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The Grey Zone

By (August 1, 2014) 2 Comments

The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews

By Bernard Wassersteinambiguityofvirtue
Harvard UP, 2014

Gertrude van Tijn, the subject of Bernard Wasserstein’s absorbing new book, was born July 4, 1891 as Gertrud Franzisca Cohn in Braunchweig, Saxony to a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family. She imbibed some of its bourgeois values, including discipline and hard work. But others she rejected, especially conformity. This combination of diligence and unconventionality fueled her work with refugees in prewar and wartime Europe.

Throughout the 1930s Van Tijn helped Jewish refugees in Holland escape the growing Nazi menace. After the occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940 she continued her work under the auspices of the Dutch Jewish Council, until emigration became almost impossible in late 1941. After that she worked to prepare — as much as such a thing was possible — the Jews of Holland, including herself, for their eventual deportation. To do this important work she had to cooperate with the German occupation.

Wasserstein, author of several books on modern European Jewry, tells van Tijn’s story in order to ask big questions. How did Jews (in Holland and elsewhere) respond in the 1930s and 40s to their oppression? Could they do so without becoming tainted by their association with the enemy? Was someone like van Tijn a collaborator? In asking these questions, Wasserstein’s real target is Hannah Arendt’s controversial claim in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) that the Jewish Councils — organizations charged by the Nazis to oversee the Jewish populations of the territories they occupied — facilitated the destruction of Europe’s Jews. In arguing for a more historically informed perspective, however, Wasserstein succumbs to the same black and white thinking for which he criticizes Arendt.

Van Tijn was not an unlikely heroine: she was brave, conscientious, and unconventional, a person of integrity who often defied authority. But the subject of her heroism certainly was. Judaism was not a part of her upbringing. Her family was so committed to Reform Judaism — that modernizing movement that developed in Europe throughout the 19th century as a result of increased Jewish emancipation — 2that they no longer observed Jewish customs and rituals.

Everything changed for van Tijn after once she discovered Zionism. Like many educated, secular Jews of the period, Van Tijn was drawn to progressive movements of all sorts. But for her, as for so many young Jews, none had the force of Zionism. Wasserstein suggests that in Zionism van Tijn found “an ideal that she could embrace unconditionally [and] an outlet for her restless energy.” Van Tijn described the encounter in even more dramatic, Damascene terms that led to a profound decision: “Stop calling myself Jewish or go over to the Zionists with all my heart.”

Interestingly, though, van Tijn could never imagine a life for herself in Palestine: Zionism offered her not a homeland but a focus for her desire to help others. Instead, the most important thing about van Tijn’s Zionist activism was that it introduced her to the work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (popularly known as “the Joint”), an organization founded in 1914 to help Jews in distress wherever they lived. Van Tijn worked closely with the organization and, especially in the years of Nazi occupation, considered it her real employer.

In 1933 van Tijn took a position heading the Committee for Jewish Refugees, formed immediately after the Nazis came to power in Germany. Its purpose was to help the influx of Jewish refugees to Holland find permanent places to settle abroad. Almost 40,000 Jews left Germany in the first year of Nazi rule. Most went to other parts of Western Europe, since almost every other nation, including the US and Canada, had strict quotas on Jewish immigration. The similarities of language and culture, and its long history of tolerance, made Holland a natural first choice for many German refugees.

Wasserstein’s book is a powerful indictment, if another were needed, of the world’s failure to respond to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Van Tijn’s job was difficult because so few countries would take refugees, and those that did took so few. To make things worse, refugees and their helpers had to negotiate bureaucratic regulations so convoluted and despair-inducing that, for example, often by the time an entry visa had been secured the exit visa had expired. Despite these experiences, van Tijn hoped a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem might be found. To a Swiss colleague, she wrote, “We still have no organized emigration, but we suppose that it will soon begin.” She expressed such sentiments as late as May 1941, when she traveled to Lisbon to speak with leaders of the Joint about the possibility of their financing continued emigration from Holland and elsewhere across the Atlantic.

3Wasserstein presents this trip as the centerpiece of his book, making much of the incongruity of a middle-aged, middle-class Jewish woman, on a Nazi-sponsored mission no less, thrown into the international intrigue of the Portuguese capital, as if she were a housewife deposited in an Alan Furst novel. Breathlessly he describes Lisbon as “a magnet for international intrigue” and its “plush and rather shady” Palácio Hotel as a place where “Allied and Axis spies rubbed shoulders in the lobby with foreign correspondents and affluent émigrés.” Lisbon, he says, was “an odd destination for a respectable, middle-class housewife from Amsterdam.”

Yet this description works against the more subtle presentation of van Tijn elsewhere in the book, best summarized by Wasserstein’s concluding description:

drawing on large personal reserves of courage, energy, and compassion, and impelled by a burning desire to help the persecuted and the downtrodden, she battled selflessly against impossible odds to save lives.

Thus Van Tijn was no “mere” housewife, no stranger to danger, no political naïf. Wasserstein tries to suggest that the Nazis’ official backing of the mission was unprecedented, yet he freely admits that Nazi policies towards Jews changed over time: for many years they sought to harass and drive out the Jews from Germany and occupied territory rather than to kill them. Even after the beginning of the war, when Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, were rounded up into ghettos and used as forced labor, the Nazis still considered various schemes to expel the Jews. (There were plans to create a “protectorate” near the Polish city of Lublin, for example, and more fanciful ideas, such as the one promoted by Adolf Eichmann to send the Jews to Madagascar.) Only with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 did the policy change from emigration to extermination.

In the end, the trip to Lisbon was futile. Even before the US entered the war, ship travel across the Atlantic was limited and perilous. Any agreement van Tijn might have been able to broker between the Joint and the Nazis would have been fruitless: there was no way to get masses of refugees out of Europe and nowhere for them to go. In this sense, her trip was entirely representative of most of van Tijn’s work, which required choosing amongst a series of first bad and then worse options. The only remarkable thing that happened in Lisbon was van Tijn’s refusal of the Joint’s offer to arrange passage for her to America, the very escape route denied so many others. Van Tijn’s decision to return to Holland was not simple, but, as she later wrote, “were I choose to safety over duty, I would never be able to live at peace with myself again.”

Van Tijn’s sense of duty returned her to an increasingly dire situation, and one which Jewish leaders could not decide what to do about. Such internal tensions were not new. Already, in 1939, they had disagreed over the Dutch government’s insistence that the Jewish community finance and administer the newly created centralized refugee camp of Westerbork. Van Tijn was initially opposed, but she was persuaded by others, especially a man named David Cohen, that it would be more like the training farm for Zionist pioneers she had organized in the 1930s than like a refugee camp. Cohen, who directed the umbrella organization of the various Jewish groups in pre-war Holland, is the primary villain of Wasserstein’s book. He describes Cohen as “amiable” and “hardworking” but also as “vain and unimaginative,” a cautious man who “believed that close cooperation with the authorities was the key to success.” Wasserstein argues that he was wrong to do so, and that was certainly true of Westerbork: the Nazis turned it into a transit camp from which almost one hundred transports departed to the death camps of the East. Wasserstein concludes that Cohen must have lived “in an extreme state of wishful thinking if not willful blindness,” calling his postwar profession of ignorance “a transparent attempt to shirk responsibility for the consequences of his actions.”

4Cohen’s actions were significant, because in February 1941, he became the leader of the Dutch Jewish Council, newly created by the Nazis on the model of similar organizations they had already set up in Poland. Van Tijn’s Committee for Jewish Refugees was folded into the Council. Jewish leaders increasingly found themselves urging their constituencies to comply with Nazi demands.

Practically speaking this meant registering all Jews in Holland for eventual deportation, first German and stateless Jews, then Dutch Jews, and eventually even the Jews working for the Council, who had previously been protected. Cohen protested at every step, but he always, in Wasserstein’s words, “kowtowed” to the Nazis. Most damningly, he acquiesced when, in the summer of 1943, the Nazis demanded the names of 7,000 Council workers and family members to be submitted for deportation. When other department heads, including van Tijn, refused to make choices, submitting only alphabetized lists of their personnel, Cohen and his closest associates made the decisions themselves. Wasserstein cites a witness to the scene:

I can still see them sitting there… with the big card index boxes in front of them, as people went to and fro bringing in new boxes and taking out others with the cards of the doomed.

Given scenes like this — in which otherwise mundane administrative tasks became matters of life and death — it is no wonder that already in mid-1942 van Tijn had suffered a breakdown and briefly resigned. When she returned a few weeks later she became head of a new department called “Help for the Departing,” designed to assist deportees for the ordeal ahead. The dispiriting nature of this work comes across in Wasserstein’s description of a leaflet produced by Van Tijn’s department to tell deportees what they should pack:

The list of recommended items included a bread bag and water bottle (no thermos flask), soap, toilet paper, a toothbrush, a sponge or washcloth, hand towels, insect repellent, talcum powder (50 grams), aspirin tablets (20 half-gram pills), and 50 Norit tablets (against diarrhea). The bread bag and water bottle were to be placed in the middle of the rucksack. Deportees were told to bring food for three days (rye bread in cellophane wrap without butter or jam, a terrine of butter, a piece of cheese, tea, chocolate, chewing gum, condensed milk or milk powder). Approved winter clothing included winter jackets, work overalls, one pair of strong shoes ‘preferably with iron fittings,’ a pair of slippers, collars and cuff links, and more. Deportees were also told to pack two blankets, a penknife, writing materials, and a watch (“no silver”). It was also “perhaps necessary to take what German money you have.” Among other suggestions were “a favourite book” and postcards with international reply coupons. The list went on and one. But the leaflet helpfully warned that it would be “unwise to pack the rucksacks too full.”

The advice is so sensible, so tidy, so organized, but of course also so misguided and so hopeless. It’s heartbreaking to see bourgeois values like tidiness and ingenuity persist in the face of what its authors must surely have suspected was the imminent destruction of everything that worldview stood for. Most of van Tijn’s work — training urban refugees to become farmers, arranging exit visas, soliciting funds through impassioned letters, cables, and memoranda—was uncomplicatedly good. It refutes the persistent myth that Jews went to their deaths like sheep. But her work with the Helping Committee is harder to assess, even for Wasserstein. He asks:

On balance, did the rucksacks, baby diapers, sanitary pads, coats, boots, and the rest ease the last days of the Jews en route to the death camps, or, in the final reckoning, did the entire operation of the department accrue more to the benefit of the ultimate recipients of many of these goods: German soldiers and civilians, German women, and babies?

The sentence is structured around a false parallelism between things (rucksacks, diapers, boots, etc) and people (soldiers, civilians, women, babies). The Jews are reduced to objects, the Germans entitled to be subjects. This is of course the truth of the Holocaust in miniature. Yet the sentence is so contorted, so hard to follow that its ultimate effect is confusion, not compression. What, for example, is the purpose of that unnecessary and, in terms of syntactical balance, infelicitous phrase “in the final reckoning”? Is it a sly echo of the Nazi euphemism “the final solution,” thereby contaminating the very idea of this reckoning, which thus impersonates the thinking of the oppressors? Or is it, through its insistence on finality, on what really matters, a definitive assertion that the work of van Tijn and her colleagues benefitted Germans more than Jews?

Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Photo: Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Even if that were the case, though, we shouldn’t assume van Tijn worked in bad faith. Perhaps it’s to acknowledge this possibility that Wasserstein refers for the first time here to German civilians (previously he has only spoken of Germans in the abstract or of the Nazis), and in the most pathos-filled terms, too (not just children, but babies). And that’s after describing these groups as “the ultimate recipients of many of these goods,” an anodyne phrase that only hints at the violent loss of Jewish property and life. Perhaps Wasserstein wants to commend van Tijn and her colleagues in some strange way—as if to say they cared so much about suffering that even their enemies benefitted from it. Wasserstein’s struggle to judge reflects the morally ambiguous situation faced by van Tijn and the Council.

Any such judgment needs to consider the fate of the Jewish leaders, who were not immune from the actions they helped enforce. At the end of September 1943, on the eve of Rosh Hoshanah, in fact, the remaining Jews in Amsterdam were sent to Westerbork. Van Tjin had been arrested twice before in the previous year but each time been saved by a high-ranking member of the Gestapo. This time there was no reprieve. She joined the deportees she had helped and consoled.

When van Tijn arrived at the transit camp, 17,000 people were living in a facility designed for 5,000. Of course, that number shrank as each transport left for the East. Van Tijn’s only hope was to be placed on a prisoner exchange list as one of those the Nazis would be willing to release in exchange for German POWs and German civilians held by the Allies. In determining who would be saved, the Germans used names given by Jewish and other refugee organizations, particularly, Wasserstein notes, those “who had played a role in rescue and relief activities in western Europe in collaboration with the Joint.”

6On March 15, 1944 van Tijn left Westerbork for Bergen-Belsen as part of the final convoy of exchange prisoners. Conditions in Bergen-Belsen were much worse than at Westerbork. She called it “the most dismal place I have ever seen” and was especially shocked by the condition of prisoners who had arrived from Westerbork only two months earlier: “Already the men looked emaciated, ill-kept, cowed—a shadow of their former selves.” Van Tijn was herself in poor health when she left the camp with some two hundred others on June 30. A dangerous journey through wartime Europe followed: travelling via Vienna, the convoy finally reached neutral Istanbul, and, a few days later, succor in Palestine. “It is really like being re-born and I am still rather dazed,” she wrote at the time. But she added,

Don’t expect a coherent letter from me just yet. The change from a German camp to freedom — the change from certainty that one would not live to life itself is so great that somehow it absorbs all my self-control to behave normally.

That ambivalence was prophetic: van Tijn’s liberation was not liberatory. She returned to Holland in April 1945 at the request of the Dutch government in exile, which made her a repatriation commissioner for the Jewish deportees they imagined would soon be returning to Holland. But the few that did — of the 107,000 Dutch Jews deported only 5,500 returned — were hostile to her, associating her with the Jewish Council she had felt so ambivalent towards herself. She experienced “icy rejection.” In an unpublished memoir — which Wasserstein uses to great effect — she wrote:

Once I saw one of my oldest friends on the street and went to meet him, both arms outstretched. He looked at me, turned on his heels without saying a word, and left me standing, rooted to the ground.

She soon resigned her position, and went to work for the Joint in New York — this was the first time she was ever officially employed by the organization that had saved her life. Throughout her years in the U.S., she continued to be active in social causes, including the civil rights movement. She died in Portland, Oregon in 1974.

Wasserstein tells van Tijn’s life clearly and capably, enriching it with his vast knowledge of modern European history. He does many things well. He neatly manages the dual task of telling the story of van Tijn’s life and explaining the bureaucratic programs, systems, and offices in which she worked. He discusses the pre-war years almost as much as the war itself, providing valuable evidence that Jews sought to help each other and to resist their oppression. And he emphasizes work rather than love in telling van Tijn’s story. There were men (and, in her youth, women) in van Tijn’s life, but it is not just Wasserstein’s respect for his subject’s reticence that makes him deemphasize the relationships: for him as for her, her work was most important.

7The challenge of telling an exciting story about committee work is made easier because van Tijn often took a leadership role. (Wasserstein rightly suggests that some of the vociferous post-war criticism of van Tijn stemmed from the fact that she was an outspoken and accomplished woman. Too bad he calls their slights “the natural reaction of males in a patriarchal age”: van Tijn spent her life campaigning against so-called “natural” reactions.) Yet I wanted more specifics about how van Tijn worked with others, especially those under her — examples of how she made things happen, or failed to, how she cooperated with others, or didn’t, how she made colleagues enthusiastic, or not. Of course these are the sorts of evanescent qualities, activities, and dispositions that can be difficult to record.

The things that were recorded, however, especially the minutes of the Council board meetings, are instructive, for they allow Wasserstein to show most sharply van Tijn’s differences with Cohen. These differences lead directly to the heart of the book: Wasserstein’s conclusions about the abstractions of its title. Given the understandable criticism of the Jewish Councils’ unenviable role in relation to the Nazis, how are we to evaluate van Tijn’s conduct during the years leading up to and including the war?

In the seven years between 1933 and 1940 van Tijn’s Committee for Jewish Refugees facilitated the emigration of approximately 18,000 people. Adding those who the group helped to leave illegally, as well as the prisoner exchanges that she helped to manage and eventually benefitted from, the number saved is over 22,000. Wasserstein rightly concludes: “This was a significant lifesaving achievement, accomplished against enormous odds and in the face of a myriad conflicting pressures and constraints.”

Yet any assessment must also consider the Committee’s compliance with government requests in the 1930s (most notably agreeing with the Dutch’s government’s anti-Communist policy), and its collusion in sending some refugees back to Germany despite the worsening situation there. Such acquiescence prefigured the still more damaging accommodations the Council made during the Nazi occupation. After the war, van Tijn wrote a damning report indicting Council leaders, especially Cohen. She granted they were sincere when they argued that agreeing to German demands would prevent worse things from happening. But, she pointed out, they were always wrong about this. As Wasserstein puts it, “this constantly repeated refrain became a rationalization for pitiful abasement before the Germans’ genocidal policy.”

Cohen responded by attacking her personally (“she was full of intrigues”) and even threatening her: “when I am really angry (and I am) I am not to be trifled with.” He insisted the Council had always been unified, a claim disproved by the surviving minutes of their meetings. Yet van Tijn cannot be definitively separated from the Council. Indeed, Wasserstein admits that, although van Tijn “advocated a more militant posture than that adopted by the leaders of the Jewish Council,” “the fact remains that she was a department head of the very organization whose leaders she attacked so bitingly.” He acknowledges that van Tijn’s attempt to separate the Council’s charitable activities from its political ones was futile.

But he concludes that van Tijn acted more morally than the rest of the Jewish leadership, especially Cohen. He distinguishes between van Tijn and Cohen by referring the halachic (Jewish religious) precept established in the Talmudic period that “thou shall not give up a single soul from [the people] Israel.” This precept importantly distinguishes between mitigating and non-mitigating situations. Thus it is acceptable for a named person to be given to an enemy of the people if it means saving others, but unacceptable for “simply any odd person” to be given up for execution or death. On this principle, van Tijn’s acquiescence in 1941 to a Nazi demand that she give up the names of those who had worked at a Zionist training farm differs from Cohen’s decision in 1943 about which names to put on a list of 7,000 possible deportees. As Wasserstein puts it,

Both Cohen and [van Tijn] took morally hazardous decisions in order to save lives. But Cohen was ready to sacrifice some lives in order to save others, and he dared to take it upon himself to distinguish those less worth saving.

Wasserstein thus considers van Tijn’s actions more Jewish than Cohen’s, though he adds that she was guided more by “humane instinct than religious precept.”

8If only Wasserstein had left things there. Instead he concludes by taking up his running battle with Hannah Arendt. It’s fashionable these days to attack Arendt’s reading of Eichmann and her understanding of totalitarianism, a view Wasserstein himself has contributed to. New research suggests that Eichmann was much more anti-Semitic than he seemed at his trial in Jerusalem, and much more actively involved in actions against Jews than he claimed. Arendt was wrong, then, to speak of Eichmann in terms of the banality of evil. But she was right to argue that we misunderstand the Holocaust if we glamorize evil, that the issue of statelessness and the category of the refugee were central to the Nazis’ ability to murder so many millions, and that the Jewish Councils are an anguished chapter in the dark story of the Holocaust. These claims remain not just valid but indispensable.

Rather than engaging with Arendt’s ideas, Wasserstein criticizes her personally. He compares Arendt and van Tijn, noting their similar upbringings and their near-encounter in Lisbon where Arendt left for New York just as van Tijn arrived for her meetings with the Joint in May 1941. Then he adds, strangely:

[Van Tijn], too, could have fled across the Atlantic, and no one would have blamed her, just as no one thinks of blaming Arendt for choosing to escape. [Van Tijn], however, chose the more morally challenging path of returning to her post in Amsterdam.

The claim that no one blames Arendt raises the possibility that maybe we should. The ambiguous phrase “morally challenging” leaves us hanging. Is this bad or good? Is he criticizing van Tijn? Or condemning Arendt? Is van Tijn overstepping the mark, or is Arendt not up to scratch?

In the end, the comparison between van Tijn and Arendt unhelpfully distracts from the more important one between van Tijn and Cohen. Ironically, Wasserstein’s criticism of Cohen only affirms Arendt’s criticism of the Jewish Councils, which in its bluntest form accused their leaders of enabling the scale of the Holocaust:

The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.

Here Arendt seems to echo the (admittedly, almost certainly self-serving) declaration of the head of the Sicherheitsdienst in Amsterdam at his postwar trial: “without the Jewish Council we would not have achieved anything.” Arendt’s stringent claim refuses to acknowledge extenuating circumstances. By separating van Tijn from Cohen, Wasserstein makes a similar judgment. His view of the Councils is more nuanced than Arendt’s, but not much. In the end, he is convincing that Cohen acted far more reprehensibly than van Tijn (though nowhere nearly as badly as other Jewish Council leaders, most notoriously Chaim Rumkowski in the Polish city of Lodz). But in valuing van Tijn by demonizing others he separates the “bad” Council from the “good.” It’s as if Wasserstein feels he must acquiesce to a naïve idea of heroism that van Tijn’s entire story actually contests. His story would have meant even more if he had presented Cohen and other leaders in a less caricatured way. That would have meant listening to his own conclusions about van Tijn, whose “record of grey wartime realities was too ambivalent for those who sought a comfortingly black-and-white version of history.”

These blind spots regarding Cohen and Arendt aside, The Ambiguity of Virtue is a valuable, accessible book. It introduces readers to a fascinating woman, reminds us that the central experience for European Jews in the 1930s and even into the 40s was of being trapped in a nightmarish bureaucracy that made the figure of the refugee sadly central to political life, and allows us to conclude that ambiguity need not undo the possibility of virtue. As thousands of child refugees from Central America arrive at the U.S. border, van Tijn’s example is sadly only too relevant.

Dorian Stuber teaches British Modernism and Holocaust Literature in the English Department at Hendrix College.