Trying to convert Dutch Jewish children to Christianity

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Ewoud Sanders, who wrote a doctorate on the close to 80 children's books in Dutch aiming to converrt Jewish children to Christianity. It caused a ruckus.

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Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“A few years ago, I found a Dutch booklet titled Levi the Book Jew in a stall. This booklet aimed to convert Jewish children to Christianity. I wondered whether there were more such books. Initially, I saw that about five were known. After much research, I discovered almost 80 such books. Thereafter I thought it worthwhile to engage in a doctoral thesis on this topic.”

Ewoud Sanders was born in 1958 in The Hague. He has studied modern history and writes a weekly column about language in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.  Sanders has published more than 25 books. In 2017, he received his doctorate at the University of Nijmegen. His thesis was titled: Levi’s First Christmas – Children’s stories about conversion of Jews 1792 -2015.  

“Some conversion booklets were handed out to Jews. This was certainly true in the 19th century. Yet, these booklets were also given out at Sunday Schools to Christian children. They aimed to emphasize the superiority of Christianity.  

“Of the almost 80 books I researched, 37 Protestant ones and 5 Catholic ones are originally Dutch. The others are translations from various languages. Their impressions were sometimes much bigger than I thought. The booklet The Search of Lea Rachel has sold more than 10,000 copies since 1999. Due to the publicity about my thesis, the publisher decided to cease reprinting.   

“These conversion booklets contain various strange patterns and anti-Semitic stereotypes. For instance: big noses, black eyes and unscrupulous characters. Sketched with a rough brush and lacking the frequent refinement of anti-Semitic literature for adults, these booklets almost always tell about a Jewish boy or girl who desire to become Protestant or Catholic. They reiterate the formula of a good child with pure eyes, friendly disposition and an enquiring mind. 

“Such a story needs a contrast. Jewish parents or grandparents represent the ‘old rigid religion,’ as Christian authors refer to it. This older generation is often depicted as violent. These Jews have a cruel heart and an evil nature. They beat up children who want to convert, sometimes even mortally.  
“A complex aspect is that the Orthodox Protestant mission amongst the Jews derives from philo-Semitism. They say: ‘We greatly love the Jews, God’s chosen people. We are much related to them.’ They take the mission commandment from the New Testament literally. These Orthodox Protestants believe that Jews first need to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Thereafter, together with the Jews, they can work to convert the rest of the world.

“There are clear differences between Protestant and Catholic booklets. These derive largely from diverging theological views and traditions. Catholics stopped publishing such booklets in 1965, after the Pope distanced Catholicism from active mission among the Jews. 

“Two Catholic books are among the most horrible ones. One story, The Jewish Boy is based on a medieval legend and can be found in various languages. It tells about an innocuous Jewish boy who attends a Church service with his Catholic friends. At the service, he receives the host. The boy then tells this to his father, a glass blower by trade. The latter becomes enraged and throws his child in the oven. But because the boy had eaten the host in Church, Maria protects him and he survives. His father on the other hand is killed. 

“This story has also been used successfully in theater format for children. It was performed tens of times prior to the Second World War. The same story was part of the Catholic elementary school curriculum, meant for children between the ages of 7-8 years old. With more than 30 reprints, The Jewish Boy, has reached a circulation between 300, 000 to 400,000. In the 1950’s parliamentary questions were raised about this publication. Once the publisher’s sales were in jeopardy, he removed this story from the book. Thus, even after the Holocaust, young Catholic children read the story of a Jewish father who throws his son in an oven. 

“A second extremely anti-Semitic booklet has been published under various titles. One is: The Small Blood Witness. Little Abel, the lead character is told by a statue of Maria to be baptized. Upon hearing this, Abel’s father kidnaps, starves and maltreats him. Ultimately Abel is crucified with the help of a Rabbi. The child is buried but four days later his blood is still fresh and his eyes remain open.  

“The children exposed to these booklets have no capability to discern fiction from non-fiction. As a scholar one tries to deal with the subject as objectively as possible. After such stories, however, I had to sometimes go for a walk for fresh air.

“These conversion booklets often played a far more important role amongst Christian children rather than being useful to convert Jews. Dutch missionary organizations support this conclusion in their annual reports, by writing for instance: ‘despite our enormous efforts, this year only one or two Jews have converted.’ They add: ‘the office of these statistics is however held in heaven.’”