Righteous Gentile recalls saving 100s of children

100-year-old Johan Van Hulst meets with Netanyahu in Amsterdam.

Netanyahu meets with Johan Van Hulst 311 (photo credit: Muriel Leeuwin)
Netanyahu meets with Johan Van Hulst 311
(photo credit: Muriel Leeuwin)
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 hear.
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 running.
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Van Hulst used the seminary to dispatch hundreds of Jewish children to safe houses across German- occupied Holland.
“You don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?” He finally replied.
On 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 Holocaust.
Netanyahu was visiting the Netherlands to strengthen bilateral relations.
Netanyahu asked Van Hulst what made him decide to risk execution and help the children to safe houses across Holland.
“There was 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.”
Netanyahu 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.”
Upon 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.
The film, 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 here.
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 lightly.”
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 suffering.”
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 one.
Van Hulst believes apologies are due for the treatment of Jews after the war.
“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 camps.”
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 enormous.”
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.
“I had 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.”
Van Hulst said he has no regrets, but wishes he could have saved more. “I saved more than 500, but fewer than a thousand.”