Schaft, Hannie (1920–1945)

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Schaft, Hannie (1920–1945)

Member of the Dutch resistance during World War II who protected Jews, gathered vital reconnaissance information, assassinated Germans and Dutch collaborators, and was executed in the last days of the war. Name variations: Johanna Jannetje Schaft; "Johanna Elderkamp." Born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in Haarlem, the Netherlands, on September 16, 1920; executed on April 17, 1945; daughter of Pieter Schaft (a teacher) and Aafje Talea (Vrijer) Schaft; was a law student in Amsterdam at the time of the German occupation of the Netherlands, in May 1940; never married; no children.

Became an active member of a Communist resistance cell in Haarlem, hiding and assisting Jews who were being rounded up for "resettlement" to the death camps of the East (1941); with Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, carried out assassinations and became known to the German forces as the "red-haired girl" (1942–43); encouraged student solidarity that led to closing down of the Dutch universities (1943); arrested (March 1945) and executed (April 17, 1945), only three weeks before the collapse of Nazi Germany and the liberation of her country.

By the late 1930s, many in the Netherlands felt that they could no longer avoid war. Two decades earlier, during World War I, their country had managed to remain neutral, but with the rise of Nazism in Germany it became clear that this small nation would not be strong enough to defend itself against the aggressive forces gathering to the west. On May 10, 1940, the fears of the 1930s became grim reality when the German Blitzkrieg smashed across the German border into Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch queen Wilhelmina fled to England on May 13, and the next day the German Luftwaffe bombed and destroyed the port city of Rotterdam, killing nearly 1,000 civilians. On May 15, recognizing their situation as hopeless, Dutch military commanders surrendered, as Nazi tanks rolled into the capital city of Amsterdam. That same day, at least 150 Dutch men and women, many of them Jews, committed suicide.

Among the Dutch resolved to resist the Nazi occupiers was a 20-year-old woman named Hannie Schaft, a law student who commuted from her native city of Haarlem to the University of Amsterdam for classes several days a week. Born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in Haarlem on September 16, 1920, she was the daughter of Pieter and Aafje Vrijer Schaft . Pieter was a teacher with Social Democratic ideals; Aafje was the daughter of a minister and held equally strong Christian Socialist beliefs. During Hannie's childhood, the most important event had been the death of her 12-year-old sister Annie, in December 1927, of diphtheria. Hannie and her parents were left inconsolable. From that point on, the Schafts were highly protective of their only remaining child, a shy and bookish girl.

Growing up in the 1930s, young Hannie witnessed the conditions of massive unemployment in her country brought on by a worldwide depression, as well as the growing fear of aggression by the Fascist states of Germany and Italy. Many Dutch people, even those who had previously enjoyed a middle-class standard of living like the Schaft family, suffered. By late 1931, 250,000 were out of work, a situation that had worsened in 1934 to 415,000 registered unemployed. In 1932, 400,000 lived below the official poverty line. In the midst of such misery in the Netherlands only radical change seemed to promise relief. Some were drawn to the Fascist ideology of Anton Mussert, whose NSB party received 8% of the vote in the 1935 provincial elections.

Even as a schoolchild Hannie hated Fascism. She was an admirer of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that brought about the Soviet Union, and in one of her class compositions, written in 1936, she noted sarcastically that Mussolini's Italy had "brought civilization" to conquered Ethiopia by using machine guns, bombs and poison gas. During the Spanish Civil War between General Franco's Fascists and the International Brigades who went to Spain to save democracy, she listened eagerly to the radio and read newspaper accounts to keep abreast. Young Schaft's heroes were not movie stars or athletes but enemies of Fascism like Georgi Dimitrov, the defiant Bulgarian revolutionary and courtroom hero of the Reichstag Fire Trial, and Carl von Ossietzky, German anti-Nazi recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who was tortured in a German concentration camp and died of this illtreatment a few days after his release in 1938.

Even more radical than her Socialist parents, Schaft believed that only a profound social revolution could bring an end to economic exploitation, war, and racism. In the fall of 1938, she began her study of law at the University of Amsterdam. Europe was on the brink of war that tragic autumn: the Western allies at the Munich conference, attempting to appease Hitler's appetite for territory, capitulated by giving him strategic sections of Czechoslovakia. In the civil war in Spain, the republic was rapidly succumbing to Franco's militarily superior Fascist forces. At school, Schaft was a student of Professor H.J. Pos, a passionate foe of Fascism and an active member of the Committee of Vigilance, a leading anti-Nazi organization. The young Dutch student had Jewish friends both in Haarlem and in Amsterdam, and concern for them deepened her opposition to Hitler's racist policies.

Following the May 1940 occupation, the Germans initially were not as brutal in Holland as they were in Eastern Europe. By February 1941, however, many Dutch men and women were incensed by the increasing anti-Semitism exhibited by German occupying forces and Dutch collaborators. Amsterdam, which had a large Jewish population, also had the country's largest concentration of Socialists and Communists; it was in Amsterdam, therefore, that Dutch Nazis had wanted to prove their loyalty. At first, the mistreatment of Jews by Dutch storm troopers led to the creation of Jewish Action Groups, working as self-defense units along with non-Jewish groups from working-class neighborhoods to vigorously resist Dutch Nazi provocations. On February 11, a group of Nazis who entered Amsterdam's Jewish quarter met spirited resistance, and one of the Nazis died of his wounds. On February 19, German police became involved, and Jewish defenders sprayed them with acid. Within days, 425 young Jewish men were under arrest as the result of brutal raids, and the population of Amsterdam went on strike in protest of racist policies. The strike, led by defiant Communists, spread quickly to Haarlem and other major Dutch cities, the first significant act of opposition in German-occupied Europe against anti-Semitic policies. For Hannie Schaft, it was also the catalyst drawing her into the fight against Nazi repression.

Late in 1941, she joined the small, Communist-leaning Raad van Verzet (Council of Resistance) cell in Haarlem, one of the many illegal groups organized to resist the Nazi occupation forces and their Dutch collaborators. It was also the most militant. Although not officially a Communist organization, the group was allied to the Communist resistance movement, and all of its members were sympathetic to the political Left. Before Schaft became the third woman in the group, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen , 17 and 15 respectively, were its only female members. There were also five men.

Hannie's work at first involved assisting Jews who were attempting to escape the tightening dragnet, as the Germans gathered them up to be sent to concentration camps and eventually to extermination facilities farther to the east. Sometimes she hid Jews in her parents' home, where they were given food, encouragement, and false

documents. She also collected funds from sympathetic individuals in Haarlem to support these activities.

With the passage of time, Hannie, Truus, and Freddie began more radical resistance, specializing in the assassination of German Nazi officers and Dutch traitors. The reaction of the Dutch population in Haarlem and elsewhere to these activities was by no means uniformly positive. For one thing, the Germans began taking and shooting a growing number of Dutch hostages in retaliation. There were even objections within the resistance movement, some members of which felt women should not be assassins. Schaft and the Oversteegens strongly disagreed with this viewpoint, and in time the trio became notorious in German and Dutch Nazi circles for their bold effectiveness. Branded as dangerous terrorists, they were the targets of countless hours spent in searching for them, and particularly for the "red-haired girl": Hannie Schaft.

At the end of 1942, when the occupiers authorized 7,000 students to be called up for obligatory labor service in Germany, Schaft joined virtually all her fellow students in defiantly refusing to bow to this measure. The Nazis, attempting to split the student movement by adopting conciliatory tactics, first lowered the number to 3,000; when this still met with opposition, they announced a postponement of the plan with no deadline for a new policy. The crisis deepened again, however, early in 1943. General H.A. Seyffardt and several other leading Dutch collaborators were assassinated. It soon became clear that students had played an important role in these killings, and several hundred young people were arrested and interrogated.

In March 1943, the German Commissioner of the Occupied Netherland Territories, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, enraged by the success of the students, imposed a loyalty oath on students; everyone was required to sign or else relinquish the right to study. Schaft, once considered shy and scholarly, argued forcefully against signing the oath on moral grounds. When 86% of the student body ultimately refused to submit, higher education in the Netherlands was for all practical purposes at an end. Schaft successfully completed her law studies in underground classes, but she was not to live long enough to be awarded her degree.

Earlier, in February 1943, the German defeat at Stalingrad had had a powerful effect on the morale of the Dutch. The Nazis had essentially lost the war, but remained a strong and ruthless foe, determined to hold onto their conquered nations as long as possible. That year, Dutch resistance grew considerably, but the geography of the Netherlands, which lacks both mountains and forests, made it impossible to create the kind of partisan movement that flourished in Yugoslavia and in the Soviet Union. The Dutch functioned as "urban partisans," concentrating on hit-and-run activities and intelligence-gathering operations of value to the Allies. A nationwide Council of Resistance was created, in which Schaft and the Oversteegens played a leading role. The group, which included Communists, Social Democrats, anarchists and liberals, was led by Jan Bonekamp, a factory worker with a clear political vision and an almost total lack of fear.

By this time a prominent figure in the resistance, Schaft worked closely with Bonekamp, who taught her how to use weapons in the woods behind the home of Mari Andriessen, a noted Haarlem sculptor. Schaft soon fell in love with Bonekamp, an unsophisticated, warm-hearted man of the people whose hair was rarely in place. Hannie, in contrast, was an attractive, well-educated, middle-class woman, whose radicalism was based on emotion and education rather than on personal deprivation. To complicate matters, Jan was married and on the Nazi "most wanted" list; he was forced to live in hiding.

Schaft maintained her contacts with the Oversteegens, who had moved to the city of Enschede where they worked as nurses and collected data on a local German military airport. Politically on the left but not a dogmatic Marxist, Schaft studied Karl Marx's Das Kapital but also investigated the great works of Eastern philosophy and the ideals of non-violence espoused by India's Mohandas Gandhi. When not reading philosophy, she and Jan were occupied with attacking strategic facilities. On November 27, 1943, they destroyed the power plant at Velsen. Two days later, in the town of Beverwijk, they carried out the assassination of a notorious collaborator. In January 1944, Schaft was involved in destroying a Haarlem movie theater by arson.

The German authorities became increasingly incensed by their losses. Hitler himself ordered his subordinates in the Netherlands to eliminate the group doing such damage, and, starting in December 1943, an ongoing anti-sabotage policy against the Dutch resistance, known as Aktion Silbertanne ("Silver Fir"), was initiated. If German officials or Dutch collaborators were killed or wounded, Dutch hostages were increasingly shot in retaliation, and German officials began to specialize in anti-resistance cruelties. People like Willy Lages, head of the Aktion, his assistant Emil Rühl, and SS member Maarten Kuijper, a Dutch collaborator, were particularly notorious for their capturing and torturing activities.

In early 1944, Schaft was assigned to prepare a detailed map of German-built fortifications on the Dutch coastline, a difficult and dangerous task which she carried out brilliantly. Access to coastal military zones was highly restricted, but she entered the banned regions with relative impunity. She was poised and confident, spoke excellent German, and was in possession of forged papers identifying her as "Johanna Elderkamp" born in Zurich, Switzerland. Coupling her own observations with information from other resistance members, she was able to provide a complete map, which was sent through resistance channels to London, where it served as the basis for a successful raid by 300 Royal Air Force planes on the German submarine facilities at Ijmuiden on March 26, 1944.

By the spring of 1944, Hannie Schaft and members of her cell were planning new guerrilla activities and maintaining contacts with various groups in the nationwide Council of Resistance network. In April, she and Jan took part in a dramatic guerrilla attack on the Krommenie city hall, where their unit seized documents valuable to the resistance. A few days later, the group carried out an important raid on a chemical facility in Amsterdam. But as the war neared its end, the Haarlem cell's incredible good luck began to run out. During a raid in June 1944, one of its most courageous members, Gerrit Jan van der Veen, was badly wounded and captured by the Nazis, betrayed by a traitor in their midst. On June 12, 1944, less than a week after the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy, Gerrit and several others were executed by the Nazis. Bonekamp, Schaft and other surviving members of their cell took an oath to avenge the tragic deaths, and high on their list for elimination was Police Captain Ragut in the town of Zaandam. Ragut was a notorious collaborator, responsible for many deaths in the resistance, whose motives were particularly loathsome as he was not even a Nazi sympathizer; he simply worked for considerable sums of money.

On June 21, 1944, Schaft and Bonekamp cycled to Zaandam, where he managed to shoot Ragut. But as the couple fled the scene, Ragut appeared to be still alive, so Bonekamp returned to finish the job. Meanwhile, Schaft continued to cycle ahead, planning to meet him at a prearranged site. Ragut then shot Bonekamp who, severely wounded, staggered to a house for help. Instead, the inhabitants called the police. Bonekamp lingered on for a number of hours, during which he was recognized by a local collaborator. The anti-resistance expert Rühl arrived, and ordered an injection for Jan to make him talk; Rühl then told the dying man that he was a friend and wanted to take him to his comrades. No longer able to sense the danger, Bonekamp gave Rühl the address of Hannie and her parents just before dying.

A few days later, Nazi police arrived at Schaft's home, arrested her parents, and sent them to German concentration camps. An emotionally distraught Hannie was taken from Haarlem by friends to a safe place and given new identity papers. She told them that she would surrender to the Nazis in exchange for her parents' release. Alarmed at her unbalanced state, the resistance leaders assigned Truus and Freddie Oversteegen to stay with Schaft day and night until she could regain her equilibrium. Slowly, the distraught Schaft got a grip on her emotions, and concluded that her work was more necessary than ever before. She took on a new appearance, with eyeglasses and her hair dyed black. She was no longer the "red-haired girl" the Nazis had been pursuing for so long.

After much soul-searching, Schaft and the Oversteegens now concluded that they must avoid involvement in actions that would lead to the loss of innocent lives, Dutch or German, although it might limit some of their actions. Consequently, the trio vehemently opposed plans by the Council to bomb the Universal department store in Amsterdam, arguing that while such raids might weaken German morale, it would inevitably result in the loss of innocent Dutch shoppers and ordinary German soldiers. A plan to kidnap and hold the children of Seyss-Inquart for ransom was also summarily rejected by Schaft, for dropping to the moral level of the enemy. "We are not like the Nazis," she argued, "we of the resistance do not kill children," and neither of these plans were subsequently carried out by the male-led leadership of the council.

In the late summer and early fall of 1944, Schaft gathered information to produce a detailed map of German rocket-launching sites. Southern England was under increasing attacks by Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets that took lives and were eroding morale, and when her work was completed and forwarded to London, it helped Allied pilots to target the launching facilities. By the autumn of 1944, however, the Dutch citizenry was suffering terribly throughout the lowlands. Food scarcities caused disease and death among infants, the old, and the weak. Schaft and Truus Oversteegen spent almost every day conveying food supplies, literature and weapons from one resistance group to another. The Nazis generally searched women less thoroughly than they did men, so despite a few close calls she was able to function effectively during this time as a courier. But as the war wound down toward the end of 1944, the occupying army became increasingly brutal and arbitrary. One terrible incident involved the village of Putten, which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the resistance killing of a single German officer. Of the 590 men taken from the village to Germany, only about 50 survived the war. In March 1945, when it was clear that the conflict would be over in a matter of days or weeks, a failed attack on Hanns Rauter, Seyss-Inquart's deputy, resulted in the retaliatory execution of more than 250 Dutch prisoners.

In the winter of 1944–45, Schaft's group remained relatively quiet, waiting for the Allies. But the military liberation did not take place, and politics intervened. In London, the Dutch government-in-exile put pressure on the leaders of the resistance to rein in the activities of the leftist and Communist groups operating underground, fearing that they might attempt to seize power when German authority crumbled. Not until early spring 1945 did the Haarlem group resume some of its work, blowing up a train carrying industrial equipment to Germany. On March 15, Schaft and the Oversteegens carried out an assassination attempt against Ko Langendijk, a notorious collaborator, who was wounded but survived. On March 21, Schaft was bicycling to Ijmuiden when she was stopped at a German control point and was unable to get rid of her handbag, which contained copies of the underground Communist paper De Waarheid. Worse, she was also discovered to be carrying a pistol. Taken to a prison cell, she maintained her composure through relentless interrogation, but was then sent to Amsterdam and interrogated by Emil Rühl. Recognized as the "red-haired girl," she was warned that without a complete confession, five Dutch girls would be executed, and Hannie broke down and confessed. After the war, Rühl noted that despite the harsh treatment, the longtime resistance fighter behaved with dignity throughout her ordeal.

Had she not been labeled "a dangerous Communist," Schaft might well have lived to see her country's liberation from Fascism. But she did not fall into the category of prisoners that the Germans had informally promised to protect. Because of her dramatic resistance successes and the strong Communist affiliations of her Haarlem group, she was defined as a notorious terrorist. On April 17, 1945, three weeks before the final collapse of Nazi Germany, Aktion leader Lages conveyed the execution order; Schaft was taken from her cell and driven by car to the sand dunes of Overveen. There she was executed by Kuijper, the Dutch SS officer, and hastily buried among the bodies of 421 other Dutch men and women of the resistance for whom the dunes had been an execution ground.

Liberated from their captivity in Germany, Schaft's parents came back to Haarlem hoping to be reunited with their daughter. For awhile there appeared to be hope that she was still alive, but on May 21, the couple received confirmation of her death. Her body was exhumed and on November 27, 1945, in a ceremony attended by Queen Wilhelmina and others of the Dutch royal family, she was honored as part of an impressive funeral in the dunes where she had lost her life seven months earlier. Schaft was re-buried along with the 421 other resisters who had given their lives. A modest stone marks her final resting place, noting her name and dates of birth and death as well as the simple phrase, Zij diende ("She served").

As the Cold War progressed, Hannie Schaft's reputation suffered. Conservatives labeled her a doctrinaire Communist and cold-blooded terrorist, and standard Dutch reference works omitted mention of her, turning her into a veritable "non-person." In 1952, the police even banned a ceremony in her honor. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, she was harnessed to Cold War propaganda, cited as a Communist resistance heroine although she had never been a member of the party. In March 1962, the German Democratic Republic commemorated her life and work on a postage stamp that was part of a series honoring European anti-Fascist martyrs. By the late 1970s, the Cold War attitudes that had distorted memory of the life and struggles of Hannie Schaft were on the wane, allowing a new generation of scholars to recognize this remarkable young woman, martyred at age 25, for what she truly was, a fighter who helped to save Jews and to liberate her country.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia