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

Bernard Wasser­stein
  • Review
By – October 6, 2014

Cred­it­ed with sav­ing the lives of count­less Jews in World War II, Ger­man-Dutch Gertrude van Tijn (18911974) has also been accused, along with oth­er mem­bers of the Jew­ish Coun­cil of Hol­land, of com­plic­i­ty with the Nazis. The moral ambi­gu­i­ty of van Tijn’s role is the focus of Wasserstein’s study; the details of van Tijn’s life — her loves, trav­els, feel­ings — are only includ­ed as need­ed. An edu­cat­ed, inde­pen­dent-mind­ed fem­i­nist, van Tijn start­ed work­ing in Ams­ter­dam dur­ing the Depres­sion, coor­di­nat­ing social work for the Dutch Coun­cil of Jew­ish Women. With the rise of anti-Semi­tism in Ger­many, her work increas­ing­ly focused on reset­tling Ger­man- Jew­ish refugees in Hol­land, orga­niz­ing visas, and rais­ing trav­el funds. Before long, van Tijn and her co-work­ers were strug­gling to cre­ate exit strate­gies for hun­dreds of Euro­pean Jews. This work end­ed when Hol­land itself came under Nazi con­trol. Van Tijn and the Dutch Jew­ish Coun­cil were then ordered to work as admin­is­tra­tive agents for the Nazis, at first to reg­is­ter Jews, but even­tu­al­ly to select Jews for trans­port to West­er­bork, the Dutch tran­sit camp. Wasser­stein nar­rates the step-by-step Naz­i­fi­ca­tion of the Nether­lands in painful detail, until, at the end, van Tijn her­self was tak­en to West­er­bork and then to Bergen-Belsen; as an exchange Jew,” she was ulti­mate­ly freed in Pales­tine. Amer­i­can read­ers raised on sto­ries of hid­den’ Dutch Jews and hero­ic Dutch resis­tance may find Wasserstein’s account dis­turb­ing, espe­cial­ly as he ques­tions the role played by van Tijn and oth­er Jews vest­ed by the Nazis with lim­it­ed author­i­ty. If the Jew­ish Coun­cil had refused to facil­i­tate the reg­is­tra­tion and removals of Jews, would more Jews have been beat­en and killed, as the Coun­cil argued? If van Tijn and her co-work­ers had told peo­ple they were being trans­port­ed to death camps and not to labor camps, would more have hid­den or attempt­ed escape? None of these ques­tions are answer­able, but they must be raised, and Wasser­stein does it with great insight and sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, maps, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions