'The Ambiguity of Virtue': Impossible decisions

Bernard Wasserstein examines the heartbreaking choices facing the members of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam during World War II.

Eindhoven Resistance with troops of the 326th Medical Company (101st Airborne) (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Eindhoven Resistance with troops of the 326th Medical Company (101st Airborne)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Early in 1942, after failing to persuade Nazi officials to rescind their orders, the Jewish Council of Amsterdam urged conscripts to comply with instructions to vacate their homes, surrender their keys and appear, with their families, at the railway station. To “forestall worst measures,” a form letter indicated, those who had been called should not “shirk” their “unavoidable duty.”
At the same time, however, several members of the council demanded a discussion “of the fundamental question of how far the Jewish Council should continue to cooperate, now that its work has taken on a different character from what had originally been promised.” In the almost complete surviving set of council minutes, Bernard Wasserstein tells us, there is no record that such a discussion occurred.
In The Ambiguity of Virtue, Wasserstein, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago, examines the career of Gertrude Cohn van Tijn, an influential member of the council, to address the “fundamental question”: In confronting the “absolute evil of Nazism, was there any middle road between outright resistance and abject submission?” As he probes the choices available to Van Tijn, Wasserstein also provides a beautifully written – and achingly painful – narrative of the lives of Jews in occupied Holland. In “discharging his assignment as an historian,” he succeeds as well in demonstrating that seemingly remote figures from the past are actually human beings, “with all the natural cravings and frailties to which our kind are susceptible.”
Wasserstein takes note of the criticism of some of Van Tijn’s contemporaries, and subsequently, of some historians, who portrayed her and virtually all members of Jewish councils in occupied Europe as “instruments of the Nazi genocidal apparatus.”
Reminding us that “the magnitude and complexity of the horrors of her time preclude any simple characterization of the responses of those caught up in Nazism’s tentacles,” he emphasizes that Van Tijn “courted physical and moral dangers” to help thousands of Jews escape Holland and that, unlike other members of the Council, she “drew a line beyond which she would not go,” refusing to prepare and give the Germans lists of Jews to be deported.
Wasserstein indicates that Jews in Holland lived with uncertainty.
They saw the noose tightening around their necks. In the summer of 1942, the German authorities sent anyone who refused to wear the Jewish star or left home without permission to Mauthausen. In May 1943, the Nazis required Jewish partners in mixed marriages to choose between sterilization and deportation to Poland. Most chose the former.
Prisoners in the camp at Westerbork, or for that matter, men and women who remained in their homes, feared that at a moment’s notice they might be required to board the train, composed of cattle trucks or goods wagons, that departed, “with almost metronomic regularity,” every Tuesday at 11 a.m., with 1,000 Jews on board, for Auschwitz or Sobibor. Some Dutch Jews, Wasserstein writes, convinced themselves that they would be consigned to labor service in Eastern Europe, and remained docile. They followed directions meticulously, bringing soap, toilet paper, a toothbrush, food for three days, winter jackets, work overalls, two blankets, writing materials, a watch, a favorite book, postcards with international reply coupons, and “what German money you have.” They left with shouts of “Don’t forget to fetch us after the war.” Others, according to Wasserstein, “sensed something more sinister.”
Many Jews, Wasserstein reveals, rode the roller coaster of heightened and dashed hopes for escape. In September 1943, Van Tijn got a telegram from Henrietta Szold in Jerusalem, transmitted through the Red Cross, indicating that the government of Palestine would allocate 500 Youth Aliya certificates to children from Holland. But alas, the initiative was stillborn.
And the Nazis toyed with prisoners at Westerbork, allowing a few inmates to go home on short periods of leave. Johnny and Jones, the Dutch-Jewish singing duo, for example, returned to Amsterdam in the summer of 1944, recorded The Westerbork Serenade and returned to camp, from which they were subsequently transported to Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen, where they were murdered.
It is not easy, indeed, it may be impossible, for any of us to put ourselves in the shoes of Gertrude Van Tijn. To imagine what it was like to carry cyanide pills in your purse, to have them taken away by the Nazis in Westerbork, or, most importantly, to be forced to decide whether or not to furnish them with the names of 7,000 council employees, who would almost certainly be killed.
“The last thing I would call myself is ‘heroine,’” Van Tijn wrote in 1969. Her response seems appropriate and understandable.
As she saved lives, she was, after all, sometimes complicit in a philosophy of compliance that may well have contributed to the passivity of Jews in Holland.
Little wonder, then, that she often felt “very lonely.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.