AMSTERDAM – The question asked of Johan Van Hulst on the morning of June 19,
1943, was short but potentially fateful: “Are those Jewish children?” With SS
soldiers within earshot, it may well have been the last question he would
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His interlocutor, Inspector Fieringa, was an Education Ministry
official sent to oversee the matriculation exams at the Protestant seminary
which Professor Van Hulst – who will turn 101 this month – was
Van Hulst used the seminary to dispatch hundreds of Jewish
children to safe houses across German- occupied Holland.
really expect me to answer that, do you?” He finally replied.
Thursday, Van Hulst met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Dutch
parliament and received from the visiting Israeli prime minister a copy of the
Bible as a token of gratitude for saving more than 500 children from the
Netanyahu was visiting the Netherlands to strengthen bilateral
Netanyahu asked Van Hulst what made him decide to risk
execution and help the children to safe houses across Holland.
only one way to escape from the crèche, and that was from the seminary. And I –
and not only I but students from the University of Amsterdam and from Utrecht –
saved more than 500 children, but less than a thousand.”
replied: “We say, those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds
of universes. I want to thank you in the name of the Jewish people, but also in
the name of humanity.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
, Van Hulst
– who after the war became a senior politician – said he could not have done it
if not for “the help of God and people like Inspector Fieringa.”
discovering Van Hulst’s secret, the inspector shook the professor’s hand and
quietly told him: “In God’s name, be careful.”
Also on Thursday, a
feature film was released in the Netherlands depicting the actions of the people
involved in the rescue operation, including Van Hulst and the students and staff
of his college, the Hervormde Kweekschool te Amsterdam.
Suskind, focuses on the actions of Walter Suskind, a German Jew who used his
good relations with SS officers in occupied Holland to smuggle children from the
SS-guarded Jewish crèche at the Hollandsche Schouwburg in Amsterdam to the
adjacent seminary run by Van Hulst.
The film touches on what is
apparently one of Dutch society’s open nerves.
Last week, Dutch Prime
Minister Mark Rutte announced amid a heated public debate that he would not
apologize for the perceived indifference of the Dutch government in exile to the
murder of over 100,000 Dutch Jews.
Rutte had been urged to apologize by
presiding and former politicians. Their appeal grabbed front-page headlines
Asked on Thursday by an Israeli journalist whether the Netherlands
would someday apologize, Rutte said: “The terrible events do not lend themselves
to black and white utterances that we don’t intend to pass
During World War II, the German occupation forces in the
Netherlands relied heavily on the collaborationist Dutch Nazi party (NSB) to
administer daily life and facilitate the extermination of more than 80 percent
of Dutch Jewry. Queen Wilhelmina, who was together with her government in exile
in London, devoted five sentences to the fate of her Jewish subjects over five
years of frequent radio broadcasts.
“My opinion is that I do not wish to
judge,” Van Hulst said. “The Dutch government in exile knew nothing of
what was happening here. I do not wish for an apology. There was such great
Those in favor of an apology, including the Dutch-Israeli
scholar on anti-Semitism Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and a former deputy premier,
alleged the Queen and her government remained relatively silent because they did
not regard Jews as real Dutchmen.
Holland’s foremost research institution
on World War II, the NIOD, took the position that no apology was necessary as
did some scholars from the University of Amsterdam. The Jewish community and the
Center for Information and Documentation on Israel – Holland’s watchdog on
anti-Semitism – say an apology is “due” but have refrained from demanding
Van Hulst believes apologies are due for the treatment of Jews after
“The Jews who returned were not welcomed,” he said. “Some Jews
who returned from the camps were not compensated for their property and some
were even required to pay city tax and utility bills for their time in the
Collaborationsim (or treason, as Van Hulst calls it) was also
rife, he said. “Safe houses in Amsterdam were impossible to find. There
were many German sympathizers. The chance of betrayal was
Netanyahu, in his address at Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue
on Wednesday, also spoke about the issue.
“Many stood on the sidelines
and some helped the Nazis,” Netanyahu said. “The people of the Netherlands can
be proud that despite their small size – they possess the second highest number
of Righteous Gentiles of any country.”
Not a sentimental man, Van Hulst
sought to avoid expressions of gratitude by people he had saved.
closed the book on the war and devoted myself to the education system, which was
in a terrible state after the war.”
But that changed after Van Hulst, in
the 1960s, was asked to review a dissertation about the rescue operation. “I was
sucked right in,” he said with a smile.
Yad Vashem recognized him as a
Righteous Among the Nations in 1972.
One of the most difficult days in
Van Hulst’s life, he said, was the day the crèche was closed down and all 80
children there were to be sent to the camps.
“Taking in 80 children was
impossible. I had to choose. But who? I chose 12 children, all of them five to
twelve years old. They could walk – and fast if necessary.”
Hulst said he has no regrets, but wishes he could have saved more. “I saved more
than 500, but fewer than a thousand.”