The Black Stain of the Dutch Red Cross During the Holocaust

The group violated its principles and did nothing to help the Jews during the Nazi occupation. New research brought Dutch Red Cross leaders to Israel this week to apologize

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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From the book "Questions of Life and Death: The Netherlands Red Cross in the Second World War."
From the book "Questions of Life and Death: The Netherlands Red Cross in the Second World War."
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The president of the Dutch Red Cross, Inge Brakman, came to Israel this week to ask for forgiveness. A historical research project, the first of its kind, has confirmed what Dutch Holocaust survivors have been saying since World War II: The Dutch branch of the Red Cross followed orders from the Nazis in full, violated its duty and did nothing to help Dutch Jews.

“It’s hard to deal with these facts, but we must,” Brakman said when she met this week with 150 people from the Netherlands living in Jerusalem, Ra’anana and Kiryat Haim in Haifa. “For us this is the time for introspection and to request forgiveness.”

Historian Regina Grüter of the Amsterdam-based NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies is accompanying Brakman on her trip to Israel. For four years Grüter has documented the stain on the history of the Red Cross’ Dutch branch.

Her work was conducted for the group and was funded by it, but she worked independently and without any preconditions. Her book “Questions of Life and Death: The Netherlands Red Cross in the Second World War,” which was published in November, is a harsh indictment of the organization’s activities during the Holocaust.

No questions asked

At the beginning of 1941, when the order came to stop accepting blood donations from Jews, the Dutch Red Cross accepted the decree as obvious and didn’t send a protest letter.

In February that year, when 427 Jews were arrested in Amsterdam and sent to Buchenwald, the Dutch Red Cross sent a letter to the German occupying authorities wondering whether the organization was allowed to send packages to these Jews.

The answer was as one would expect: It was forbidden to help Jews. The Red Cross simply accepted the order and sent aid packages only to non-Jewish Dutch political prisoners.

From the book "Questions of Life and Death: The Netherlands Red Cross in the Second World War."

When in late 1941 the Germans ordered that all Jewish volunteers be dropped from the Red Cross, the group followed these orders without a word. And the archives contain not one mention of any attempt to oppose these orders, or any underground attempts by the group to help Jews.

The research also didn’t uncover any evidence of discussions among the group’s leaders about the fate of the Dutch Jews. Grüter’s book leaves the impression that the Red Cross people acted as mere bureaucrats who carried out the Nazi occupiers' orders to the letter and never tried to make things hard for the Germans – in clear violation of their role as aid workers.

“The Dutch Red Cross was not pro-Nazi, but we did not find any evidence that it tried to help the Jews. The organization’s management abandoned the Jewish population,” Grüter told Haaretz. Management did not adhere to the Red Cross’ fundamental principle, humanity. “Their apathy toward the fate of the Jews particularly shocked me,” she says.

Inge Brakman.Credit: Irgoen Olei Holland (IOH)

Before the war, about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands. About 75 percent of them were murdered in the Holocaust. Thousands of Jews tried to hide and were informed on by the Dutch – including Anne Frank’s family, which had fled to the Netherlands from Frankfurt, Germany.

A lot has been written about the silent majority of the Dutch people and the authorities. For example, five years ago it was revealed that Amsterdam fined Holocaust survivors for not paying their fees and local taxes during the war – while they were in concentration camps.

Conservative nobility

The question of how even a humanitarian aid organization remained apathetic to the Jews’ suffering still has no adequate answer. “They weren’t anti-Semites, they were simply neutral,” Grüter says. The leaders of the Dutch Red Cross were members of the conservative nobility, and Dutch Jews weren’t among their greatest interests even before the war, she says.

Andre Boers, the treasurer of the association of Dutch Jews in Israel, helped organize the trip by the Dutch Red Cross delegation. “I believe that their apology is sincere,” he says.

Boers grew up in the Netherlands in a family that lost many members during the Holocaust, and as a “second generation survivor” he remembers how after the war his father refused to contribute to the Red Cross.

“Many people knocked on the door to ask for donations and my parents gave generously to all sorts of institutions,” he says. “But the minute someone from the Red Cross came, my father would say: ‘Thank you, we do not give to the Red Cross. Period.’”

As Boers puts it, “I grew up on stories in which the organization did not oppose the Nazi regime and did not help Jews. The new research confirms this assumption.”

The apathy toward Dutch Jews continued after the war. The Red Cross was responsible for collecting information on the fate of the victims. Many Jewish families in the Netherlands have kept the letters they received from the Red Cross; the bureaucratic and technical language notified them of the murder of their relatives. “They didn’t have a drop of feeling in them,” Boers says.

Grüter’s study is a first step in the organization’s long road to deal with its past. The group’s secretary general, Gijs de Vries, says the group’s new headquarters, which will be inaugurated soon in The Hague to mark the organization’s 150th birthday, will include a corner dedicated to the research’s findings.

De Vries says he hopes that in this way no one who enters the building will be able to avoid discussing the questions about the Dutch Red Cross’ moral failure when part of the Dutch people needed its help so greatly.

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