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The Netherlands: the greatest number of Jewish victims in Western Europe

Three quarters of the Dutch Jews were murdered during the Second World War. In other Western European countries such as Belgium and France, these percentages were much lower. Read here what caused the differences.

Pim Griffioen, Ron Zeller

After the raid on the Secret Annex on 4 August 1944 the eight Jews who were in hiding there were transferred to the transit camp in Westerbork. From there the Frank family took the last train from the Netherlands to Auschwitz on 3 September 1944.

At that time more than 100,000 Jews had already been transported from the Netherlands, the large majority to the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz and Sobibor. Of the countries in Western Europe occupied by the Nazis, the Netherlands suffered the largest number as a result of the persecution of the Jews, both in terms of percentages and in absolute numbers. How can this be explained?

Comparison between the Netherlands and Belgium and France

Jewish population before the war

Before 1940, the Netherlands, Belgium and France had been characterized by a parliamentary democracy and a liberal tradition for decades. Admittedly there was some anti-Semitism, often not openly expressed, but in these countries there had been no legal difference between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens for almost 150 years. The percentage of Jews of the total population did not differ very much and was low in all three countries: 0.75% of the French and Belgian population, and 1.5% of the Dutch population.

The great majority of the Jewish population in the Netherlands, approximately 85%, had lived in the country for centuries, and before 1940 it was largely integrated. In Belgium and France, a large percentage of the Jews were immigrants from Eastern Europe and refugees who had come from Germany in the 1930s. In Belgium this even accounted for more than 90% of the Jewish population, while in France this was about 50%.

German occupation of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France

The German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France started on 10 May 1940. Following the defeat and the start of the occupation, the policy of the Germans was similar in these three countries in many respects: their aim was to cooperate with the national governments, maintain law and order, gradually achieve an adaptation to Nazi policies and to integrate the economies for the benefit of Germany in the most flexible possible way.

This was in contrast with the policy adopted by the Nazis in the occupied part of Poland: from the beginning the Polish authorities there were roughly pushed aside and the Germans acted violently towards the population and stripped the country economically.

Cooperation of the French government with Nazi Germany

In France the situation differed from that in the Netherlands and Belgium to the extent that after the defeat and the armistice of June 1940, a large part of the country was not occupied by Germans. The French government moved from Paris to the town of Vichy in the unoccupied south, the so-called “free zone”.

Democracy and law and order were largely abolished under the new leader of the government, Marshal Philippe Pétain. The new authoritarian regime aimed to collaborate with the Germans and was prepared to make a start itself on persecuting Jews, also in the “free zone”.

Thus most of the anti-Jewish measures and laws in France were not issued by the Germans, but by the French government. It was precisely because the French government was anti-Semitic and therefore prepared to collaborate with the Germans that it kept a finger on the pulse and was able to reduce the persecution at a later stage when it wanted to.

The governments of the Netherlands and Belgium went into exile at the start of the occupation and the government of the country fell into the hands of the top civil servants. They were instructed to stay and collaborate with the occupying forces in the interests of the population.

How was the situation in the Netherlands different from that in Belgium and France?

Different occupying regimes

A civil occupying regime was imposed in the Netherlands, characterized by the strong influence of fanatical Nazis and the SS. They considered the Dutch to be a “Germanic brother nation” and tried to win people over to Nazism. This applied less to the Belgians and certainly not to the French.

In Belgium and the occupied part of France, German military rule was imposed under the leadership of generals. They supported the interests of the army (the Wehrmacht) and devoted attention particularly to the proposed invasion of England, which had not yet been defeated.

In the Netherlands, Hitler appointed the Austrian Nazi and lawyer Arthur Seyss-Inquart as the head of occupying regime. Seyss-Inquart was fiercely anti-Semitic and this also applied for his most important colleagues, such as Fritz Schmidt (Nazi propaganda) and Hanns Rauter (the SS and the German police).

Dutch protests against the persecution of the Jews

The first anti-Jewish laws and measures were admittedly issued in all three countries at approximately the same time, in October and November 1940, but this resulted in public protests only in the Netherlands. Professors, students and churches, amongst others, protested against the dismissal of Jewish civil servants, including lecturers at universities.

In February 1941, the situation soon got out of hand in the Netherlands. The reason for this was the anti-Jewish riots in Amsterdam which were triggered by Dutch National Socialists with the secret support of local German authorities. Following an incident with the German police in an ice-cream parlour owned by Jews, the SS chief of police Rauter had approximately 400 Jewish men taken prisoner in a reprisal and transported to a concentration camp.

Extremely violent razzias were carried out, witnessed by many non-Jewish inhabitants in Amsterdam, and this resulted in a general strike in protest in Amsterdam and the surrounding area, later known as the February strike. This surprised the Germans, and it was only on the second day that they managed to violently suppress the strike which had spread like wildfire.

After that, every month new regulations and measures were issued against the Jews. They were increasingly driven into social isolation, and stripped of their possessions. However, after the February strike the occupying forces tried to avoid overt violence.

Jewish Councils

In all three countries, an organization was imposed to deal with the Jewish population and this was then used for their continued social exclusion. In the Netherlands this was the Jewish Council of Amsterdam. It had been established on German orders in February 1941 and by October of that year it had a national scope.

In Belgium this organization was established by the military regime in November 1941, and in France it was established at about the same time under German pressure through a law issued by the French government. While these organizations had a fairly broad scope for negotiation in Belgium and France, the situation in the Netherlands was much worse for the Jews in that respect: the Jewish Council gradually became completely subordinate to the orders of the German police in Amsterdam.

Deportations from the Netherlands

When the deportations started in all three countries in July 1942, it became clear that the German police in the Netherlands were in almost complete control, mainly independently of the rest of the occupying regime and the Dutch authorities. This applied to a lesser extent in Belgium and not at all in France. As a result, the Germans were able to make wide use of misinformation and deception when the deportations were carried out in the Netherlands. For example, they issued tens of thousands of provisional exceptions which were later rescinded one by one.

In this way the German police managed to transport the Dutch population bit by bit without it leading to too many people going into hiding or to too much resistance.  Adolf Eichmann, who organized the deportations of the Jews throughout Europe from Berlin was satisfied: “rollten am Anfang, dass man sagen kann, es war eine Pracht.” (“In the beginning you could say that the trains from the Netherlands were really rolling; it was quite wonderful.”)

From January 1942 more and more Jewish men were sent to labour camps in the Netherlands. After the start of the deportations in July, the impression was initially that they did not have to go to Poland because they had already been put to work in the Netherlands. But at the beginning of October 1942, these men were rounded up along with with their families, altogether more than 12,000 people at one fell swoop, and were almost all transported to Auschwitz in that month.

The same applied for Jewish hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly: they were deliberately left alone by the German police for months on end, so many people thought they were safe there for the time being.  However, from January 1943, they were emptied one after the other. As in the case of the labour camps, these groups were also easy victims for the occupying regime because they had been concentrated in one place and because of their isolation.

Razzias in Belgium

In Belgium, the German police only carried out violent razzias and large-scale arrests. In response to this the Jews who remained tried to go into hiding as quickly as possible or managed to become integrated in the non-Jewish population with false identity papers. In addition, the often East European background of the Jews played a role in this: they had fled anti-Semitism before in their home countries, and were familiar with both the methods and the terrible consequences of persecution.

Eggert Reeder, the chief of the military regime in Belgium reported to Berlin in December 1942: “Die noch im Lande verbliebenen Juden halten sich verborgen, so daß die später geplante Durchführung weiterer Abtransporte sehr schwierig sein wird.” (“The Jews who remained in the country are in hiding, and consequently their planned transportation will be very difficult.”)

The role of the French Vichy government in the persecution of the Jews

While the Dutch and Belgian governments had less and less say in the anti-Jewish policy of the occupying regime during the course of 1941, the Vichy government continued to play an important role in France. This also particularly applied to the deportations. Thanks to the French government, the Germans were in the first instance able to deport more Jews than would have been the case if they had had to do it on their own.

 In France, two out of three deported Jews were arrested and handed over to the Germans by the ordinary police of the country itself. In the Netherlands it was only one in four, in Belgium only one in six. Therefore the difference in the percentage of victims between the Netherlands and Belgium can partly be explained by a larger proportion of Dutch police involved in the deportations.

However from October 1942, the French government refused to continue with arresting Jews on a large scale to send them for deportation. This was primarily the result of vehement protests on the part of the church, particularly in the “free zone”. The letter of protest from Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas in Montauban was especially noteworthy. In this he emphasized, amongst other things, that the Jews were “being sent to an unknown destination with the prospect of the gravest dangers”.

The American pressure on the French government behind the scenes also played a role, as did the fact that the French refused to pick up Jews with French citizenship (or immigrants and refugees) in large numbers. Later on the unfavourable course of the war for Germany also had an effect. All this led to lengthy interruptions in the deportations in France.

In short, the opportunistic role of the Vichy government worsened the situation of the Jews in France in the first instance, but as a result of the protests, the circumstances changed and the resistance which had developed in the meantime meant that in the end fewer French Jews were deported than Dutch Jews.

Resistance, going into hiding and help for Jews

In Belgium and France, organized resistance started earlier than in the Netherlands, as did the help for Jews who were trying to go into hiding or escape. One important reason for this was that many Belgians and Frenchmen were forced to work in factories in Germany in October 1942. The effect of this measure was very shocking and many people went into hiding or joined the resistance.

After the deportations began, the Jewish resistance fairly soon became integrated with the general resistance and the organization of helping people go into hiding. However, there was always a danger of betrayal and the persecutors made use of people who were prepared to betray the Jews.  Sometimes they received a financial reward for every Jew in hiding they managed to deliver to the authorities.

In the Netherlands, the violent suppression of the February strike in 1941 continued to have a deterrent effect for a long time. Networks developed to help people go into hiding only after the big strikes in April and May 1943, when increasing numbers of Dutchmen were forced to go and work in Germany. By that time the majority of Dutch Jews had already been rounded up and transported.

Explaining the differences in the number of victims

The large number and percentage of Jewish victims in the Netherlands compared with France can be explained in the first place by the fact that in the Netherlands, the German police had sole authority over the organization and execution of the deportations, independently of the occupying regime and the local authorities. This applied to a lesser extent in Belgium and not at all for France.

After the razzias and the February strike in 1941, the occupying authorities transported the Jews as unobtrusively as possible, using misinformation and deceit. This was in contrast with what was happening in Belgium and France when the deportations started there in 1942: the razzias were carried out with violence so that the remaining Jews soon tried to flee or go into hiding.

Another important difference was the late development in the Netherlands of organized resistance and networks for people who were going into hiding. The opportunities for Jews to go into hiding developed fairly soon after the start of the deportations in Belgium and France as a result of the cooperation between the Jewish and non-Jewish resistance. Of the more than 30,000 Jews in the Netherlands who were able to go into hiding or made an attempt to escape abroad, approximately one third were still betrayed or discovered and transported, sometimes after many years of being hidden, as was the case with the Frank family.

Comment by the authors with regard to the number of Jewish victims from the Netherlands:

Usually the numbers used are 102,000 victims and 107,000 deportees. The number of (approximately) 104,000 victims also includes the Jewish suicides in the Netherlands during the period from May 1940 to May 1945 and those who were killed or died while they were incarcerated by the Germans in the Netherlands (Kamp Amersfoort, Kamp Vught, Kamp Westerbork, and Ellecom, German prisons in the Netherlands), some of whom were buried in the Netherlands.

These numbers also include those who died while they were in hiding and those who tried to escape to Switzerland and/or Spain via Belgium and France but did not survive because they were caught in those countries or, for example, because they did not survive the extreme cold when crossing the Pyrenees to Spain.

Comment by the authors with regard to the number of people who went into hiding the Netherlands:

The 30,000 referred to in this essay includes the 28,000 people who went into hiding and about 2,000 people who tried to escape abroad. (They do not include the slightly less than 1,000 cases of legal emigration in 1940-1941.) We believe that saying that of the 28,000 people in hiding, “approximately 12,000 were arrested, well over 42%”, seems rather high.

Apart from the fact that 42% of 28,000 is equal to 11,760 (therefore hardly “well over 42%”), the number of 12,000 that is given is probably based on the number of cases of Jews who were sent to Westerbork as a punishment and were priority cases for transportation via the punishment barracks.

However, not all these 12,000 cases of punishment were people who had been in hiding and had been arrested. They also included people who had not been in hiding but, for example, had (allegedly) infringed one of the many anti-Jewish regulations, such as:

  • being away from home after the clock had struck for the evening curfew for the Jews
  • failing the wear the Star of David or wearing it incorrectly
  • going into shops to go shopping outside the set hours in the afternoon which applied to Jews
  • travelling without a valid travel permit

In short, the difference was particularly that the majority of the 12,000 cases of punishment, though not all of them, were in fact people who had been in hiding and had been caught. Therefore we maintain that about a third of the people in hiding were subsequently betrayed, or discovered and then transported.

It is true that the number of people in hiding has been estimated on the basis of various calculations, because there are no reliable exact figures available, which in turn is directly related to the secretive nature of living in clandestine conditions.

About the authors

Pim Griffioen and Ron Zeller are historians and the authors of the book Jodenvervolging in Nederland, Frankrijk en België, 1940–1945: overeenkomsten, verschillen, oorzaken, Boom publishers, 2011, a finalist for the 2012 Yad Vashem Book Prize for Scholarly Studies. They have also published articles on this subject in numerous international journals and anthologies. 

Literature:
  • Griffioen, Pim & Zeller, Ron, "Comparing the Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, France and Belgium, 1940–1945: Similarities, Differences, Causes". In: Romijn, Peter a.o., The Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940–1945. New Perspectives (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press/Vossiuspers, 2012).
  • Griffioen, Pim & Zeller, Ron, Jodenvervolging in Nederland, Frankrijk en België, 1940–1945: overeenkomsten, verschillen, oorzaken (Amsterdam: Boom, 2011).
  • Griffioen, Pim & Zeller, Ron, "Anti-Jewish Policy and Organization of the Deportations in France and the Netherlands, 1940–1944: A Comparative Study". In: Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 20 (2006), no. 3, p. 437-473.
  • Klarsfeld, Serge & Steinberg, Maxime (Eds.), "Tätigkeitsbericht nr. 22", 31 december 1942 (from the period of 1 September to the end of December 1942, p. A 39; CDJC doc. nr. CDXCVI-6. In: Die Endlösung der Judenfrage in Belgien: Dokumente (New York: NY & Paris: The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation / CDJC, 1980).
  • Krimp, Renske (compilation) & Grüter, Regina (introduction), De doden tellen. Slachtofferaantallen van de Tweede Wereldoorlog en sindsdien (Amsterdam: Nationaal Comité 4 en 5 mei, 2016, 2nd revsised edition).
  • Ministry of Justice of the State of Israel, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann. Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem (9 vols.). Vol 9 (a): Prosecution Documents (on microfilm), T/1432 (21 (Jerusalem: Ministry of Justice of the State of Israel, 1992-1995).
  • Presser, Jacques, Ashes in the wind: the destruction of Dutch Jewry (Londen: Souvenir Press, 2010).
  • Théas, Pierre-Marie, Pastoral letter, read in churches 30 August 1942, Archives Nationales, Paris, AG II 492/CDJC doc. nr. CIX-113, and cited in: Klarsfeld, Serge, Vichy–Auschwitz. Le rôle de Vichy dans la ‘Solution finale de la Question juive’ en France, vol. 1: 1942 (Paris: Fayard, 1983).

On this subject also see the relevant chapter of the EHRI online course in Holocaust Studies.