March | Message from our President
Shavua Tov: What Would I Have Done? (Honor Among Thieves) This was written by Rabbi Jason vanLeeuwen
My entire adult life I have espoused and jettisoned multiple theologies and philosophies after subjecting them to the ultimate test: Would they survive Auschwitz? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, almost always with some kind of caveat. Now Auschwitz presents a new test much closer to home. Over the last week, the subject of who betrayed Anne Frank and her family has exploded onto the airwaves, thanks (?) to a new claim by author Rosemary Sullivan and others and profiled on 60 Minutes , that the Franks were betrayed by a member of the Joodse Raad, or the Jewish Council of the Netherlands, Arnold van den Bergh. van den Bergh was a scion of the Dutch- Jewish family that patented margarine and helped found the conglomerate Unilever.
He was also my cousin.
Anne Frank and her father, including Otto Frank, were Jewish refugees from Germany who went into hiding in Amsterdam during the Holocaust. They were discovered after two years and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank and her sister died, probably of typhus, in Bergen-Belsen, where my Opa also was sent and also contracted typhus but survived. Among the Franks, only Otto survived. My father is the son of Henri (Opa) and Eva (Oma) van Leeuwen (née van Zwanenberg). Opa owned a casings factory in Holland, and Oma was the daughter of Nathan and Rosetta van Zwanenberg (née van den Bergh). Rosetta was the first cousin of Arnold van den Bergh. Opa is a hero to us descendants. After failing to get a visa to join his wife and children on the last boat out of Holland prior to the Nazi invasion, he forced himself into the Heineken Brewery as Nazis leveled Rotterdam. He was able to gain a fake identity and posed as a Protestant minister in order to pass notes to and from imprisoned members of the Dutch resistance. He was arrested and sent to Westerbork (ironically built as a haven for German Jewish refugees prior to the invasion), then to Bergen-Belsen, where he miraculously survived. He passed when I was eight.
Opa, unlike most others in the world, believed early on that Hitler meant business. Before the war, he had published and wrote for a small publication aimed at his fellow Jews. In the 1930s he convinced scores of German Jews to leave Germany while they could. He established the Jewish Colonization Society (with generous contributions from his in-laws) and went to the infamous Evian Conference in 1938, managing to convince a few delegates to work with him in resettling Jewish refugees. He laid his own life on the line when an SS officer in Bergen-Belsen discovered a humash belonging to a child in his barracks. Opa lied and said it belonged to him. For some reason, the officer opened the humash and recited the first verse in perfect Hebrew, handed it back to him, and walked away.
Oma’s cousin Arnold survived in another way. A prominent philanthropist, he was among the original members of the Joodse Raad, convened by the occupying Nazi forces and its puppet government. Its raison d’être was to communicate and implement all laws and decrees impinging on the Jewish community. This council determined that it would go better for the Jewish community if they accommodated these decrees and did not resist them. They did manage to get permission to “hire” thousands of people, which initially shielded them from deportation, but they also helped to implement deportation orders and in some cases even determined which Jews would be deported and which would be spared. Their strategy turned out to be a tragic miscalculation of epic proportions. Around 75% of Jews in Holland, including some German refugees, ended up being murdered anyway. Members of the Joodse Raad themselves were deported. Arnold van den Bergh was able to escape deportation, going into hiding until after the war. He passed away in London in 1950, after being expelled for five years by the Dutch “Jewish Honor Committee.” That expulsion, along with that of the two co-chairs of that council who also survived, was reversed the year he died.
Dutch Jews still seethe when the topic of the Joodse Raad comes up. Hindsight is, of course 20-20, but when Eichmann himself is quoted praising the remarkable efficiency with which Dutch Jews were being liquidated, you know you’ve got a serious problem. Many others come to the council’s, and to van den Bergh’s defense, saying that no one should arrogate to themselves the position of judge and jury in evaluating the choices Jews and non-Jews made under great duress. This inner conflict used to be abstract for me, but now it’s quite personal. With respect to my cousin Arnold, the debate on social media and among Holocaust scholars has been quite fierce. Some attribute recent reports to the desire to place blame for the Holocaust more on Jews and less on the evil Nazi death machine. Dutch Jewish scholars have called the report “rubbish” and “slander.” Others say the report is quite credible. The Anne Frank Huis, the museum inhabiting the building Otto Frank once owned and where his family hid, has charted a middle path, praising the investigators for coming up with new evidence and calling for more investigation.
What was that new evidence? Apparently, there was an anonymous letter, never found, sent to Otto Frank, asserting that Arnold van den Bergh had provided his address to the Nazis, who were in possession of a list of addresses where Jews were believed to be hiding. Frank typed up a copy, which was rediscovered by this investigation and authenticated. investigators, after extensive research with the assistance of new AI technologies and a retired career FBI officer, asserted with “85% confidence” that van den Bergh was indeed the one who betrayed the Franks; that the Joodse Raad did in fact provided lists of addresses where Jews were hiding, and that van den Bergh would not have been able to evade deportation had he not been in possession of something of value to the Nazis. Critics blast this assertion, correctly saying that not one list has ever been found (although 95% of the records of the Nazi occupation were destroyed), and that van den Bergh was among 30,000 Jews in hiding in Holland and among the nearly 2/3 who were never discovered until after the war.
After doing many hours of my own research, and with gratitude to a Jewish Genealogy Facebook page for providing ample documentation, I have come to a conclusion: There is no conclusion.
I have less confidence than the investigators that we have a “warm gun with a bullet nearby, if not a smoking one.” The letter to Frank was anonymous and could have been the result of a vendetta against van den Bergh, who made more than a few enemies among Dutch Jews. We have no evidence that van den Bergh was able to trade information in order to stave off deportation, and many in his extended family were indeed murdered by the Nazis, as were most members of the council. He may simply have been able to bribe a few key people and go into hiding without betraying anyone.
However, the Joodse Raad did have information on addresses where Jews were hiding, as they were known to pass along letters to them. van den Bergh is likely to have knowledge of some or more of them. Also, at least two members of that council were not sent to Auschwitz, but rather to places like Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen, which were not extermination camps (cold comfort). The investigators assert that van den Bergh not only was not deported, but rather he lived “openly” in Amsterdam (though I’ve found nothing corroborating this). And then, of course, there’s that anonymous letter.
If you’re still reading this, you might be asking why I should care. I don’t know if I should, but this involves my family and I can’t help it. I have always tried to model myself after Opa, the fundraiser-diplomat-fighter who embodied Hillel’s dictum: “In a place where there is not a mensch, strive to be a mensch.” He was the only one who stood up for a couple whom his synagogue was about to excommunicate when the man’s wife, whom he thought was murdered by Nazis, turned up alive. In a performance worthy of 12 Angry Men, he managed to convince them not to excommunicate. Certainly his Orthodox Jewish theology was tested by his unspeakable suffering, and the murders of most of our family, but oddly he remained an Orthodox Jew for the remainder of his life, and was a religious anti-Zionist before and after the war.
But now I learn that other members of my family chose a different course, and although I am in no position to judge them for their behavior, I am left wondering, what would I do? The truth is, unless one has personally traversed the crucible of the Holocaust, one cannot possibly know.
But Opa gained an unexpected insight based on his experience. He noted that in the camps you could not trust those Jews who had been prominent members of the community. He observed that they would betray their fellow Jew at the first sign of trouble. The only Jews he was able to trust with his life were the common criminals and thieves. Who said there is no honor among them?
I’m no thief, but I hope I would act like one if I were caught up in a genocidal furor. Shavua Tov.