1941: The Dutch Strike Against Nazi Abuses of Jews

Following the roundup of Jews, Amsterdam's tram drivers went on strike – and were followed by the rest of the populace.

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A German motorcycle rider talking with a Dutch peasant woman, at an unknown location in Holland, May 24, 1940. Both are smiling.
A German motorcycle rider talking with a Dutch peasant woman, at an unknown location in Holland, May 24, 1940.Credit: AP

February 25, 1941, was the first day of a two-day general strike in Amsterdam, launched almost spontaneously as an expression of Dutch opposition to the anti-Jewish actions being taken by the country’s German occupiers.

This was the first time that citizens of an occupied country protested publicly against the Nazis. It serves as a welcome historical counterpoint to the fact that Dutch Jewry had the highest mortality rate in western Europe (75 percent of the country’s 140,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust), and the significant level of collaboration with the Germans by non-Jews.

Tightening the screws  

Nazi Germany had conquered the Netherlands in May 1940 and established an occupation government. Anti-Jewish measures began the following month, with Jews being banned from participating in civil air-defense teams. In November, Jews were expelled from all public-sector jobs, and early in 1941, places of entertainment became off-limits to them, began forcing places of entertainment to ban the entry of Jews.

The screws continued to tighten as the local Nazi party’s uniformed paramilitary group, the Weerbaarheidsafdeling (WA), started attacking Jews on the street.

Young Jews responded to the attacks by banding into defense groups and fighting back. On February 11, 1941, a pitched battle took place at Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein, which led to the death of a WA thug, Hendrik Koot. The German reaction came the following day. They cordoned off the city’s historical Jewish Quarter and made it off-limits to all but Jews, who were ordered to set up a Judenrat, an administrative council.

When a German soldier died after being sprayed by ammonia, which had been set up to ward off unwanted intruders in a Jewish-owned ice cream parlor called Koko’s, on February 19, the occupiers took off the gloves. On February 22-23, the German undertook a major roundup, collecting 425 young Jewish men in Amsterdam. All were eventually deported to death camps, where all but two died.

The following day, the Dutch Communist Party and other labor organizations convened a non-partisan, open-air meeting at the Noordermarktplein to discuss a response to the mass arrest and to the impressment of non-Jews in German forced-labor programs.

The Dockworker, in Amsterdam, in memory of the February 1941 strike launched almost spontaneously as an expression of Dutch opposition to the Nazis' anti-Jewish actions.Credit: P.H. Louw, Wikimedia Commons

Empty streets, no trams

The meeting led to release of a public demand for the release of the arrestees, and a decision to open with a general strike the following morning, February 25.

The strike began with tram drivers in Amsterdam, and then spread to other municipal services in the city. Other trades joined in and the strike also spread around the country.

Local journalist Salomon de Vries described the scene this way in his diary: “Empty streets. No trams, almost no cars. The workers and drivers of a very large number of shipping agents, large and small, had also laid down their work. Almost everywhere the shops were closed. [A] general strike! Against the persecution of the Jews, against inhumane treatment, against the ‘we're running the show’ attitude of the WA and other Mussert [a reference to local Nazi party head Anton Mussert] gangsters.”

Nine people were killed during the strike and accompanying protests, and on March 13, the occupiers arrested another 18 strikers and resistance members, whom they later executed.

The late Dutch-Jewish historian Jacob Presser described the February Strike as something that, “for many Jews, [was] the greatest experience of the whole war. for once, albeit for but a little while, they did not feel that their Dutch companions were leaving them in the lurch. Behind them, there now stood a group of their fellow citizens The group dared to brave a ruthless enemy, and was ready to sacrifice life and property – for them.”

To this day, every year a march is held in Amsterdam commemorating the February Strike. (During the years of the Cold War, the march organizers refused to join in with local Communists, so the latter had to hold a separate event.) Since 1952, the route of the march has included passing by the sculpture “De Dokwerker,” in Jonas Daniel Meyer Square. Made by the artist Mari Andriessen, it is meant to personify the participation of the city’s working people in that brave act of resistance.