Dutch settlers
Dutch settlers outside the Oldenzaal railway station. Photo by Dutch War Archive
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Dutch War Archive
Dutch settlers aboard a train taking them to Ukraine and Lithuania during World War II. Photo by Dutch War Archive

They came in their thousands from Holland to Eastern Europe to be good Nazis and help the Germans colonize more land during World War II. But according to the first major research into the Dutch settler movement, their German brethren despised them, dubbing them "white Jews."

Approximately 5,000 farmers trekked from Holland to the Ukraine and Lithuania from 1942 to 1945. Their unique and little-researched story remained largely unknown even to Holocaust scholars until last month, when it was presented before dozens of Shoah researchers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

The experience of these Dutch farmers has made them the only readily identifiable group of foreign witnesses to the pre-Auschwitz mass execution of East European Jewry - and it sheds new light on the nuances of the ethnic hierarchy among Aryans in the Third Reich.

Dr. Geraldine von Frijtag Drabbe Kunzel of Utrecht University in the Netherlands is among a handful of people familiar with the story. Speaking at a Yad Vashem conference for Holocaust scholars last month, she defined the newcomers as "ordinary Dutch" farmer families who largely failed to take root in Ukraine despite the strong Nazi ideology that brought them there.

The conference brought together 35 scholars from 13 countries, who discussed little-explored topics such as collaborators in Greece and Yugoslav partisans' approach to Jewish parachutists from the Yishuv in 1943-1945.

The Dutch settlers were volunteers sent by the NOC, a state body set up by the Dutch NSB party, which took power after the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands in 1940.

German Nazis considered the Dutch and other Nordic peoples to be pure Aryans and therefore almost equal to them in the racial hierarchy. Though other European countries had strong Nazi parties, the Netherlands is the only one other than Germany to have encouraged its citizens to engage in Nazi colonization abroad.

The settlers were fully aware that the Nazis were killing more than 2 million Jews all around them, during and after their arrival, von Frijtag said. Of the dozens of families that returned to Holland, none cited the genocide as their reason for doing so. Fear of reprisals by partisans was a more common incentive for giving up on populating the rich lands of the east.

"There could have been no doubt about the fate of Jews in the target areas," von Frijtag said. Her research showed that the settler leaders visited Minsk in 1942, where Wilhelm Kube, the notorious Gebietskommissar (district commissioner ) of Belarus, told them he needed Dutch craftsmen to replace slain Jews.

Friendly welcome

One of the Dutch visitors, H.C. Van Maasdijk, wrote at the time that Kube delivered a friendly welcome speech, in which he mentioned the "unique civilizing task" in the east that rested upon the shoulders of all Germanic people.

But the rhetoric proved to be only that. The Dutch farmers found their German counterparts unwelcoming and suspicious. The German authorities, for their part, complained the Dutch were too busy fraternizing with the Slavs, whom the German Nazis considered an inferior people.

Particularly disturbing were reports of Dutch farmers enjoying the company of the women of Vilnius. Some of these men even married local women, in direct violation of their instructions, and brought their new wives back with them to Holland when it became clear the Nazi empire would be overrun.

In Ukraine, German anger was in particular aroused by Dutch activities on the black market. Some farmers sold everything they had, including uniforms of the NSB and shoes. "Theft, swindle and exorbitant prices" were among the words applied to Dutch craftsmen in Rowno. Notorious for their trading skills, the Dutch became "white Jews" to the Germans.

About 75 percent of the Dutch settlers came to Eastern Europe out of ideology, and the remaining because of economic reasons, according to von Frijtag. Out of 150 Dutch settlers whose background she researched, 111 had been investigated by tribunals in post-war Holland.

Based on this finding, she argues that many of the settlers were brought before their country's justice system to answer for their actions, which included the employment of coerced labor (mostly Russian POWs ), dispossession of Jewish property and murder.