It didn't start now: The Dutch wartime queen greatly failed the Jews

The Dutch queen regularly filtered out mention of what was happening to Dutch Jewry from the speeches prepared by her speechwriter, while she spent the war safely in London.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

OpEds Netherlands of the past
Netherlands of the past
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Shortly after the May 4 memorial day to Dutch war victims, blood and mud were poured on a Netherlands Holocaust memorial to 1200 Jews murdered by the Nazis, located at the station from which they were deported to their deaths. This does not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with Holocaust history in the Netherlands.

While the Netherlands is probably the country with the best public relations in the Western world, its image is far more positive than its reality.  Many in the world know about the brave Dutch people who hid Anne Frank and her family. Few have heard about the special units of Dutch policemen and volunteers who sniffed out Jews and resistance fighters for financial gain during the German occupation. They arrested an estimated 15,000 Jews, the majority of whom were murdered. Historian Ad van Liempt says that such search units were unique in the German-occupied countries.

An exhibition that opened last month in the Amsterdam Jewish Historic Museum had an unexpected result. Its main topic was the supposedly close relationship between the Dutch Jewish community and the Royal House of Orange over a 400-year period.

However, the media devoted a great deal of attention to the extreme disinterest in the fate of the persecuted Dutch Jews during the Second World War by Queen Wilhelmina who was then in exile in London. This became a central issue in reporting on the exhibition.

In the museum one can hear four texts on radio. Queen Wilhelmina mentioned the Dutch Jews only three times in a rather marginal way in her many radio speeches to the Dutch people. In the fourth text she spoke out emphatically against the German occupiers forcing Dutchmen to work in Germany. The contrast between the tone of these speeches is striking.

Queen Wilhelmina mentioned the Dutch Jews only three times in a rather marginal way in her many radio speeches to the Dutch people.
Internationally known Dutch journalist, Hans Knoop, said in an interview that the Queen’s speech writer in London, a famous Dutch historian, told him a number of times that she had regularly filtered out mention of the Jews from the draft speeches he prepared. Knoop also contrasts the help given by Belgian Queen mother Elisabeth to the Jews in Belgium while she lived under German occupation, with the disinterest of Wilhelmina who was safe and free in London.

In May 1940 the Germans occupied the Netherlands after the Dutch army had resisted for four days. Half a year later Dutch officials were asked to sign a declaration that they were “Aryans,” i.e., not Jews. In this way Jews, who could not sign these statements, could be identified and thereafter removed from the bureaucracy. This process was in direct contradiction with the Dutch Constitution. Wilhelmina remained silent. One can only speculate what would have happened if she had spoken up on the radio calling to refuse signing the declaration.

In 2016 the biography of a Dutch Jewish journalist, Henriette Boas, who was living in London during the war was published. It tells that Queen Wilhelmina invited Boas to hear how a friend of the Queen was doing. Boas related: “She [Queen Wilhelmina] sat down next to me. She said, “So Lily Q.v.A. is doing well?” I replied, “Yes Your Majesty, but the Jews in the Netherlands are not doing well.” She then said: “I have not asked you that.” She stood up without a farewell and sat down next to somebody else.

In 1939 many German Jewish refugees fled to the Netherlands. The Dutch government wanted to house them in a single location in empty barracks in the township, Ermelo. The Queen objected because she considered it too close to her palace, seven miles away. Instead, the Dutch Jewish community had to pay for new barracks which were built in one of the most isolated locations in the country. This Westerbork camp was greatly expanded under the German occupation to serve as a transit camp. The arrested Jews from the Netherlands were housed there before they were sent to the East, almost all to their deaths.

King Willem Alexander listened silently at the exhibition’s opening when its curator, Julie-Marthe Cohen, mentioned the scandalous behavior of his great-grandmother.  She said: “The Jewish Dutchmen were left to fend for themselves by Queen Wilhelmina, which is still  a painful subject for many of them.  To a journalist of the national broadcasting organization, NOS, the curator said that the Queen could have stated on the radio that whoever betrays Jews will be severely punished after the war, but she did not.

The controversy about Queen Wilhemina’s role during the war focuses on far more than her indifferent attitude toward the Jews. For decades her functioning in London was described in near-mythological terms. However, a recent book by the historian, Gerard Aalders, followed several earlier publications which have greatly dented that image.

Another example of how Dutch image and Dutch reality diverge: During the war the Dutch government in exile in London had no interest whatsoever in the fate of the Dutch Jews.  After the Jewish deportations started in 1942, it took the Dutch government one and a half years to ask the Polish government what was happening. Yet the two governments were  housed in the same building.

Nevertheless, the current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, continues to avoid admitting, like his predecessors, the huge shortcomings regarding the persecuted Jews of the wartime Dutch government in exile. In this the Netherlands is unique in Western Europe.  All other governments have admitted the failures of their predecessors. Several have also apologized.