Polak, Henri

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POLAK, HENRI (1868–1943), Dutch trade unionist and socialist politician. Born in Amsterdam, he was the eldest of Mozes Polak and Marianna Smit's ten children. His father started out as a diamond polisher and became a rather prosperous jewelry manufacturer; his mother, daughter of a much respected antiquarian bookseller, developed a keen interest in Western literature. After a stay of three years in London, where he worked as a diamond cutter, Henri Polak settled in Amsterdam in 1890 with his London-born wife, Emily Nijkerk. As one of the first Jewish members of the small revolutionary socialist party, and as a diamond cutter, he tried for four years, with some success, to propagate socialism and trade unionism among the then 8,000 Amsterdam diamond workers (about 60% of whom were Jewish). In 1894, he was one of the 12 founders of the Dutch Social Democratic Party (sdap) and after a general diamond workers strike became founder and president of the General Dutch Diamond workers Union (andb). Under his clever and enthusiastic guidance, the andb grew within a few years into the best-organized and most successful modern trade union of the Netherlands. Polak's prestige as a union leader resulted in the sdap's electing him president during 1900–05. In 1905, Polak became founder and president of the World Alliance of Diamond workers. He retained both this presidency and that of the andb until the German occupation of Holland in 1940.

For a man like Henri Polak, socialist trade unionism meant not only striving for better tangible living conditions for the workers, but also improving the quality of life of the working classes by teaching them to take part in all kinds of social and cultural activities. In this respect he was a student of the English socialist artist William Morris, for whom he had great admiration. In the 1920s and 1930s Polak became, partly under Morris' influence, one of Holland's staunchest defenders of historical and natural monuments. Most Jewish workers viewed Polak as a cherished member of the family, as well as a leader of great ability and moral standing.

Although he never believed in the possibility of a Jewish state, after the World War i Polak became a member of the board of the Dutch chapter of the *Keren Hayesod. He considered the founding of a Jewish National Home (not a state) only a partial solution to the problem of the persecution of the Jews. From 1933 until the war Polak launched, both in his weekly column in the socialist daily Het Volk ("The People") and as a member of the Dutch Senate, unabatingly fierce attacks on the Nazis in Germany and Holland. As one of the few anti-fascist leaders, he took Julius *Streicher's threat to kill all the Jews seriously.

After half a year of imprisonment in 1940, Polak was put under house arrest until July 1942 in the home of a Dutch Nazi, who made his life as miserable as possible. At the start of the deportations of the Jews from Holland, Polak was unexpectedly set free. Although mentally unbroken, his physical health had deteriorated considerably. He died of pneumonia in the hospital at Laren in February 1943, just in time not to be deported. Emily died about two months later in Westerbork. Both were buried in the Jewish cemetery of Muiderberg.


S. Bloemgarten, in: J. Michman and T. Levie (eds.), Dutch Jewish History (1984), 261–78; idem, in: A. Blok et al. (eds.), Generations in Labour History (1989); idem, Henri Polak sociaal democraat 1868–1945 (1993), with English summary and extensive bibliography.

[Salvador Bloemgarten and

Ruben Bloemgarten (2nd ed.)]