A Dutch orchestra with a Jewish connection

The Philips Symphony Orchestra, on tour here next week, evokes the memory of Frits Philips, who was responsible for over 500 Jews surviving the horrors of the Holocaust.

The Philips Symphony Orchestra (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Philips Symphony Orchestra
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s nothing like a blockbuster Hollywood movie to get a story out to the masses.
Hence, for example, many are aware of the bravery and ingenuity of German industrialist Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust. But how many people identify similar heroism with Frederik “Frits” Philips? If the name rings a bell at all, it is probably in conjunction with the Dutch electronics giant based at Eindhoven.
And you wouldn’t be far wrong.
When World War II broke out, Philips was an executive of the family-owned company, which had a workforce in the thousands, including several hundred Jews, and he took it upon himself to do everything in his power to protect them from Nazi actions against them.
All told, the Dutch company chief was directly responsible for over 500 Jews surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, some of whom later made aliya.
Philips’s courage and ingenuity should be better known here later this month, following four concerts by the Philips Symphony Orchestra, in Rishon Lezion (April 24 and April 27), Tel Aviv (April 26) and Rehovot (April 29). The tour will take place at the behest of the Rishon Lezion Symphony Orchestra, and shortly after the 112th anniversary of the birth of Philips, who died in December 2005 at the age of 100.
The PSO will take on an adventurous program, which bears the somewhat Hollywoodesque but entirely appropriate title of “Philips’s List.” The repertoire includes Paul Ben-Haim’s Fanfare to Israel; an excerpt from Ballet Suite by 20th-century Dutch composer and organist Hendrik Andriessen; Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture- Fantasy; Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Hassidic Life by 20th-century Swissborn Jewish American composer Ernest Bloch; Poème by late 19th-century French composer Ernest Chausson; and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. The repertoire will vary between the different venues, with the works by Ben-Haim and Dvorak constants in all four slots.
By all accounts, Philips has a lot to answer for – and all of it good.
“If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive,” says 82-year-old Hans Noach, who has been living in Beersheba for the last 50-plus years.
“I was born in Eindhoven, and my father was an employee of the Philips company,” he continues. “Frits had to cooperate with the Germans, simply because if you didn’t cooperate, you didn’t get anywhere. The Jews couldn’t work for a living under the Nazis, so Frits established a special factory for Jews.”
Philips was as wily as he was unassuming, and simply did everything within his power to help the Jews.
“He was a wonderful man,” says Vered Kater, a retired Jerusalemite nurse who makes trips to developing countries to help alleviate health issues.
“I didn’t know him personally, but he was not only sympathetic to the Jews, he was a humanist who treated everyone with respect.”
That altruistic mind-set could have been his undoing. While almost all the members of his family, who worked in the company, fled to the United States, Philips insisted on staying behind in the Netherlands, to take care of the company and, it seems, his Jewish employees and their families. He managed to persuade the Germans that the Jews were an indispensable cog in the Philips production wheel, and that if the Nazis wanted to increase output to boost the German war effort, he needed the Jews for that.
He also arranged for Dutch families to hide Jews in their homes, should the need arise.
Kater, her parents and brothers were taken in by five separate families in 1943, when the Nazis decided to move all the Jewish employees of Philips to Vught concentration camp in southern Holland. Kater was just six weeks old at the time, and when the family was reunited, the then-three-year-old Kater was very confused and a not a little vexed to be taken away from the loving couple who, at great personal risk, had kept her alive during the Holocaust, and then entrusted her to her father and two older brothers whom she did not recognize. Her biological parents separated shortly after the war.
Noach, on the other hand, was faced with a dramatic and untimely quandary.
“My mother told me that the rest of the family [his parents, two brothers and sister] were going to Vught, and she asked me if I wanted to join them or go to hide with a family. Can you imagine? I had to make a decision like that, at the age of nine or 10.”
In the event, Noach chose to go to the concentration camp. “I’m glad I did. I would have felt terrible if I had survived and all the rest of the family perished.”
In fact, only he and his sister came out of the Holocaust alive. His mother died just two days before Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Army.
IN FEBRUARY 1943, Philips and the rest of the company management went along with a German proposal to establish a work site in the Vught concentration camp for the inmates there, the idea, naturally, being to make continued use of the Jewish workforce. Philips agreed to relocate the production line, but with a number of provisos.
“He made sure that all his employees were provided with a hot meal every day,” says Kater. The life-giving sustenance was nicknamed Philipsprak.
“Actually, the full word is ‘prakje,’ which is like a sort of mash with vegetables,” Kater explains.
Philips also did his best to make sure the Jews had the financial wherewithal to survive, and continued paying monthly salaries to Jewish employees who went into hiding, if their addresses were known. After the war, surviving Philips employees were given full salaries for the years they had worked unpaid during the war.
While Kater did not know her savior, Noach met him on a couple of occasions and was instrumental in the Dutchman being recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations, in 1995.
Jules van Hessen knew of Philips before he met him and, in fact, performed for him. Van Hessen has been the conductor of the PSO for the last 30 years, and was on the podium when the ensemble played a concert in Philips’s honor for his 90th birthday, in his presence.
“I think most Jews in Holland know this story about Frits,” says the Jewish conductor, offering some insight into why the world at large is not conversant with the “Dutch Schindler’s” heroism. “We [Dutch] are reluctant to put people on the stage and in the spotlight, because we are afraid that there will be a bad side, too.”
Philips himself certainly kept his wartime exploits to himself, and didn’t share any memories of that catastrophic period with van Hessen.
“I talked with him a bit, but we never talked about the war. It is something that is not very present in our country,” says the Amsterdam-based conductor.
“People won’t say, oh, that’s Philips who saved people in Vught and got a medal from Yad Vashem. A lot of [non-Jewish] people just don’t know it.”
The PSO has been around for quite some time, over 85 years. The instigators of the troupe would, no doubt, have been astounded to see how the endeavor has grown into a full-scale orchestra with over 80 players, performing for packed audiences, not to mention making a first-time trip to the State of Israel.
“It was established at the company just to entertain the employees,” van Hessen explains. “Now it has changed.
It is more like a corporate orchestra.”
While the musicians are purely amateurs, van Hessen says that is something of a misnomer. “I would say they are professionals who don’t get paid.
The level is high, and people travel from Amsterdam [to Eindhoven] to play in the orchestra. It is a unique orchestra.”
The founders may not have expected the ensemble to have grown so incrementally and to last so long, and van Hessen himself did not foresee his long tenure at the helm either.
“I took over from my former teacher.
My object was to do it for just a couple of years, to get some experience. Then I fell in love with the orchestra, and I just can’t leave it,” he laughs. “The musicians play with passion. You can hear that.”
Van Hessen chuckles as he notes that he is the product of a successful intercommunity joint venture. “I am a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions.
My mother is Sephardi and my father is Ashkenazi, which I think is perfect.
You get the artistic Sephardi input and the Ashkenazi business intelligence. It is very special for me, as a Jew, to come with the orchestra to Israel.”
In fact, there is a business subtext to the impending PSO tour.
“Some of the musicians are senior managers in various Dutch hi-tech companies,” explains Tova Englard, who initiated the orchestra’s visit here and the linkup with its Rishon Lezion counterpart. “It is connected to the Horizon 2020 program of the EU.”
The latter is a mammoth research and innovation venture, supported by close to €80 billion of EU funding, covering 2014 to 2020.
Whilst the PSO is here, Israeli and Dutch hi-tech wizards will discuss such nonmusical burning issues of today and tomorrow as the next generation of data-driven technology for semiconductors, metrology and associated sectors, as part of Innovation Week, which will take place in Airport City and at Nova Measuring Instruments and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot.
“Because of the Jewish connection, through Frits, it was important for the orchestra to come to Israel to play, and there was no one to pick up the gauntlet, until I was asked, and the rest is history,” says Englard with a laugh.
The orchestra will be joined by 16-year-old Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut, whose mother was born in Israel, for works by Bloch and Chausson. The starlet has quite a few Israeli relatives and is delighted to have an opportunity to do her professional thing here.
She is also particularly enamored with the pieces to which she will contribute.
“The Chausson is full of different colors.
It has a dreamy atmosphere, like Impressionist paintings,” she notes.
“I am also playing the Baal Shem by Bloch. It is a very difficult piece. It is very melancholic, with all the different characters. I can really put my emotions into it.”
With the eclectic repertoire and the large and benevolent shadow of Frits Philips hovering in the background, the PSO’s Israeli foray promises to be an emotive and rewarding experience for one and all.