For many people unable to come to terms with the annihilation of six million Jews, the diary of a young teenage girl is the only way to begin to comprehend the personal tragedies of the Holocaust.
Indeed, The Diary of Anne Frank has come to symbolize Nazism’s malevolent destruction of innocent Jewish life and infinite Jewish potential. However, it is both interesting and instructive to understand the immediate history in Amsterdam that led to the tragic story of Anne Frank and her celebrated masterpiece.
Beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and accelerating dramatically after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, thousands of Jews sought refuge in the Netherlands. In response, the Dutch authorities established Westerbork as a central camp to hold them and, after Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, utilized Westerbork as a staging ground from which to deport Jews.
From July 1942 to September 1944, almost 100,000 were deported to concentration camps, most to Auschwitz (60,330) and Sobibor (34,313), where almost all were murdered upon arrival. (Westerbork’s most notable prisoner was undoubtedly Anne Frank, who arrived there on August 4, 1944.)
At the very inception of their invasion of the Netherlands, the Nazis engaged in a vicious aerial bombardment that almost reduced Rotterdam to rubble and, fearing that this military tactic would be extended to other Dutch cities, the Dutch army surrendered only a few days later on May 14, 1940.
With Queen Wilhelmina having fled to Great Britain to establish a government-in-exile, Hitler lost little time in establishing a Nazi civil administration, which issued a series of anti-Semitic edicts beginning in autumn 1940, including the firing of all Jewish civil servants and the formal registration of all Jews with the government. (Pursuant to a 1940 census, there were 159,806 registrations, which included 19,561 people born of mixed marriages; a Jew was at that time defined in the Netherlands as any person with two Jewish grandparents.)
Eichmann had founded the first emigration office in Vienna in autumn 1938 to actually ease Austrian emigration requirements for Jews, thereby making it easier for them to leave. The office financed Jewish emigration by confiscating money and property from wealthier Jews and using it to expel their fellow Jews.
Eichmann opened a second office in Prague before he established the Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Berlin on January 24, 1939 under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich – who was charged with facilitating, coordinating, and accelerating Jewish emigration – which dramatically ramped up the Nazi effort to expel all Dutch Jews. The Central Office was also charged with establishing a Jewish organization that would assist the Nazis in expelling Jews from their homes and communities.
The situation of Dutch Jewry deteriorated in 1940; under the terms of an October 20 decree, all businesses in which Jews had any financial interest had to be officially registered and, on November 21, all Jewish civil servants were dismissed.
In December 1940, the Jews decided to establish the Jewish Coordinating Committee, an organization designed to represent all of the various Jewish communities in the Netherlands. They appointed as chairman Lodewijk Ernst Visser, who had been appointed Chief Justice of the Dutch Supreme Court in 1939 but was dismissed from his position by the Nazis in May 1940.
The year 1941 essentially marked the beginning of the end of Dutch Jewry, beginning with the Nazi order on January 10 that all Jews register with local branches of the census office. On February 12, 1941, in the wake of clashes between Jews and Dutch Nazis in old Jewish Amsterdam, the Nazis created the Joodse Raad (“Jewish Council”) and ordered Abraham Asscher, a diamond merchant, and Professor David Cohen, a classics professor, to direct it.
Asscher (1880-1950), the proprietor of the most important diamond firm in Amsterdam, translated his success into political power, serving as chairman of both the Union of Ashkenazic Communities and the Amsterdam Jewish Community Council and as spokesman for the Dutch Jewish community.
During the massive influx of Jewish refugees from Germany in the mid-1930s, it was he and Cohen who directed the effort to assist the new arrivals. Under their management, however, the Joodse Raad, the only Jewish Council in the German occupation of Western Europe, became little more than a Judenrat charged with organizing the selection of Jewish deportees to be sent to work camps.
Cohen (1882-1967) was a professor of ancient history who became active in Jewish refugee work early in his life. He served as a member of many Dutch Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Council in The Hague, then in Amsterdam, and was a respected Jewish philanthropist. Unlike Asscher, however, he was a strong Zionist who sponsored and organized the Zionist Students Union and the Jewish Youth Federation.
On February 22, 1941, the Nazis arrested 389 young Jews and sent them to Buchenwald and Mauthausen. In solidarity with the deported Jews and in a final act of resistance, Dutch citizens went on a countrywide general strike, which effectively shut down the country’s factories and transportation system, but the Nazis easily quashed it in three days. As punishment – and to send an unequivocal message – the Nazis imposed mammoth fines on participating cities and municipalities, including a 15 million-guilder fine on Amsterdam.
The strike had even more serious consequences for Amsterdam’s Jews. The Dutch public had learned the lesson that resistance to the Nazis was futile and the Nazis, having effectively removed any Dutch opposition to its anti-Jewish policies, took the opportunity to double down and accelerate their implementation of the Final Solution in the Netherlands.
As such, during the summer of 1941, the Nazis banned Dutch Jews from public places and made them subject to extreme travel restrictions. In August, they expelled all Jewish students from public educational institutions and blocked Jews’ access to all their assets. By the end of autumn, they commenced operation of forced labor camps and assigned responsibility to the Joodse Raad with staffing them with Jewish workers sufficient to fill drastically escalating labor quotas.
The devastation of Dutch Jewry commenced apace in 1942. In January, the Nazis began concentrating Jews in Amsterdam; in March, they began appropriating Jewish property; on April 29, they ordered that every Jew aged six and over must wear a yellow star inscribed with the word “Jood” on his left breast; and deportations to Westerbork (and then primarily Auschwitz) commenced that summer.
Visser, the former Dutch Supreme Court Justice who headed the Jewish Coordinating Committee, protested vociferously against Jews being forced to wear the star. A momentous and hostile philosophical battle ensued between Visser, who single-mindedly advocated non-cooperation with the Nazis, and Cohen and Asscher, who urged collaboration as the only way forward to maximize Jewish survival under the circumstances.
Visser, an authentic Holocaust hero unfortunately known to few Jews, persisted in advocating for non-collaboration until three days after he received a correspondence from the Nazis threatening to send him to a concentration camp if he persisted in his resistance, when he died from a sudden heart attack.
On Friday evening, June 26, 1942, after Shabbat had started, Cohen was summoned to Heydrich’s Central Office for Jewish Emigration, where he was advised that entire Jewish families would be sent to labor camps in Germany; he was ordered to report the very next morning on the Joodse Raad’s daily capacity to process Jews. On July 14, after several days of wrangling over numbers, the Nazis seized 700 Jewish hostages and threatened to deport them all to Mauthausen unless 4,000 Jews immediately appeared, ready to be transported to work in Nazi work camps.
Shown here is an incredible rarity from my collection, a July 14, 1942 flier issued on the very day of the Nazi deportation action as an extra edition of the Amsterdam Het Joodse Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly), perhaps the last Dutch newspaper produced for the Amsterdam Jewish community. The filer bears a terse announcement:
The Sicherheitspolizei informs us of the following: About 700 Jews have been arrested in Amsterdam today. If this week the 4,000 designated Jews do not leave for the labor camps in Germany, the 700 detainees will be transferred to a concentration camp in Germany.
The announcement is signed (in print) at the bottom by Asscher and Cohen who, as discussed, were heads of the Nazi-created Jewish Council in Amsterdam and were also publishers of the paper. The next day, the first deportees were on a transport and most of the Jewish hostages were released. Interestingly, the requisition of 4,000 Jewish laborers mentioned here was the catalyst that forced the Frank family into hiding after Anne’s sister Margot was called up by the Central Office for Jewish Emigration on July 5, 1942.
When the deportation of Jews from Holland began and the SS issued a warrant for the arrest of Otto Frank (Anne’s father), his Christian friends, Miep and Jan Gies, hid the Frank family and others from the Nazis in a secret annex above Otto’s business premises, where they remained from July 9, 1942 until someone betrayed them on August 4, 1944. (Few people know that Miep and Jan, a member of the Dutch resistance, also hid an anti-Nazi university student at their apartment, which was close to the secret annex.)
After the arrest of the Franks, Miep’s offer to purchase their freedom was rebuffed by the Nazis. She escaped mandatory execution for harboring Jewish fugitives only due to a crazy quirk of fate: The police officer who came to interrogate her was from Vienna, her birth town, and, after screaming at her, he let her go.
The rest of the story is well known: The Frank family was transferred to Westerbork, from which they were forced onto the last train to leave the Netherlands for Auschwitz. Anne arrived in Bergen-Belsen in December 1944 and was murdered there in March 1945. Her mother died in Birkenau just after January 1, 1945; her sisters died at Bergen-Belsen; and Otto Frank, the only survivor of the Frank family, was liberated from Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
After the arrest of the Frank family, Miep retrieved Anne’s papers and kept them safe, hoping to return them to her. However, when Otto returned from Auschwitz and learned of Anne’s death, Miep delivered Anne’s papers to him, which he compiled into a diary first published in 1947. Many people do not know, however, that Miep never read the diaries before turning them over to Otto and that she later commented that, had she done so, she surely would have destroyed them to protect all the people who had assisted and supplied the Frank family.
Otto devoted the rest of his life to promoting Anne’s diary and perpetuating her memory. In the February 24, 1965 correspondence exhibited here, he writes:
The work in Amsterdam is progressing steadily and I imagine you received from there the invitation to our International Youth Conference in July … I am sending you under separate cover a new pamphlet of the Anne Frank Foundation.
The Anne Frank Foundation was founded on May 3, 1957 to prevent the tearing down of the Frank house, which became a museum on May 3, 1960 and stands today as one of the outstanding Jewish Holocaust shrines.
Miep received many awards, including the Yad Vashem Righteous Among the Nations medal (1995). Very much a heroine of this story in her own right, she published her memoirs in Anne Frank Remembered (1987). Exhibited here is a title page of that book signed by her.
In October 1942, the expulsion of the Dutch Jews accelerated with 12,000 being sent to Auschwitz in one mass deportation. By Rosh Hashanah 1943, there were few Jews left in Amsterdam, as they had all been deported to Westerbork and then to Auschwitz. Overall, less than one-fourth of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust. Some 100,000 were murdered and, of the 107,000 ultimately deported to Auschwitz, only 5,200 survived – one of the highest Jewish death rates in all of Europe.
This unusually high rate is attributable to the dense population in the Netherlands, with little open space or forest land for hiding, and to a civil administration that maintained extensive records of Jews, including where they lived. However, according to most scholars, the principal reason for these unenviable statistics was that the German police in the Netherlands, unlike in other countries, exercised sole authority over the deportations – independent of the occupying Nazi regime – which facilitated their ability to proceed slowly and to act with deception and duplicity so as to minimize Jewish resistance.
Asscher (Bergen-Belsen) and Cohen (Theresienstadt) were the only two of the 20 members of the Joodse Raad to survive Nazi captivity, and both returned to Amsterdam after the war, where the Dutch government investigated them for wartime collaboration.
In retrospect, it was indisputable that the Joodse Raad had abetted the Nazi mass-murder of Dutch Jews, but the question of what the Dutch population in general, and Asscher and Cohen in particular, knew at the time remains a matter of considerable historical dispute. Perhaps tilting the scale in their favor is the fact that the Nazis directed considerable resources to keeping the fate of the deported Jews from public knowledge.
In 1947, the Dutch Jewish Council of Honor barred Asscher and Cohen from ever holding public office in the Jewish community but, after Asscher’s death in 1950, public pressure triggered the Council’s reversal and the annulment of its decree. After the Council absolved them of all wrongdoing, the Dutch government followed suit and dropped all charges against them the following year.