Wijsmuller-Meijer, Truus (c. 1896–1978)
Wijsmuller-Meijer, Truus (c. 1896–1978)
Dutch rescuer, who saved the lives of thousands of Jews, particularly children, both before and during the Holocaust. Name variations: Gertrude Wijsmuller; Geertruida or Gertruida Wijsmuller-Miejer; Gertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer; Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer; Truus Wysmuller. Born around 1896; died in Amsterdam in 1978.
In the still almost incomprehensible horror that was the Holocaust, 1.5 million Jewish children were killed by Nazi Germany. Hundreds of thousands survived, however, due in part to chance but also as a direct result of the efforts of individuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who chose to put their own lives at risk. Many of these women and men remain unknown to history, and only in recent years have their activities been subject to investigation by historians. In the Netherlands, one of the most remarkable of these rescuers was a Christian woman, Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer.
Wijsmuller-Meijer had a comfortable life (her husband was a banker), but after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 in Nazi Germany, she became a key participant in the Kindertransport system that helped German-Jewish children to safety by finding them temporary and, if at all possible, permanent places of refuge in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Within days of Kristallnacht, concerned individuals and organizations in the United Kingdom, both Jewish and non-Jewish, took immediate steps to save as many Jewish children as possible from a Nazi Reich that had recently grown in size and power through its annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. On November 21, 1938, the British Parliament approved the entry into the country of 10,000 endangered children. By the time it was terminated with the outbreak of war in early September 1939, the Kindertransport was able to bring out 10,000 endangered children, 90% of them Jewish, from the recently expanded Reich. Ranging in age from infancy to 17, the children were sent alone by their desperate parents and placed with strangers in foster homes and hostels throughout the British Isles. Most of them would never see their parents again.
Convinced that what she was doing was right, from the outset of her involvement working with refugees from Nazism, Truus chose to ignore the powerful domestic currents of opinion on this issue. Many of her fellow countrymen were indifferent to the plight of Jewish refugees, and some sympathized with the goals of the Nazi German dictatorship. Significant numbers of the Dutch elite, including important officials within the government and some members of the royal family (though not Queen Wilhelmina ), believed they could appease Hitler and be "good neighbors" to the new Germany. Even after Kristallnacht, these influential elements of Dutch society condemned what they regarded as "a disorderly arrival of refugees." In a press release issued a week after the anti-Jewish violence, the Dutch government declared that on the question of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, its policy was one in which only "an orderly flow is permissible and that to a very limited extent."
Immediately following the creation of the Kindertransport, a situation developed at the German border town of Bentheim during one journey. The customs officers there were not the traditional officials but special SS guards who entered the train coaches. In the words of Norbert Wollheim, one of the German-Jewish leaders on the train, the SS men proceeded to behave "like animals," tearing into the children's luggage, presumably to discover contraband items such as jewels and foreign currency. Hearing about the incident, Truus came to Bentheim and lashed out at the SS crew. To their response of "We are doing our duty," she replied, "You're not doing your duty, you are behaving very badly." After her intervention, the SS vandalism ceased.
In early December 1938, authorized by British Jewish leader Norman Bentwich and Dutch Jewish leader David Cohen, Truus went to Nazi-occupied Vienna on behalf of the Council for German Jewry, a British organization that had gained laurels for its efforts to rescue Jews threatened by Nazi rule. She was to negotiate for the release of as many children as possible for emigration through the Kindertransport program. As she entered the Leopoldstadt, Vienna's traditional Jewish district, immediately after her Saturday arrival, Wijsmuller-Meijer found herself under arrest by the Gestapo. She was accused of being a foreign Jewess (Jüdin) with an unspecified agenda and was held for several hours before her release. On Monday, December 5, she found herself in the office of Adolf Eichmann, SS "Jewish expert" and the man in charge of all emigration matters pertaining to Vienna's large Jewish community. At first, Eichmann was skeptical of the validity of her mission, since she lacked authorization papers from the British government. Truus stubbornly held her ground with Eichmann, insisting on her mission's goal of rescuing as many Jewish children as possible. Eventually, Eichmann relented and gave permission for the release of 600 Viennese Jewish children. The children (now reduced to 470) left Vienna on December 10, which happened to be the Jewish Sabbath. Some on the scene regarded this as a final provocation on the part of the Nazis, since for Orthodox Jews travel was prohibited on the Sabbath. On December 11, the children departed safely from the Dutch port of Hoek van Holland on the steamer Praag, arriving safely in England some hours later.
Despite the continuing pro-German appeasement policies of the Dutch ruling elites, Nazi Germany launched a massive attack on the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Within hours, the Blitzkrieg offensive began to break through Dutch defensive lines, and the population's morale plummeted. The Dutch-Jewish community particularly could now only stare at its immediate future with dread. At the time, the Netherlands' Jewish population totaled 140,000, of whom about 15,000 were refugees from the Greater German Reich (in 1939 and the first months of 1940, 34,000 refugees had entered the country, but by early May 1940, more than half of these had fortunately been able to find refuge in the United Kingdom, the United States and a number of other nations). These ex-Reich Jews, regarded by the invading Nazis as being legally stateless, were in even greater peril than the clearly threatened Jews of Dutch nationality.
As of May 10, with German Luftwaffe planes bombing Dutch cities indiscriminately, panic was the dominant mood among the Dutch, and rumors were rife. Among these was one claiming that Dutch Jews had little to worry about from the Nazis, since their government had provided a special ship to carry them to England and safety via the port of Ijmuiden. This baseless rumor was passed on, largely by word of mouth because telephone service had collapsed. In Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, the Special Committee for Jewish Affairs, an organization founded in 1933 to cope with emergencies facing the Jewish community, attempted as best it could to spread the word that the ship (or ships) would speed them to safety from several ports still under Dutch military control. While some Jews took matters into their own hands, making their way under chaotic conditions to coastal towns, including Scheveningen and Ijmuiden, where they hoped to board vessels bound for England, others found themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of events and resigned themselves to fate.
Determined to save as many lives as possible, Wijsmuller-Meijer managed to procure five buses. She then filled them with approximately 200 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who had recently been living in the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage, among them about 80 children. With German troops approaching Amsterdam, and against great odds, she was able reach the port city of Ijmuiden with her precious cargo. Ijmuiden on May 14, 1940, was a scene of almost total confusion. One of the children, 14-year-old Harry Jacobi, would recall years later watching British troops land in the port as part of a desperate effort to bolster crumbling Dutch defenses. Wijsmuller-Meijer then persuaded the captain of the Bodegraven, a Dutch freighter set to sail for England, to accept 200 passengers. At 7:50 pm, just before the Bodegraven departed the port of Ijmuiden, Truus' Jewish refugees boarded the crowded vessel. Young Jacobi began to realize how truly fortunate he and the others in his group were as the Bodegraven steamed out of port: "Far away from the shore we looked back and saw a huge column of black smoke from the oil storage tanks that had been set on fire to prevent the Germans having them. At 9 pm, news came through, picked up by the ship's radio. The Dutch had capitulated." Soon, Jacobi and the other Jewish refugees reached Britain and safety. Their lives had been saved, but many near and dear to them would not be as fortunate. Neither Jacobi's parents, who had been unable to escape from Berlin, nor his grandparents who lived in the Netherlands but could not find space in those crowded motor coaches, would survive the Holocaust.
Some years after the war, Wijsmuller-Meijer would confide to the Dutch Jewish historian Jacob Presser, "If only I could have laid my hands on more cars, I could have saved a good many more people." In fact, she made a decision that gave her the opportunity to save many more lives during the harsh German occupation of her country. In May 1940, in the first days of Nazi Germany's military victory over the Netherlands, she chose to remain behind to continue her participation in the struggle to save Jewish lives. By doing this, Wijsmuller-Meijer was able to take on a leadership role in the underground network that over the next five years would find ways to smuggle thousands of endangered Jews across Nazi-occupied Europe into neutral Spain and Switzerland. Cherished by the many whose lives she had saved, Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer died in Amsterdam in 1978. Some years before her death, she was honored in Jerusalem by Yad Vashem, the Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority of Israel. As she later told Harry Jacobi, the finest hour of her life was the honor of planting a commemorative tree in Yad Vashem's Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.
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——. Der jüdische Kindertransport von Deutschland nach England 1938–39: Geschichte und Erinnerung. Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1999.
Harris, Mark Jonathan, and Deborah Oppenheimer. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. NY: Bloomsbury, 2000.
Jong, Louis de. Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Vol. 3. The Hague: Staatsuitgeverij, 1969–1972, pp. 411–412.
Leverton, Bertha, and Shmuel Lowensohn. I Came Alone: The Stories of the Kindertransports. Sussex, England: Book Guild, 1990.
"The Little Refugees," in American Heritage. Vol. 51, no. 7. November 2000, p. 96.
Lynne, Edward. "Heroine from Holland: The Dutch Woman Who Rescued 10,000 Jewish Children. Condensed from 'Jewish Observer and the Middle East Review,'" in Jewish Digest. Vol. 13, no. 3. December 1967, pp. 39–40.
Michman, Dan. "The Committee for Jewish Refugees in Holland (1933–1940)," in Livia Rothkirchen, ed., Yad Vashem Studies. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, 1981, Vol. XIV, pp. 205–232.
Moore, Bob. Refugees from Nazi Germany in The Netherlands 1933–1940. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986.
——. Victims and Survivors: The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in The Netherlands, 1940–1945. NY: Arnold, 1997.
"Mrs. G. Wijsmuller-Meijer," in Jewish Chronicle [London]. No. 5710. September 29, 1978, p. 15.
Presser, Jacob. Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. Trans. by Arnold Ondergang. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1988.
"600 Jewish Children Leave Vienna," in The Times [London]. December 6, 1938, p. 13.
Tulin, Anna. "She Saved 20,000 Children: An Interview with Truus Wysmuller," in Hadassah Magazine. July–August 1951, p. 5.
Wijsmuller-Meijer, Truus, and L.C. Vrooland. Geen tijd voor tranen (No Time for Tears). 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Em. Querido's Uitgeverij N.V., opgenomen in de Salamander, 1963.
Harris, Mark Jonathan, and Deborah Oppenheimer. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (film), produced by Sabine Films in cooperation with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., released by Warner Bros., 2000.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia