Known for rugged individualism and fierce competitions on ice, citizens of the Dutch province Friesland united to rescue hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Now, eight decades after resisters created an “underground railroad” to bring 210 Jewish children from Amsterdam to safety, Friesland-based organizers are again looking for the now elderly adults who were rescued as children by local citizens, to welcome them back for a wide-sweeping celebration.
“It is a specific group that we are searching for,” said organizer Sue Smeding. “The group consists of children who, with help from the Amsterdam Student Resistance Group, were either smuggled from a day care center opposite the [Dutch Theater] in Amsterdam, or who were taken from their homes by the same group,” said Smeding, who believes up to 70 of the 210 children might still be alive.
The multi-faceted project, called “Return of the Jewish Children,” includes an original musical theater production, a four-part documentary series, and programming for two-dozen Friesland primary schools. An exhibition and some activities already kicked off in February, however key events set for May were moved to 2021 due to travel restrictions.
Since last fall, organizers have sought to collect as many “smuggled children” accounts as possible, using social media to solicit specific class photographs. Media stories placed about the role of agrarian Friesland during the war are yielding more leads for the research team.
The children were secreted out from a facility that stood opposite the “Dutch Theater,” an Amsterdam deportation center where arrested Jews were held. The Jewish babies and young children of the deportees were kept across the street in a kindergarten. That separation, but proximity, helped make a large-scale rescue possible.
For months, the names of children were secretly removed from deportation lists in the theater, one child at time. After each erasure, Dutch university students took that child from the kindergarten into hiding. When possible, parents were consulted for permission.
What came next — recorded in a musical
In the musical theater production “Smuggled,” a girl from Amsterdam is rescued by students and taken to Friesland. Based on the life story of Lea Tropp, the show probes the emotional afterlife of Jewish children who were given to Dutch families.
Many of the hidden children were traumatized for life, including those whose parents never returned. Some children, whose parents managed to survive, were torn between remaining with their foster families or going with birth parents they scarcely remembered.
“Everything can be traced back to that one event in the winter of 1943. On that dark evening, when her mother gave her to the student. The farewell to her mother has marked her life forever. In order to give that grief a place, she has to confront herself,” goes the plot summary of “Smuggled.”
The musical shed lights on the Friesland smuggling route along which Jewish children were shepherded to safety. Some of the students, religious leaders, and farmers who built the lifesaving network appear in the script.
“The story of Lea bears much resemblance to the stories of the other 210 Jewish children, in which many an orphan and displaced person went through a long and sometimes heartbreaking search for identity and foundation after the war,” according to “Smuggled” producers.
‘This was their Christian duty’
As the only Dutch province to have its own language, Friesland is an outlier both culturally and geographically. To be clear, there are three Frisian languages, each of which resembles aspects of Dutch, English, or Low German. The lake-filled province is sparsely populated and includes a chain of islands stretching between the Netherlands and Denmark.
Before the war, a few thousand Jews were spread across 10 communities in Friesland. They spoke their own dialect of Yiddish — distinct from Amsterdam Yiddish — and had their own chief rabbi, special prayers, and holiday costumes with provincial flair.
During the German occupation, Friesland’s citizens were animated by “mienskip,” or community. Many thousands of Dutch men and women from all over the country went into hiding in Friesland, including to avoid forced labor.
According to “Return of the Children” organizers, Friesland’s unique features played into the creation of a rescue network for Jewish children.
“In the first place, the networks [themselves] were important,” said Martijn van Dijk, an investigative journalist and researcher with the project.
“Through family relations in Friesland, the region came to play an important role in the smuggling of children from Amsterdam,” said van Dijk in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“The other important ‘network’ part was the active role of clergymen/women from different churches — Catholics, Protestants, Mennonites,” said van Dijk. “They preached to their community that they had to take children in. This community feeling was quite strong, and there was also the sentiment to help people who were in need, as this was their Christian duty.”
Van Dijk said the story behind Friesland’s role in rescuing Jewish children is “a chapter that deserves more attention. Especially now, with those ‘children’ being quite old.” He said, “A lot of children were rescued, but it could have been more. Not everyone helped, some people were too scared, or had joined the Nazis.”
According to Yad Vashem, the citizens of Friesland were not ready to take in Jewish children until January 1943, when clergy leaders opened the first havens for children smuggled to Friesland to Amsterdam.
“[The student resistance groups’] first attempts, in July/August 1942, at finding hiding places in Friesland were met not by unwillingness but by disbelief on the part of the local population,” according to Yad Vashem, which recognized members of the Amsterdam Student Resistance Group as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“Stories told of deportations and expulsions were simply considered inconceivable [in 1942],” according to Yad Vashem. “Student rescuers tried to circumvent this obstacle by claiming the children were war orphans from Rotterdam who needed a break.”
Stories told of deportations and expulsions were simply considered inconceivable
Persecution of the Friesland’s Jews started early, in 1940, away from prying eyes in major Dutch cities. Initial victims were sent to forced labor camps and — beginning in 1942 — to the death camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor.
Only 200 of Friesland’s Jews survived the Holocaust, and most of them moved to Israel. A handful of Jews still live in one of the 10 prewar communities, the provincial capital Leeuwarden. It is a last stand for Jewish life in watery Friesland.