Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Amsterdam 1940-1945

Neutrality and Capitulation

In response to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the implementation of anti-Semitic legislation that banned Jews from civic life, nearly 40.000 German Jews fled to Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and other nearby countries. Anti-Semitic violence reached new heights during the so-called Kristallnacht of 9–10 November 1938. That night a series of attacks coordinated by the Nazis left 91 Jews dead and countless Jewish buildings in ruins, including over a thousand synagogues. The Nazis also incarcerated about 30.000 Jews in concentration camps.

A new stream of refugees emerged: in 1938 and 1939 more than 100.000 Jews fled Nazi Germany and Austria, which was annexed in May 1939. In an effort to maintain good standing with Germany, the Dutch government closed its borders to these refugees. Border patrol staffing was doubled to keep out the many “unwanted aliens”. These ordinances were widely criticized and, following pressure from the Parliament, 10.000 Jewish refugees were finally allowed to enter. Many of them settled in Amsterdam.

Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. The next day, the United Kingdom and France declared war against Germany. The Netherlands remains neutral. Yet on 10 May 1940 Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, telegraphed Count Julius von Zech-Burkersroda, the German ambassador to the Hague, and ordered him to formulate a declaration of war against the Netherlands. However, Zech-Burkersroda has a mental breakdown and is unable to write an official declaration. Eventually he meets with the Dutch Foreign Minister and, crying, hands him a note with a transcription of Ribbentrop’s telegraph:

Announcement of deployment of enormous German military force.
Any resistance completely futile.
Germany guarantees European and extra-European possessions and the dynasty, if any resistance remains absent. Else danger of complete annihilation of the country and the form of government.
Therefore demand urgently appeal people and forces and demand establish contact with German military commanders.
Motivation: we have irrefutable proof of an imminent threat of invasion by France and England in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, which has long been prepared with the joint knowledge of the Netherlands and Belgium.
Purpose: advance to Ruhr area.

By then the first German troops had already crossed the Dutch border. Shortly after, the royal family and the ministers escape to England. On 14 May the Luftwaffe bombs Rotterdam, killing approximately 800 people and making 80.000 homeless. Because Nazi Germany threatens to destroy Utrecht as well, the Dutch army surrenders next day. In her radio broadcasts Queen Wilhelmina urges the Dutch people not to collaborate with the occupier.

At the end of May the German government installs Arthur Seyss-Inquart as the Reichskommissar (‘Commissioner of the Reich’) of the Netherlands. Hitler expects that the Netherlands and Belgium will naturally become provinces of the Third Reich because, according to him, their inhabitants belong to the same Germanic people. By contrast, he thinks the Slavs in Eastern Europe and Russia are a despicable “family of rabbits” that only understands “the whip”.

Occupation and Isolation

On 15 May 1940 German troops occupied Amsterdam. This made the violent Weerbaarheidsafdeling (‘defence unit’; WA) of the Dutch Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSB) feel empowered, and its members now regularly walk around wearing their provocative black uniform. Supporters of the WA and similar factions repeatedly confront the Amsterdam police, whose effectiveness is impaired by the occupier’s fickle policies.

Many fear pogroms similar to the Kristallnacht, but there are none yet. Instead the German authorities introduce regulations that gradually exclude Jews from public life (like they had been doing in Germany since 1933). The most important of these regulations are:

September 1940: Jews may no longer be hired for public service jobs and Jewish public servants are ineligible for promotion. Initially this ordinance pertains only to universities and government departments, but it is quickly made to include all subsidized institutions;
October 1940: public servants and teachers have to submit an Ariërverklaring (Aryan Declaration), in which they affirm that they themselves, their partners, their parents, and their grandparents are non-Jews;
November 1940: based on the Ariërverklaringen 2.500 Jewish public servants and teachers are relieved of their duties, and eventually fired;
January 1941: Jews must report at the register of residents;
January 1941: the about 80.000 Jews living in Amsterdam (more than half of all Dutch Jews) must report how many houses and shops they own, the locations of their schools and houses of prayer, and their cultural institutions;
April 1941: Dutchmen above the age of 14 must carry an identity card. Jewish identity cards are marked with a capital J;
April–May 1941: Jews are only allowed to visit designated Jewish bars, cinemas and theatres;
August 1941: Jews must place their properties with the Nazi-controlled bank Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co.;
September 1941: Jewish students are expelled from non-Jewish schools;
March 1942: Jews are forbidden to own or drive vehicles;
March 1942: Jews are forbidden to marry non-Jews;
May 1942: Jews above the age of six must wear the yellow ‘Jewish badge’;
June 1942: Jews must report for ‘employment’ in Germany.

In late 1940, Dutch national socialist thugs become increasingly more aggressive. They organize parades and vandalize Jewish places of entertainment. This often leads to fights with groups of Jews, who are supported by non-Jewish citizens. At the end of the year the national socialists force restaurant owners and hoteliers to put up “no Jews allowed” signs. The police try to maintain order, but the German authorities are siding more and more with the Dutch Nazis. When in February 1941 the police and the gendarmerie try to keep a band of national socialists from smashing up a Jewish café at Rembrandt Square, they are assaulted by both Dutch Nazis and German soldiers. A member of the NSB is mortally wounded during the fighting.

Hans Böhmcker, the Beauftragte (‘supervisor’) of Amsterdam, realizes he is losing command over the city and worries about his standing with Seyss-Inquart. On 12 February he orders the Jewish District (home to approximately 5.000 Jews) to be completely fenced off in an effort to restore calm. The same day he summons three prominent Jews and instructs them to establish a committee that will represent all Amsterdam Jews. In this way Böhmcker wants to control the community. Eighteen dignitaries join the Jewish Council chaired by Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, under the impression that it will allow them to promote Jewish interests. However, their first assignment is to collect all weapons owned by Amsterdam Jews. After the rather unsuccessful collection the Jewish District is partially reopened.

Böhmcker becomes interested in the exact whereabouts of the Jews in Amsterdam and requests information from the department of Public Works. Using data from the recently updated register of residents, a group of ten civil servants works on the assignment. They go from door to door to check entries and work after hours for six days for quick results. Within a month the department provides lists and various types of maps, including a detailed ‘dot map’ that shows the locations of the Jews in each neighbourhood (many live outside the Jewish District).

Despite Böhmcker’s actions tensions in the city keep rising. On 17 February 1941 metalworkers in North Amsterdam go on strike because of the prospect of forced labour in Nazi Germany. The strike is co-organized by the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN). Two days later a German police squad gets into a fight with a group of Jews defending an ice saloon against Nazi violence. Six are arrested and beaten up at the police department. One of them is later executed.

In retaliation for the Jews’ resistance, the Jewish District is raided on 22 and 23 February. The German authorities order 425 men to be arrested and deported; later it emerges that they have been murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The reason for the raids, however, is not immediately made public. Most citizens are outraged. The CPN calls it “an attack on all working people” and successfully aims for a general strike, which is now known as the February Strike. On the 25th the trams don’t run and thousands of strikers move through the city. The (military) police use force to keep them in check and impose a curfew. Despite the violent oppression, thousands of people walk out again the next day, not only in Amsterdam but also in neighbouring cities. Nine people die during the strike.

Seyss-Inquart decides to sack mayor Willem de Vlugt because of his lack of cooperation. His successor is the pro-German Edward Voûte. In a speech on 12 March Seyss-Inquart declares that all Dutchmen will be held responsible in case of the irregularities continue. Jews will be treated differently, however:

We do not consider the Jews to be Dutch. They are an enemy with whom it is impossible to reach an armistice or peace. … We will smite the Jews wherever we find them, and anyone who goes with them will bear the consequences. The Führer has declared that the role of the Jews in Europe is finished, and consequently their role is finished.

Deportations and resistance

In April 1941 the first issue of Het Joodsche Weekblad (‘The Jewish Weekly’) is published by the Jewish Council. Besides articles on society and religious matters, it contains German declarations regarding the Jews. For the occupier this arrangement has the added benefit of keeping the non-Jewish citizens in the dark about its anti-Semitic policies. The second large raid, on 11 June in Amsterdam South, also suggests a degree of caution on part of the German authorities. Instead of nabbing Jews openly in the streets, the Sicherheitspolizei visits the houses of the 250 victims to arrest them. They, too, are deported to Mauthausen. Their addresses were retrieved from the Jewish Council under false pretences.

In the following months the Jews are further isolated: they are banned from several occupations, have to place their money and jewellery with a Nazi-controlled ‘robber bank’, and need a permit to travel. Public places such as museums and libraries, and non-Jewish schools, theatres, and associations are altogether off-limits. Mayor Voûte also renames the streets and parks that refer to Jews or the royal family. These changes are reversed after the war.

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union, which means it is now fighting a two-front war. On 11 December Germany also declares war against the United States. These developments put much strain on the German army. Policy in occupied Western European countries becomes harsher and is aimed more and more at extracting direct contributions to the German military.

A first group of nearly a thousand unemployed Jews is sent to Dutch labour camps in January 1942. The Jewish Council is tasked with selecting the required number of men. Around this time the authorities also begin evacuating Jews from the provinces to the capital. Yet the most sinister forerunner of the large-scale deportations is the introduction of the ‘Jewish badge’ in May 1942. The Jewish Council, itself shocked by this turn of events, is made responsible for the distribution of the yellow stars, which cost four cents each. Jews without a badge risk deportation to the by now infamous Mauthausen concentration camp.

In late June Assher and Cohen are told that henceforth every day 600 Jews will be transported to Germany for ‘relief works’. Cohen, dismayed, replies: “You know of course that such employment runs counter to international law?” The Hauptsturmführer across the table explains, “We define international law.” Again, the department of Public Works is brought in, and in early July the Jewish Council distributes the first 4.000 notices. The churches protest against the deportation plans, but to no avail. A considerable number of drafted Jews refuse to report and go into hiding. In response there is a raid on 14 July, during which 700 random Jews are taken away. The occupier threatens to send them to Mauthausen if the Jews that were drafted stay away. The next day over a thousand Jews are transported to the Westerbork transit camp in the north-eastern Netherlands.

From this moment on, every week Jews are systematically assembled and deported by train, first to Dutch concentration camps and then to extermination camps such as Auschwitz in Poland. Because almost no one responds to the ‘employment’ notices, there are large nocturnal raids during which thousands of Jews are captured. The Hollandsche Schouwburg, which the occupier calls the Jewish Theatre, serves as an assembly point and prison. Later the nearby crèche is similarly repurposed. With a few helpers, Walter Süskind, the theatre’s manager, allows around 600 children to escape.

Until 1943, going into hiding is the most common form of resistance. Then the acts of resistance, which involve many (often communist) non-Jews, become increasingly diverse and violent. The sculptor Gerrit van der Veen, for instance, forges thousands of identity cards. Together with Willem Arondéus en Willem Sandberg, amongst others, he also attacks Amsterdam’s register of residents. A fire breaks out, but the firefighters understand what is going on and botch the job so that even more registrations are destroyed. An estimated five percent of all Dutchmen is actively resisting and a much larger percentage passively supports them. During the war about 2.000 members of the resistance movement are executed.

Despite growing opposition, the weekly deportations continue for one and a half year almost without interruptions. The last Amsterdam Jews are put on a train to Westerbork on 19 November 1943. Shortly afterwards, the occupier declares Amsterdam judenrein (‘cleansed of Jews’). However, the transports from the Dutch concentration camps to the extermination camps elsewhere in Europe go on until 13 September 1944. In total, more than 60.000 Dutch Jews are deported to the camps. About 75.000 Jewish and 35.000 non-Jewish citizens of Amsterdam perish during the war.

Allied Operations and Liberation

Unlike Rotterdam, Amsterdam does not become the target of large bombing raids. The only raids are conducted by Allies and aimed at German military targets in the city. In the summer of 1943 the British and the American air force decide to bomb the Fokker factory, which is in German hands. The Dutch government-in-exile is promised that it will be a precision strike and that the local population will be warned in order to prevent civilian casualties. However, the American commander deploys rookie pilots so they can gain experience. When the American B-17s attack on 17 July, they hit the surrounding residential areas instead of the factory. The bombs fall on a medical centre and the Saint Rita Church, where 500 are singing the Ave Maria. 185 people (including eleven churchgoers) are killed and about 130 houses destroyed. The Fokker factory is destroyed in bombing raids on 25 and 28 July, which claim the lives of another twenty citizens.

In September 1944, with a small southern region of the Netherlands already liberated, the Dutch government in London calls for a railroad strike. The aim of the strike is to stop German military transports and to make way for airborne landings of Allied troops. Thirty thousand railroad workers lay down their tools, which is a setback for the German army. Yet the Allied troops fail to advance into the northern and western Netherlands.

The Nazis take revenge by cutting off all food and fuel transports to the western Netherlands. The embargo, general scarcity, and a particularly harsh winter combine to cause the Hongerwinter (‘Hunger Winter’), a famine that kills 2.300 people. Amsterdam is almost completely devoid of food and fuel, and many leave the city in search of something to eat. Because there is no wood for coffins, the diseased are temporarily placed in the Zuiderkerk.

In November 1944, 24 English aircraft attack the Amsterdam headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst. They destroy half the building, but also hit thirty private residences. 69 people die, including four members of the Sicherheitsdienst.

When the Hongerwinter is over, the liberation of the Netherlands continues. On 4 May 1945, four days before the capitulation, Germany signed an instrument to surrender unconditionally to all Allied forces. On 7 May thousands of people gather on Dam Square in order to welcome the approaching Canadian troops. There are a few skirmishes and a general sense of unrest hangs over the city centre. Around three in the afternoon German soldiers posted in the Groote Club (‘big club’) open fire on the crowd below. About thirty people are killed and more than a hundred are wounded. The Canadians reach the city the next day, and Amsterdam is liberated.