Documentation, the organization that had researched Anne Frank’s diary.
Deborah Slier, founder of Star Bright Books in New York, vividly recalls the fax she received from her sister informing her that “a bundle of letters, written by a cousin during the war, had been found in Amsterdam. We were asked if we would agree to have them published in Dutch. My initial reaction was surprise.”
Deborah’s father and Philip’s father were brothers but the cousins never met since she was born and raised in South Africa where her father had immigrated in search of work. As Deborah writes, “I could not avoid thinking that had my father not had the good fortune to be unemployed in 1922, it would be my eyes and my brother’s, mother’s, father’s and sisters’ eyes that would be gazing out of this book alongside Flip’s.”
The book is Hidden Letters, the remarkable culmination of her eight-year odyssey to uncover her cousin’s past. Annotated by Deborah and her husband, Dr. Ian Shine, the impressive book is a carefully researched work that contains the letters of Philip Slier (translated by Marion Pritchard) in addition to photographs and biographies of his family and friends.
The portrait that emerges of Philip, who signs his letters Flip, is of an endearing young man who played the flute and the mandolin, liked singing and was an avid photographer. Many of his pictures appear in this book. Like his cousin Deborah, we also come to “appreciate his optimism, his compassion, his humor, his lack of hatred and his affection for family and friends.”
By sharing the story of Flip and his family, Deborah Slier tells the wider story of the Jewish community of the Netherlands and explores the tragic events leading up to its extinction. Although they initially believed the German occupation was only a temporary nuisance, the book documents how the Jews of Holland were slowly robbed of their jobs, their homes, their identities and ultimately their lives.
Flip was seventeen when the Germans invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Almost immediately anti-Jewish decrees were enacted, beginning with seemingly small humiliations. “Jew” and “Jewish” were always spelled with an upper case “J” until the German occupation when the lower case was declared the standard form in newspapers, documents, dictionaries and on the newly issued Jewish identity cards.
So intent were the Germans on eradicating Jews and Jewish culture from Dutch society that they even Aryanized Jewish Street names – Lazarus Lane, for example, was renamed Leprozen (Leprosy) Lane.
The German decrees escalated and soon Jews were banned from hotels, restaurants, theaters, libraries, museums and public parks. Jewish doctors, dentists, attorneys and pharmacists were no longer allowed to treat or work for gentiles. “No entry for Jews” signs were posted everywhere including many streets.
Since Jews were forbidden from dealing directly with German authorities, the Jewish Council was formed to act as a buffer between Germans and Jews. Abraham Asscher, the director of a diamond company, and David Cohen, professor of Ancient History at the University of Amsterdam, were joint chairmen of the council. Prominent Jews from professional and religious organizations, trusted and revered by community members who looked to them for guidance, also served on the board.
When the Germans canceled most work permits for Jews, the only alternative was the labor camp, initially operated for unemployed Dutchmen. In contrast to the Dutch workers, the Jews were paid lower wages, given less food, and allowed no leave.
Because we know the final outcome of the Nazis’ agenda, it is chilling to read this excerpt from a letter the Jewish Council sent to young men like Flip.
One Last Warning: You have been selected by the Municipal Labor Office to go to work in one of the Dutch Labor camps in the province of Drent under the direction of the Dutch Labor Council. You must therefore leave by train on Saturday morning. We give you again, for the last time, urgent advice to immediately follow this order. If you do not do this, the most severe punishment will occur. We repeat again, that you must give this – for your own good – your most urgent priority to be present at the indicated time. We repeat, that this is about normal work provision in normal Dutch Labor camps under normal Dutch supervision.
The Chairmen of the Jewish Council
Prof. Dr. C. (D) Cohen
A loyal citizen who had lost his job as an apprentice typesetter and believed the council had his best interests at heart, Flip obeyed the “request” and was sent to Molengoot, one of fifty labor camps. He was eighteen years old.
One of the most painful photographs in Hidden Letters is the group portrait of the well-groomed, elegantly dressed members of the Jewish Council. Chairman Abraham Asscher sits with his arms crossed conspicuously in front of him so that he manages to hide the yellow star affixed to his finely tailored suit. Other members aren’t so successful. The discomfort on the faces of these prominent Jewish citizens, who have been reduced to apologists for the Nazi regime, is palpable.
From the time of his arrival in Molengoot in April 1942 until his escape in September, Flip wrote to his family almost every day. This excerpt from his first letter, dated April 24th, sounds eerily like a letter sent from summer camp:
“Dear Father and Mother – Have arrived in the camp. Fairly comfortable. Reasonable bed, 3 blankets. Clean. Good atmosphere, decent people … send me a windbreaker as soon as possible … the camp leader made a speech, not encouraging, but he hopes to see us back in Amsterdam soon.”
Still in his teens, Flip can be forgiven his youthful naivet?. But what about the adults? These excerpts from a letter written on April 29, 1942, by the head of the secret police to the commissioner for justice and administration regarding the introduction of the Jewish star reveal the mindset of the Jewish Council members who were clearly in a state of denial:
The Jewish Council was notified today that within three days all Jews in this country must be identifiable by the Jewish star. Upon hearing this news, Asscher and Cohen were speechless. They apparently had not expected this measure. Then they declared that they, namely Asscher and Cohen, did not find this a pleasant measure to relay to the Jewish people, but that they personally would be proud to wear the Jewish star . Thus 569,355 stars were to be placed at the disposal of the Jewish Council. Asscher said, literally: “It will not last long, one to two months, until the war is over, and we are free!”
The stars cost 16 cents and one clothing coupon. Failure to wear a star was initially punished by a fine of 1,000 guilders and later deportation. Forced to sew a star on their chests, they neglected to see the target on their backs.
In sharp contrast to the submissive members of the Jewish Council were men like Lodewijk Ernst Visser, president of the Dutch Supreme Court, who refused to accept an ID stamped with a “j.” He opposed cooperation with the Germans and recommended “defiance, not compliance.” He denounced the opening of separate Jewish schools and wrote articles for the resistance newspaper. He accused the Jewish Council of “being craven in their attitude to oblige the occupier and obey orders.”
The Jewish Council sent this honorable and courageous man a letter threatening him with deportation if he continued to protest. Three days later he died of a heart attack.
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Deborah Slier reminds us that “The Netherlands is the only country in Europe that has never expelled, ghettoized, nor legally discriminated against Jews, thus Dutch Jews felt as Dutch as non-Jews did.” How then did the Jews come to be identified as “the other,” separated, isolated and betrayed by their fellow citizens?
The book offers several answers. The key to controlling the masses was control of the media and Adolph Hitler brilliantly utilized this powerful tool. His charismatic voice and dazzling showmanship seduced adoring audiences into believing he could solve all their problems, which always stemmed from the Jews. In the case of the Netherlands this mythical threat amounted to one percent of the population.
Dutch Jews were robbed of all access to the media when their radios and telephones were confiscated. The only newspaper they were allowed to read was The Jewish Weekly, sanctioned and censored by the Nazis, leaving them increasingly cut off from vital information about their fate.
The matter of the Pigeon Brigade is another example of how methodical the Nazis were in their efforts to control information. In June 1940 they counted 32,709 pigeons in Amsterdam, grounded them and put them under surveillance. Any that were caught had to be turned over to the mayor’s office in an effort to prevent their handlers from using them to leak information.
Complacency on the part of the civilized West toward the plight of the Jews was another factor that contributed to Hitler’s success. Slier notes that when Polish diplomat Jan Karski described the atrocities he had personally witnessed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the latter’s response was, “I don’t believe you.” When Karski asked him if he thought he was lying, Frankfurter said, “No, but I simply cannot believe you.”
The groundwork for genocide was laid when good men could be counted on to do nothing.
We learn about Flip’s growing awareness of the fate of Dutch Jews in this excerpt dated June 13, 1942: “I hear the food situation in Amsterdam is still terrible. Are Jews no longer allowed to buy meat and vegetables in Christian shops? I heard something like that here.”
On July 11, 1942 ten Christian churches sent a joint telegram expressing outrage at the deportation of Jews and urgently requesting that they not proceed. The telegram was read from the pulpit of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches on July 26. According to Slier, “Analyses showed that areas that had a higher percentage of Catholics had a higher percentage of Jews hidden and saved.”
For example, in the village of Nieuwland, the Reverend Fritz Slomp inspired almost every family to hide Jews in their homes. The entire village was awarded the Yad Vashem medal in 1985 for saving 300 Jews.
Hitler recognized that National Socialism and Christian beliefs were irreconcilable so the Nazis began replacing any manifestations of Christianity with the National Reich Church. Publishing and disseminating the Bible were outlawed while the swastika replaced the cross in all churches, cathedrals and chapels throughout the country.
Flip wrote in a letter dated July 18, 1942: “The Christians are also getting more and more afraid. This afternoon I went again to the village to pick up photos. I also did other shopping, and then went to the barber to get a haircut. He said he was sorry, but he didn’t dare cut my hair while I was wearing a star. So I took it off and got a nice cut.”
As conditions in the Molengoot camp became more brutal, Flip wrote on August 3: “This morning the new men went to work. Pa and Ma, it broke my heart to see these oldsters plodding along. Some of them have heart trouble . there is no light work on the moor, and they get no time to catch their breath. We have already decided that tomorrow we will dig a ditch for them.”
Flip’s last letter, dated September 14, gives no clue as to what finally compelled him to escape from the Molengoot camp and make his way to Amsterdam, where he was provided with several hiding places.
The Nazis arrested him on March 31 at Amsterdam Central Station when he tried to flee to Switzerland. The file card, reprinted in the book, gives the reason for his arrest as “Ohme Stern” (without a star). After a three-day tortuous journey, locked inside a cattle car, Flip Slier arrived in Sobibor on April 9, 1943. He was nineteen years old.
While Hidden Letters provides an illuminating window into the fate of Dutch Jews, this is also a cautionary tale. The complacency of world leaders, the compliance of misguided Jewish leaders and the control and manipulation of the media contributed to making Europe Judenrein.
The nations preferred to look the other way as the Jews were offered as the korban – the sacrificial lamb – they hoped would satisfy the Nazi bloodlust.
The letters of Philip Slier appear now as a timely warning that we risk being in denial – again.
Helen Zegerman Schwimmer, a veteran journalist and author of “Like The Stars of the Heavens,” was born in the St. Ottilien Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. For more information visit her website, helenschwimmer.com.