01 August 2015

Jewish hero or Nazi pawn in Holland - Gertrude van Tijn

I have read Anna Frank’s diary and have visited the Frank home in Amsterdam. In fact I have read every story that has been printed in English of Dutch Jewish survivors from the Holocaust. But these were the victims. Now was the time to read the history of a fighter, a non-victim, a pro-active Jew in Amsterdam. Professor Bernard Wasserstein, the author of The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews (Harvard Uni Press 2014), came to Australia to launch his book in Feb 2014.

Gertrude Cohn (1897-1974) was a German Jew who did not seem to know much about her Judaism when she was a young woman. But by 1917 she was working for the Jewish National Fund, buying land in Israel for settlement by Jewish pioneers and training young people to be farmers in Israel. In 1920 she married Jacques van Tijn, a Dutch mining engineer and thus gained her precious Dutch citizenship. Gertrude van Tijn’s knowledge of English, German and Dutch led to her engagement as a translator of correspondence and of publications for the Jewish National Fund.

By 1933 Gertrude knew a great deal about what was going to happen to her parents, aunts and cousins, so she dedicated herself to organising Jewish emigration out of Germany, for as long as they were allowed to get out. (Jewish emigration was still officially allowed in December 1940). But as time went on, even had other countries allowed refugees in, the Germans would no longer allow them out.

 It was during this era that the Council for German Jewry was formed, constantly having to make choices about which Jews could be saved and which they could not save. Impossible circumstances emerged.

Gertrude van Tijn in her office at the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, 1942.  
photo credit: the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

When countries in the New World would not issue visas for European Jews, times became even tougher for van Tijn and her colleagues. The Dora, a small coal ship sailing under a Panamanian flag, left Amsterdam filled with over 300 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany plus 20 Dutch Jews aboard. The Dora dropped its refugees onto the Israeli coast during one night in August 1939, the first successful boatload of illegal immigrants to survive.

But the worst years were ahead. van Tijn found herself in neutral Lisbon in May 1941, aiming to get thousands of German and Dutch Jews onto ships and out of Europe. van Tijn could have saved herself and her children in 1941 by jumping on one of these ships. But for some reason, she decided to move instead to German-occupied Amsterdam, to continue her critically important work. She became a social worker in Amsterdam and worked for the Nazi-controlled Jewish Council in that city. There was nothing wrong with this. The Nazis controlled every aspect of Dutch society, so van Tijn’s only way of getting refugees out was via the Jewish Council. But the life of this assimilated middle-class Jewish woman had to change radically. She became a passionate Zionist leader, dedicating her life to saving displaced Jews by whatever means available.

 van Tijn served as secretary for two committees dedicated to helping Jewish refugees: the Committee for Special Jewish Interest and the Committee for Jewish Refuge. Refugees required food, shelter, medical aid and child care; help in dealing with the Dutch bureaucracy; assistance in arranging onward travel; and in the case of those remaining in the country, guidance toward suitable jobs and language instruction.

Wieringen Werkdorp was originally set up for young Jews to learn a trade.
Here students were rounded up by the Nazis in Wieringen Werkdorp in 1941
photo credit: The Australian

Was she a perfect human being? Good grief no. Her husband walked out on her and on the children, so she had lovers; she made bad decisions and occasionally she naively trusted the Germans when it was clear that their word was worth sod all. At one stage Nazi Klaus Barbie guaranteed visas for a large group of Jewish under-graduates at the Wieringen Werkdorp training camp, if only van Tijn would furnish the boys’ names and addresses. Unbelievably she gave Barbie what he had asked for… and every one of these Dutchmen was taken to the Mauthausen and Schoorl concentration camps. Not a single lad survived!

 Despite the Jewish Council in Amsterdam being Nazi controlled, we moderns would be ethically condescending if we thought that helping people to escape annihilation during the Holocaust was “collaborating”. The Council staff asked themselves constantly how could they organise it so more more Jews would survive. The staff did their very best, even when they made the difficult decisions that would ultimately lead others to die. To my mind, and probably to Professor Wasserstein’s, heroes had to use any technique available, legal or otherwise, to save lives.

In the end, one can but ask how many Dutch Jews survived and how many were exterminated. Professor Wasserstein estimated that van Tijn and the Council saved 22,000 souls, out of the total Jewish Dutch population of 140,000. 75% of Dutch Jews were exterminated, one of the highest death rates in Europe. Nonetheless of those Jews who went into hiding in the Netherlands, a much greater percentage survived. Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (published by the Jewish Holocaust Museum Melbourne in 1992) documents in detail the heroic stories of The Dutch Reform Church, the Dutch Resistance and the Jewish Council of Amsterdam in successfully hiding Jewish citizens with Christian families.

Wasserstein demonstrated that heroism can have terrible consequences for the individual worker. van Tijn was first taken to the Nazi deportation camp, Westerbork, in North Holland and was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen in Northern Germany. After liberation, she was severely criticised for her role with the Jewish Council and the death of the Jewish lads at Wieringen Werkdorp. Yet in spite of this criticism, she continued to work as ever to help displaced persons, this time getting Jewish refugees in Shanghai onto boats going to Australia.

After the war, van Tijn immigrated to America and was reunited with her two children. She died in Portland Oregon in 1974.

Prof Wasserstein's bookcover

The book title is clever. Firstly The Ambiguity of Virtue is a pun on Hannah Arendt’s expression The Banality of Evil. And ironically, it was Hannah Arendt (writing from the safety of the USA) who most viciously criticised van Tijn for collaborating with the Germans. Arendt was unforgivable!

Secondly Gertrude’s story really does question whether all heroic lives need to be virtuous. Gertrude Van Tijn was an amazing woman of principle who understood the need to compromise in desperate situations. She was definitely not a spineless agent of the Nazi programme of genocide, but she did have to discover how to work with, and around evil.

Inside Story made an interesting comparison between Gertrude van Tijn and André Trocmé, Le Chambon’s pastor for the war’s duration in France. Trocmé, too, was an outsider. From northern France, near the Belgian border, and with a German mother, he was fluent in that language. Like van Tijn, he came from a wealthy family, and was the family firebrand. And like van Tijn, he was forever marked by what he saw at close quarters of the gruesome butchery of the Nazi war to end Jewish life in Europe. Pastor Trocmé said that godly Christians had to save Jewish lives, to resist the violence, even if it threatened the rescuers' own lives. He too was a very brave man.

28 July 2015

WW1 Patriotism and Art in Melbourne

An exhibition exploring war is on at The Ian Potter Centre, NGV in Melbourne. Follow the Flag: Australian Artists and War 1914-45 brings together 150+ works of war art created by Australians. The exhibition, until mid Aug 2015, tells stories both personal and epic, and reflects on a diversity of attitudes and experiences of war. The exhibition showcases the work of famous Australian artists, including Albert Tucker, Arthur Streeton, Russell Drysdale and Joy Hester. There are paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculpt­ures and trench art (usually jewellery fashioned by soldiers from shrapnel). 

I was interested to see that “Follow the Flag” was an expression drawn from recruitment propaganda in 1914. Although it was right that Australia should go to the aid of Mother Britain in her time of greatest need, the series of posters suggested that young men had to be reminded of, and cajoled into their national duty. Like every other visitor to the exhibition, I felt extremely ambivalent. Would I have wanted my sons to serve their nation, with next to no pay? Absolutely …in teaching, medicine, nursing, making uniforms, translating or entertaining the troops! Would I have wanted them to learn how to use guns to kill other families’ sons? Absolutely not!

recruitment poster, 
published by the South Australian Government, 1915

“Come on boys, follow the flag!” This Victorian enlistment poster was published before conscription. Thus the poster was to encourage vol­unt­eers. But by 1916, Australia had just about run out of volunt­eers. In 1916 and again in 1917 Prime Minister Billy Hughes held national referenda on the issue of conscription. Hughes begged voters: “Don’t leave the boys in the trenches. Don’t see them butchered or you will cover Aus­tralia with shame.” Posters appeared thick and fast but in the end, both of the bitter and campaigns led to conscript­ion being defeated.

Paintings to look out for start with George Lambert’s famous Aust­ralian portrait called A Sergeant of the Light Horse 1920. This image of a Light Horseman matches the official account of the Australian Light Horseman who served in Palestine. If Australia had a distinctive type of soldier, they were “young men long of limb and feature, spare of flesh, easy and almost tired in bearing”. And “for all his unconventional ways, the Light Horseman was a young countryman leading a simple and peaceful life. He bears himself modestly … A felt slouch hat, a shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, long trousers”. Lambert was not the first artist to see a link between tough pioneering life on the Australian land and endurance on the European battlefields.

A sergeant of the Light Horse in Palestine, 1920

77 x 62 cm
by George Lambert

The most difficult art objects to look at were the photos of trench warfare and devastated landscapes. In August 1917 Frank Hurley was appointed as an official photographer and cinematographer with the Australian War Records Section. On his first day in Flanders, Hurley was faced with awful scenes of desolation. Everything had been swept away – only stumps of trees poked up. His photos of soldiers laying on stretchers and a disabled tank in mud remained powerfully evocative, even 100 years later.

I paid a lot of money for the glossy catalogue which beautifully reproduced the main art objects. But there was no sense of order in the chapters, World War One and Two were mixed randomly, and there ws no Index at the back. If I wanted to see a photo of the soldiers arriving home in 1918, I had to flick through all 134 pages and hope to catch a glimpse of the ship.

On 22nd July 2015, you can hear the Culture and War: ANZAC Centenary Lecture. The panel from University of Mel­b­ourne and the National Gallery of Victoria will examine how WW1 brought great social and cultural changes to Australian shores. The experience of soldiers travelling internation­ally, the national mobilisation, community loss and family grief were all important. And the impact of these changes will be revealed in the artwork of the period.


As part of commemorations for the ANZAC Centenary, many Victorian cultural organisations are examining the commitment and sacrifice of those who served in WW1. Other organisations include Melbourne Museum's The WW1 Centenary Exhibition, featuring objects from London's Imperial War Museums; War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918 at Aust­ralian Centre for the Mov­ing Image; Victorian Opera's Remembrance; and Arts Centre Melb­our­ne's Black Diggers.

True Jews and Patriots: Australian Jews and World War One 
At the Jewish Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most interesting of the smaller exhibitions is True Jews and Patriots: Australian Jews and World War One. It is on from July 2015–Jan 2016 at the Jewish Museum of Australia in St Kilda. “True Jews and Patriots” features intriguing untold stories of Australian Jewish experiences of the Great War. 100 years after WW1, this exhibition investigates the contributions and legacies of Jews who enlisted. It looks at the devastating impact of war on the soldiers themselves. And it shows how Aust­ralia’s Jewish community at home was shaped by the events of WW1.

If we moderns want to see the remarkable participation of C19th Aus­tralian Jews in Australian civil society, it can be best exemp­lif­ied by the career of Australia’s highest-ranking officer, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash. An engineer, civilian soldier and Australian-born son of Jewish migrants, Monash became one of the most celebrated Allied generals of WW1.

The courage and commitment of Monash and the Australian Jewish soldiers of all ranks are commemorated through first person accounts. Australian Jews went to war to secure the freedoms and democracy they enjoyed here. They wanted to participate fully in civil society and to secure these rights for their children. Visitors to “True Jews and Patriots” will recognise the remarkable history and situation of Jews in Australia. Examine a diverse range of original objects and arte­facts, including Sir John Monash’s combat boots, custom made uniforms, autograph books and photographs.

25 July 2015

A magnificent luxury liner torpedoed: Lusitania 1915

The Cunard liner Lusitania must have been a beautiful ship, mostly for the 563 first class passengers and the 464 second class passen­g­ers. Not for the 1,138 passengers in steerage who were squished in small cabins, but at least they had electric lights and heating.

Lusitania Online shows us how majestic the facilities were. The First Class library-writing room was fitted out in the 18th Century style of the Adams brothers; the First Class lounge was a master-piece of James Millar's architech­ture. In the first class lounge, the huge barrel-vaulted skylight contained 12 stained glass windows by Oscar Patterson. But it was the First Class Dining Saloon that was the joy of James Millar's architecture - the Saloon occupied two decks and was capped by a huge dome.

The book Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of the Edwardian Age by Greg King and Penny Wilson said the ship was so luxurious that she was the favoured vessel of the rich and famous who crossed the Atlantic. Regularly! The art dealers and film stars must have imag­ined they had the best of both worlds – Edwardian elegance AND Mod­ernity. And the ship was fast! Known as the Greyhound of the Seas, the Lusitania was the fastest liner afloat.

Lusitania's first class lounge and music room

The War to End All Wars had been raging since July 1914. And by early 1915 a new threat began to materialise in World War One: submarines. At first subs were used by the Germans only to attack British naval vessels, and they were sometimes successful. Then the U-boats began to attack merchant vessels, if they thought weapons were on board.

So why did the Lusitania sail? She had been briefly commandeered for war service in 1914, but had soon after been returned to commercial uses - passengers, mail and freight across the Atlantic.  

Then it all changed, as a result of the British declar­ing the North Sea a war zone in November 1914. Geography and naval inferiority denied Germany any opportunity to establish an equivalent counter blockade by surface ships. So German's target became merchant ships, to cut the supply line at source.  It was a desperate "no holds barred" strategy, but the alternative would have been slow economic strangulation for Germany.

The German government upped its submarine campaign. On 4th February 1915 the British were given a fortnight’s warning: Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone… where all Allied ships would be sunk without warning. The Germans, however, did note that efforts would be taken to avoid sinking neutral ships.

So why would intelligent people sail on a British ship into the dangerous North Sea War Zone after 18th Feb 1915? Did they think that wealthy people would be exempt from torpedoes in the mid­dle of a hideous war? Or did they assume the Lusitania could speed her way out of any submarine attack? The crew may have had no choice about sailing, but I think the paying customers must have been demented!

The Lusitania was torpedoed off Cork in Ireland
7th May 1915 

The German embassy in Washington paid for a large advertisement in the New York Times and 49 other American newspapers. It was to remind travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage that British or Allied vessels were liable to destruction in the war zone adjacent to the British Isles. And that any travellers who crossed by such means did so at their own risk. As it happened, the Lusitania and its customers left New York City on May 1st 1915, bound for its home in Liver­pool with 1,257 passengers. As you would expect on a British ship, most of the passengers were 1,000 British and British Commonwealth citizens especially Canadians, but there were also 139 Americans, 72 Russians and a few others on board.

One German submarine U-20 had entered the Irish Sea on May 5th 1915 and, within a couple of days, had sunk three British ships: Earl Of Lathom, Candidate and Centurion. This German sub had only two torpedoes left to fire and was low on fuel. So the German Captain Walter Schwieger decided to steer for the open waters of the Atlantic and home. But this was the VERY day the speedy Lusitania was steaming off the coast of Ireland, very close to home.

British Captain Turner had been warned by wireless that submarines were active off south coast of Ireland. Five further Admiralty warnings were sent that night (7th May) and the following day. And the warnings were spot on. The two ships started converging at 2 pm. After stalking his prey for an hour, Captain Schwieger unleashed one torpedo that hit its target half way down one side. The first explosion was followed quickly by a second, more powerful explosion.

Within 20 minutes the great liner had slipped under the water, yet only two of the port side lifeboats were launched and only six of the starboard side lifeboats got away successfully. 1198 victims, passengers, crew and bandsmen, went down with the ship.

German Embassy advertisement 
warning about all British and allied ships, 
published in The New York Times, 1st May 1915 
next to an ad for the Lusitania.

Saul David argued persuasively that critical mistakes had been made regarding the route, speed and safety provisions of the Lusitania, but his article went feral with two of his conclusions. Firstly “the presence of munitions may not have caused the Lusitania to sink, but it did transform the liner into a legitimate military target”. Good grief - it was two years into the worst war the world has ever seen. Of course there were heaps of weapons on board!!

Secondly David said the British government knew that the sinking of a non-military ship with the loss of 1,198 lives was a useful means of swaying American opinion in favour of entering the war on the Allies’ side. Did Mr David really imagine the British government would risk a single British or British Commonwealth life, just to sway political opinion in Washington DC?

In May 1915 the USA there was no declaration of war against Germany and no joining in with the Allied cause. However after two further years of American debate, neutrality was no longer seen as working. By February 1917, America decided to be part of the Allied forces lined up against Germany in war.

Lusitania: life, loss, legacy is a permanent exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition that marks the centenary year (1915) of the sinking of the Lusitania in Liverpool. Highlighting new research about the people involved in the Lusitania story, the display also considers the role of Liverpool’s liners in WW1. This event devastated the tight-knit dockland communities in north Liverpool, where most of Lusitania's crew lived. 405 crew members died, including many Liverpool Irish seamen.