Possible Moralities in Impossible Times – By Saskia Coenen Snyder

Saskia Coenen Snyder on Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue

Bernard Wasserstein, The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude Van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, Harvard University Press, 2014, 334pp., $29.95
Bernard Wasserstein, The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude Van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, Harvard University Press, 2014, 334pp., $29.95
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The behavior of the Jewish Councils, the administrative bodies appointed by the Germans to govern Jewish communities and execute Nazi directives throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, has been contentious since the inception of the field of Holocaust studies. The pioneering and classic accounts by Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt contained damning words about the role of the Judenräte, holding their members accountable for “cooperating” in the systematic extermination of European Jews. With access to limited primary source materials (almost entirely in German) and assuming that Jewish council functionaries were fully aware of the gruesome objectives of the Final Solution, Hilberg and Arendt concluded that the Nazi murder machine benefitted greatly from the subservience of Jewish leadership.

Such harsh criticism appeared not merely in American academic circles, but also elsewhere. In Israel, for example, the Judenrat was scornfully regarded as exemplary of Diaspora weakness and docile accommodation. In the Netherlands, too, historians – often survivors themselves – accused the Jewish Councils of complicity. Jacques Presser’s 1965 Ondergang [translated as Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry] condemned its two leaders, Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, as spineless and selfish collaborators, complicit in the deportation and deaths of their Jewish brethren. Even the composed Louis de Jong, in his monumental fourteen-volume Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog [The Kingdom of the Netherlands during WWII], characterized Jewish leadership in Amsterdam as having slipped into a submissive stance already before the Nazi occupation, when the Dutch authorities decided to create the refugee camp Westerbork to house German Jews at the expense of Dutch Jews. By late 1942, Westerbork was the largest Dutch transit camp from which Jews were deported to the extermination centers of Sobibor and Auschwitz.

Scholars softened their attitudes and reduced the finger pointing in later decades. The growing availability of primary source materials and new research conducted in multiple languages illuminated the moral complexities and impossible positions many Jewish leaders faced during the war. It also became clear that time and place mattered a great deal: the Judenräte’s attempts to alleviate suffering in Polish ghettos in late 1939 and 1940 by means of communal welfare, for example, differed fundamentally from the compilation of alphabetized lists of deportees to fill German quotas after news of death camps had spread. In Dutch scholarship this research produced a shift that refined the former black-and-white narrative of “good” or “bad.” It conveyed a different tone, arguing for what the historian Chris van der Heijden aptly called a Grey Past, the title of his 2001 book that offered a more objective analysis of Dutch men and women during the Nazi years. Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of Dutch Jews fits nicely into this now well-established discourse that complicates the story of the Jewish Councils and highlights the moral grey zones in which many Jewish leaders found themselves during an unprecedented time in history.

Wasserstein’s main subject is Gertrude van Tijn (1891-1974), a woman of German-Jewish descent who had immigrated to the Netherlands in 1915. She came from a secular, middle-class background and was well-educated, self-confident, and unusually outspoken – qualities that served her well as she embarked on a career as head of the department of social work of the Dutch Council of Jewish Women. During the 1930s, when growing numbers of German Jews fled Nazi Germany for neighboring Holland, van Tijn started working as the secretary for two newly established relief committees: the Committee for Special Jewish Interests and the Committee for Jewish Refugees, both of which were organized by the Amsterdam Jewish community. Van Tijn was a logical choice for the position, maintains Wasserstein, given her fluency in German, administrative skills, training as a social worker, and affinity with bourgeois cultural mores. As secretary of these two committees, van Tijn worked closely with David Cohen, a professor of classics at the University of Amsterdam and a staunch Zionist, and Abraham Asscher, a prominent diamond merchant and liberal politician, both of whom would later become leaders of the Joodsche Raad, the Jewish Council during the occupation. Van Tijn, whose responsibilities focused primarily on refugee work, stood therefore in close contact with the two men who would decide the fate of many Jewish men, women, and children.

Wasserstein concerns himself primarily with the question of how to evaluate van Tijn. “What kind of moral compass guided her in the face of absolute evil?” he asks. How do we evaluate van Tijn’s conduct, motives, and decisions as an employee of the Jewish Council? Was she merely a naïve pawn of the Nazis and therefore, from Hilberg and Arendt’s perspective, guilty in facilitating the deportation and murder of Dutch Jews? Or did she genuinely believe her work and her liaisons with the Nazi authorities could make a difference and save lives?

To answer this question, Wasserstein traces van Tijn’s activities throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

One of her early successes was the establishment, in 1934, of the werkdorp (work village) project, a Zionist training farm for young refugees. Agricultural training was intended to prepare these primarily German and Austrian Jewish refugees for a new life abroad. The farm was built on a polder (land reclaimed from the sea) in Wieringen, a town in the province of North Holland. “Its purpose,” Wasserstein observes, “was to offer courses in all branches of farming, horticulture, construction, furniture-making, and metalwork, as well as domestic science for girls. Students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five were to be prepared for emigration to Palestine.” The Dutch government had made an area of 360 hectares available for the project. Funded mostly by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, at least 684 people (536 men and 148 women) received training there. Van Tijn played an important role in raising funds for the werkdorp, traveling tirelessly between London, Paris, Lisbon, and New York to impress upon philanthropic representatives the dire situation of Jews in Holland. In addition, she and others on the Committee for Jewish Refugees also facilitated the emigration of close to 19,000 people from Holland, including 350 who were students at the werkdorp in Wieringen. She did so against enormous odds and increasingly hazardous stumbling blocks.

Van Tijn’s actions became more morally dubious in 1941, when SS officer Klaus Barbie, the future head of the Gestapo in Lyons, France, demanded the names and addresses of Jewish students who had left the werkdorp. Barbie vowed that he wanted the list so that the students could return to the farm, and, believing him, van Tijn provided him with the information – a decision she would regret for the rest of her life. The people on van Tijn’s list ended up among some 300 young Jewish men who were arrested and sent to Mauthausen. Few of them survived.

The following year, as head of the department called Help for the Departing (Hulp aan Vertrekkenden), which fell under the umbrella of the Jewish Council, van Tijn witnessed the process of name selection and the drafting of deportation lists at the council’s headquarters in Amsterdam. Cohen and others, on orders of the Nazis, conducted a systematic examination of card indexes, sifting through names “according to degree of dispensability.” As they pulled out what an eyewitness labeled the “cards of the doomed”, typists filled out the summonses for the unfortunate recipients. Van Tijn, having vowed never to hand over one more Jewish name after Barbie’s betrayal, distanced herself from the proceedings. In fact, Wasserstein found that she objected and submitted her resignation to Cohen, who promptly declined to accept it. She remained a staff member – thereby exempt from deportation – of a highly controversial administrative body.

During 1942-1943, when the majority of Holland’s 140,000 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration and extermination camps, van Tijn’s job was to offer charitable support to those “going to Germany on labor service,” which meant she provided desperate deportees with items to bring on the journey east. Surviving Dutch-Jewish diaries and correspondence note the relevance of van Tijn’s work. Etty Hillesum, for example, recorded in a letter written from Westerbork dated December 1942 that “it made a great difference whether people arrived [in the transit camp] prepared, with well-filled rucksacks, or had been suddenly dragged out of their houses or swept up from the street.” Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who performed administrative duties in Westerbork and who would be sent to Auschwitz in September 1943, acknowledged the importance of a single blanket to “those who went to face the winter in Eastern Europe without any clothes.” Without the efforts of Help for the Departing, Hillesum implies, the experience would have been even more torturous. As Jacques Presser poignantly notes, however, it would be so much easier to evaluate the committee’s work and van Tijn’s role in it if the advice had been of another nature altogether, especially at a time when Cohen and others were no longer ignorant of Hitler’s intentions. “Unfortunately,” Presser asserts, “the bureau never gave the advice not to go at all.” To Presser, the rucksacks symbolized the overall attitude of compliance and self-destructive efficiency that perverted the Jewish Council.

Wasserstein correctly points out that our judgment of van Tijn depends on what she really knew about the horrors in Poland in 1942-1943. Did her supply of baby diapers, boots, toothpaste, and blankets aid and comfort deportees in a time of need, or did the operation of the Help for the Departing contribute to the deception that Jews really were going to the East for labor service? Based on van Tijn’s personal records, Wasserstein leans toward the former and ultimately defends her, convinced that she distanced herself from the Jewish Council in respectable ways and that she acted out of genuine humanitarian concerns for the well-being of her people under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Contrary to Cohen, who appears to have handed over Dutch Jews without any crisis of conscience, van Tijn did not cross what Yehuda Bauer has called “the last moral barrier,” even when it was clear to her that Dutch Jews would not return alive from Eastern Europe. Van Tijn did not view the deportations as inevitable, and she struggled, however unsuccessfully, to find alternative responses. She also passed up a number of opportunities to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and thereby to ensure her own safety. Yet Wasserstein is careful not to absolve her, thereby elucidating how difficult it really is to understand and evaluate the behavior of Jewish Council members. Perhaps we can argue that van Tijn personified the grey zone: her early efforts saved many Jews from certain death, but her decision to shield deportees from the macabre truth to prevent widespread panic renders her, as the Dutch historian Bart van der Boom recently stated, part of the “entire philosophy of compliance [that] was packed up in the rucksacks.” Van Tijn’s story, then, reveals the ambiguity of virtue in impossible times, and the necessity of understanding a host of factors (such as time and place, an internalized knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal plan, self-interest, the absence of choices, powerlessness, and so forth) before reaching judgment.

This book is not groundbreaking in its subject matter, methodology, or conclusions, but it adds important details on Dutch Jewish activities, especially those of a Zionist feminist, before and during the war. Wasserstein reminds us in subtle ways that it is easy to judge, but that our own principles and ethical behaviors have never been challenged in similar ways, confronted by an unpredictable, immoral, and murderous enemy. Van Tijn herself, already in 1944, cautioned (defensively?) against imposing harsh moral judgments on her and others working for the Jewish Council: “Let those who have not lived under such terrible stress beware before they lightly judge those whose hands were forced to act against their own people and therefore—I am afraid when the real reckoning comes—against themselves” (p. 216). Gertrude van Tijn, Wasserstein concludes, was not perfect, but “she was a humanitarian,” an altruist, and a woman of principle whose work saved many Jewish lives. Lest we forget, the ultimate perpetrators responsible for the destruction of Dutch Jewry were, at all times, the Nazis.