Unknown memoirs of WWII in Amsterdam

During the Second World War, over 6 million Jews got killed in anti-semitic Nazi fanaticism. We all know the big symbols that remember us of this holocaust: Auschwitz, Anne Frank’s journal, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin, the list goes on. Every country in Europe has its share of memorials and remnants of the gruesome history. Recently though I’ve discovered another monument in Amsterdam, where I live, to its lost Jews that is far more extensive, widespread and, incredibly, mostly unknown to its residents.

Before we get to it, we should take a brief look at the history of the Jews in the Netherlands during the Second World War. In 1939 around 140.000 Jews lived in the Netherlands. By 1945 almost 102.000 had died in Nazi concentration camps. This is a death rate of almost 75%, an unbelievably high percentage. As a comparison, in France and Belgium around 25% and 40% of the Jews died during the war. How could that have happened?

One of the biggest reasons this percentage was so high, and the deportation thus so ‘successful’, was the attitude most Dutch civil servants, the police, and the jews themselves took after the German invasion. Realizing that the new German overlords could be in control for many years, they took a stance of cooperation with the new rulers. In their view stability and a continuance of normal life -as much as was possible- was more important than trying to oppose the Nazi’s wherever they could. This was made easier by the relatively benign stance the Nazi’s took in the first years of the occupation. The Nazi’s, seeing the Dutch as ‘cousins’, tried to win the Dutch over to Nazism. Only when this didn’t work did they change to a more brutal stance, and thats when more and more people started resisting the Germans. But by then it was already too late for the Dutch Jews.

Because of systematic registration by civil servants of who was jewish, because the Dutch police made sure everyone was accounted for, because of the easy coöperation by the Jews themselves and because of a lack of means for most of the Jewish population to escape or hide made sure that by 1943 107.000 Jews got deported to the concentration camps. Of those only 5500 survived the end of the war.

A random street in Amsterdam

This brings us back to the current day. Because of the -unfortunate- diligence of the Dutch civil servants, all the records got neatly filed, organized and stored. These files have survived: all the addresses of the houses where Jews lived are still known. And in front of most those houses you can find little memories of them in the shape of these plaques on the left.

Sometimes you find one plaque, and sometimes you find a whole family that got killed, like this one and the one below. I’ve asked how many there are in Amsterdam and when I get an answer I’ll edit the text.

These plaques are near my own house, I pass them every day on my way to work. The left plaque reads: ‘Here lived Marianna de Groot, born 1907, deported in 1943 from Westerbork, killed 2–7–1943 Sobibor.’ With a bit of searching you can find all four siblings in the jewish archives, with pictures. This was Marianna:

Marianna de Groot joined the Hollandia-Kattenburg textile factory in Amsterdam on 8 December 1926. On Wednesday, 11 November 1942, around 4:30 PM, Willy Lages conducted the Sicherheitspolizei raid on the Hollandia factories. All exits were blocked, and the Jewish staff members were taken away that evening.

The story behind the names on these plaques makes the horrible history more tangible. You can picture the lives of these people happening right in front of you. Coming out their front door, going to the shops, talking to their neighbors on the street or having friends over. Isn’t this what having memoirs is all about?

Of course, these plaques can’t be seen without thinking of their cause. With right wing nationalism once more stirring in many area’s of Europe, it is more relevant than ever to see and realize what happens if a few are blamed for the problems of many. Simple solutions to complex problems are lies, but very tempting to many. Let these plaques show in their small way what happens when masses start believing those lies.

Next time you visit Amsterdam, see if you can find some plaques and think about their history for a moment.

Koen de Brauw