Author examines woman’s fight against evil during Holocaust

Bernard Wasserstein

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

As a historian, Bernard Wasserstein has studied the interwar years in Europe, the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, and the Holocaust. His latest book, “The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews” (Harvard University Press, 334 pages, $29.95) looks at the life of Gertrude van Tijn, a German Jew who lived in Holland, held a Dutch passport and worked with the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, which the Nazis occupying Holland set up to identify, control and ultimately try to exterminate the Dutch Jewish community.

Wasserstein, the Harriet & Ulrich E. Meyer Professor Emeritus of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago, lost both sets of grandparents in the Holocaust. His paternal grandparents were from Germany; his mother’s parents were Hungarian. Reared in the United Kingdom, Wasserstein brings a deep passion, knowledge and empathy to his subject. His previous books include “On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” and “Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews of Europe Since 1945.” 

Why did you write this book?

I thought it was important for several reasons. It’s a fascinating story. This is history that should be worth listening to. It examines a central moral question: What should one do in the face of absolute evil? And it’s a continuation of my previous work. It examines the reactions of Jews themselves when they must deal with the Nazis. 

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How many lives did Gertrude van Tijn save?

The estimate is in my book. How many is very difficult to say. The people she worked with managed to help 22,000 Dutch Jews to escape from the Nazi occupation. This does not include those who went into hiding or otherwise found ways to flee or hide. Gertrude kept very careful reports. So did the Germans.

It seems that van Tijn’s record is pretty admirable. Why would anyone doubt the virtue of what she did? Was she a moral woman, given the circumstances?

She faced many choices: to stay or to go. She could have left before the Nazis arrived. She could have gone to England. She went to Lisbon in 1941. And she went to America. She chose to go back to Holland.

In Holland, she had to decide whether to carry on with her work. She could have been a private person. Then she had to decide whether to work with the Jewish Council or to go underground. Then whether to follow the Nazi orders or to resist those orders. She took brave decisions. She refused to hand over the names of Jews. By and large, her choices were courageous. 

But after the war, you wrote, some people were very critical of Gertrude. 

To them, she was tainted by her work. People who came back from the [internment] camps at the end of the war were very anxious to find someone to blame. The Jewish Council was a target. About 17,500 people worked for the Jewish Council. Most were not collaborators. I don’t think she could be regarded as any kind of collaborator. 

You write that during one raid on the Jewish Quarter, Gertrude was not arrested. She was spared. Why did this happen?

It appears the Germans decided that the top people in the Jewish Council would not be arrested. Ferdinand Hugo Aus der Fünten, one of the top Nazis, seemed to have a lot of respect for her. 

This is a biography. We see moral dilemmas in the abstract. But here we are trying to understand what happened. My conclusion is positive. I ended up with a great respect for Gertrude van Tijn. She faced an impossible set of circumstances.

What do you hope to accomplish by writing this book? Isn’t Gertrude van Tijn like Raoul Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler, except that she was Jewish? Do her critics hold her to a higher standard?

I try not to apply my standards. I see her as a representative of the European enlightenment. She had those values – she had bildung [the concept of self-cultivation through education and character refinement]. 

She valued the saving of human life. She was not a religious person. She was driven by humane values.

I don’t see myself as a judge of her. She was driven by her own values. She knew she had to be ready to compromise – up to a point.

Did Gertrude feel survivor’s guilt because she survived Bergen-Belsen and ended up in Palestine? 

She felt deep remorse. In one episode, in mid-1941, she handed over the addresses of students to Klaus Barbie [the Nazi Untersturmführer, later known as the Butcher of Lyon, France]. She made the mistake honestly. She was duped by Barbie. She decided then never to turn over another list. She felt, by and large, vindicated. I think she felt she had met a huge challenge.

This story seems to show that, on an individual level, bribes, favors and personal skills could sometimes save lives.

Gertrude was really interested in saving human lives. She would use bribery to pay the SS to save people. She was even denounced in the British House of Lords because she was violating the economic blockage [of Nazi-controlled Europe]. She felt there was a higher purpose, which was to save lives.

Have you thought about this story becoming a movie? It seems tailor-made for that.

Definitely. It would make a great film. I have even cast the lead: Cate Blanchett.

What do you think of the Jewish Council. Should every Dutch Jew have refused to serve on it?

Some did refuse. They gained moral rectitude. But maybe lives weren’t gained. Some were collaborators. Some were resisters. 

What challenges did you face in finding the documents you needed to tell Gertrude’s story?

Three things struck me, but not so much as challenges as ways I was helped. First, is the way records survived. The Jewish Council kept minutes of all its meetings. Now, those minutes have to be read with care because they knew the Nazis might read them, too.

Second, I was lucky to be able to contact members of Gertrude’s family. Some of her writings were destroyed. But we have her letters, and we have her unpublished memoir. 

Third, a man who later lived in her house in Amsterdam found a false wall, and behind it were things Gertrude had hidden there. That shone a remarkable light on the story.