The ongoing Dutch preoccupation with Holocaust-related issues

Benali is not the first bad choice of speaker, but at least protests made him cancel. The Dutch wrestle with restitution and guilt Op-ed.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam
National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam
Luuk Kramer/Courtesy of the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam

Holocaust-related issues keep reemerging in the Dutch public domain in recent years. It is difficult to determine why disparate subjects in this area are raised more or less at the same time. Yet there are too many of them to claim that the revival of the subject is coincidental.

The battle between memory and its distortion and forgetting in the Netherlands has many aspects. The National 4 and 5 May committee is in charge of activities on National Remembrance Day on May 4 and Liberation Day on May 5. It blundered this year once again. The committee announced that the Dutch Moroccan-born author, Abdelkader Benali, would deliver the annual address at the main ceremony on May 4, the day when the Netherlands remembers its fallen soldiers and victims of Nazism.

It soon became known that Benali had said in the past that Southern Amsterdam “is full of Jews. It’s annoying that there are so many of them. Amsterdam Jews. Makes you feel uneasy as a Moroccan. It looks like Israel. So many Jews, it just feels crazy.” In view of the many criticisms of him being chosen, Benali has withdrawn from giving the address.

Proposing the lecture by Benali can be added to a list of the committee’s controversial choices. In 2012, the panel pulled from its program a poem by a teenager dedicated to his great-uncle, an SS soldier who died in battle. The poem described the dead soldier as a victim of World War II, touching off a debate that led to its scrapping and an apology from the committee.

In 2017, the committee named as its “ambassador for peace” a rapper, Emerson Akachar, who during a soccer match in the previous year was filmed shouting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Following an outcry, the committee revoked the title from Akachar.

At the end of the previous century, a major round of public discussions on the Holocaust took place in the Netherlands. It focused on monies which had been taken from Jews mainly during the Second World War and were not returned after it. At that time several in-depth studies on the subject were carried out. As a result substantial payments were made by the Dutch government, the Amsterdam stock exchange, the Association of Banks and the federation of insurers to the Dutch Jewish community. It was at that point in time reasonable to assume that much of the financial aspects of the robbery of the Dutch Jews during the Holocaust had been uncovered.

Many current issues concern material matters. Yet the most important issue is the sudden recognition of guilt by the umbrella organization of the by far largest Protestant organization, the Dutch Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN).

In a declaration on the occasion of a 2020 Kristallnacht speech PKN leader, pastor René de Reuver, said that before and during the Second World War the Church has participated in preparing the breeding ground in which the seeds of antisemitism could grow. He stressed that "guilt" is the most profound word for a failure: "we do not distance ourselves from the past…take our responsibilities and recognize our mistakes."

Afterwards a number of smaller more conservative Protestant churches also issued a declaration of guilt. They asked hundreds of local churches to read the text in a Sunday service. While the PKN had focused on the failure of the church’s leadership, the latter declaration did not only mention the failure of church leadership, but also the guilt in attitude of church members: "We have been negligent when persecuted Jewish co-citizens sought a place of hiding and we kept our homes closed."

Yet another important development was the recommendation of the Council for Culture in a report about stolen Jewish art during the Holocaust. This body concluded that for the last 13 years the Netherlands has not investigated the origin of art stolen by the Nazis. The chairman of the council, Jacob Kohnstamm added that he had no idea why the Netherlands stopped the investigation. The Council concluded that this is contrary to international agreements.

The Netherlands has a Dutch art collection known as the Nederlands Kunstbezit-Collectie of which 3800 items originated from the Second World War. In 1998, 44 countries agreed to the Washington Principles about the restitution of stolen art by the Nazis. These include the statement that countries should investigate the origins of such items. The Netherlands, however, suddenly stopped the investigation in 2007.

Another important issue of the recent past has been the payments made by the Dutch Railways to people – or descendants of those -- that were transported by the railway to Dutch transit camps on the way to death camps in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. More than 7600 people applied and more than 5000 have already received a payment. The Dutch Railways’ decision to make the payment was the result of the perseverance of a single Dutch survivor, Salo Muller. He lived in hiding during the War. His parents were deported to Auschwitz and murdered there.

Muller remarked that the Amsterdam Transport Company, GVB, which operates the electric streetcars and many bus routes in Amsterdam is another potential target for similar payments. He stated: "They are as guilty as the railways." Muller also said that the role of Dutch police during the War has to be investigated.

Many Holocaust related issues concern individual cities. A recent investigation took place in Utrecht, the fourth largest Dutch city. The municipality of Utrecht expressed deep regret about the very business-like and inhospitable attitude toward Jewish inhabitants who returned from a concentration camp or hiding place in 1945. As compensation, Utrecht made 300,000 Euro available to the local Jewish community. During the War, more than 1600 Jews from Utrecht were deported by the Germans. About 400 of them returned.

This followed earlier actions in the three major Dutch cities, Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. In Amsterdam and The Hague, it turned out that Jews who had survived the War were asked to pay ground lease tax and street tax for the war years during which their properties were in the hands of others.

A commission of representatives of the Amsterdam Jewish community selected 52 Jewish projects for which the compensationmonies made available by the Amsterdam municipality in recent years to refund these taxes would be used. The NIOD, the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, is in the process of carrying out a new study on Amsterdam and the Jews during the war.

The Hague made payments to nine individuals who could prove that they or their families were victims of the unjust taxes. The money for the remainder of taxes collected was turned over to the local Jewish community.

A number of smaller communities are now also investigating or planning to investigate their predecessors’ attitude toward Jewish owners of properties both during and after the War. Two television programs, Pointer and De Monitor, draw regularly attention to what happened to Jewish properties during the War.

Winterswijk is one of the towns which has announced an investigation about the sale of 39 Jewish-owned homes during the Second World War. It turns out that during the War the municipality bought itself four such stolen Jewish buildings at low prices. This included the local synagogue.

Another 20 Dutch municipalities have announced that they will also investigate how they have behaved during and after the war toward Jewish homeowners.

After many years of stalling and legal opposition, the first stone for the National Holocaust Monument in Amsterdam has finally been laid. All the names of the deported and murdered Dutch Jews, Roma and Sinti will be mentioned on the monument. Designed by internationally known architect, Daniel Libeskind, 102,000 names will be inscribed. Also, stumbling stones (stolpersteine) continue to be installed in various Dutch cities.

Many of the things discussed above will have follow-ups in the coming years. Holocaust-related issues will thus keep reappearing in the Dutch public domain.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is Chairman Emeritus of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has been a strategic advisor for more than thirty years to some of the Western world’s leading corporations. Among the honors he received was the 2019 International Lion of Juda Award of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research paying tribute to him as the recognized leading international authority on contemporary antisemitism. His main book on the subject is: The War of a Million Cuts The struggle against the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews and the growth of New antisemitism.



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