Tuesday, December 2, 2014

WW2 | 8. Hiding Jews in Holland–Bob Boissevain (Updated Jun 11, 2017)

Memorial to Bob Boissevain and Family by Yad Vashem.
 The plaque is before four trees, one for each rescued person.
This is the story of a family that sheltered four Jews in Haarlem during the Nazi Occupation in World War II. The whole family – parents and six children – were honored by Yad Vashem after the war.

The father was put in a concentration camp for another "offense" and he died there.

Before the Nazi Invasion

Holland for centuries was a magnet for Jewish traders and intellectuals because of its religious tolerance and economic opportunity.

In 1900, Amsterdam was home to 51,000 Jews, about half of all the Jewish residents in Holland. It was called the "Jerusalem of the West" (of Europe).

In the 1930s, an estimated 30,000 more German-Jewish and Austrian-Jewish refugees fled to Holland because of growing Nazi sanctions against Jews. Holland had been neutral in the First World War and was expected to remain so. It was viewed as a safe haven, like Switzerland. Hitler promised that Holland he would never invade them.

How the Occupation Affected Dutch Jews

Despite his promise to challenge Holland's sovereignty, Hitler invaded Holland without warning in May 1940. Jewish people in the cities were trapped.

How many? At the beginning of the occupation:
  • Based on the census of 1941, there were 139,717 Jews in Holland. 
  • The Nazis counted more–154,000–because they included anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents, including all 2,500 active members of Christian (usually Protestant) churches who had a Jewish grandparent. 
After World War II, based on the census of 1947:
  • Only 14,346 Jews survived, 10 percent of the number counted in 1941. The survival rate appears to have been highest among the 19,000 identified as half-Jewish or the 8,500 Jews married to non-Jews.
  • About 75 percent of Jews in Holland in 1941 were killed, committed suicide or died in other ways in Holland or in death camps elsewhere.
  • The remaining 15 percent, about 20,000 people, are assumed to have escaped Holland during the war, or survived the death camps and did not return to Holland, or left Holland after the war before the census was taken.
[Insert comparative data on other countries.]

The reasons for the high percentage of Dutch Jews who perished is still not fully settled, but these explanations have all found support:
  • The Netherlands was controlled by the SS. Other occupied countries were under a military regime. The SS, my relatives testify, "was much worse". We also heard this when we visited WW2 museums in Normandy in June 2014. The Queen and top government officials fled to England, leaving the SS in charge of the hunt for Jews in Holland. They were more committed to this hunt for Jews than the military. Members of the SS had to prove they were free of Jewish ancestry, whereas the Wehrmacht included at the highest levels honorary Aryans despite having Jewish parentage–until Himmler intervened late in the war to expose such people. 
  • The bureaucracy cooperated, especially most Dutch police. The well-trained Dutch bureaucracy remained in place at the Queen's request, continuing to do their jobs. The police followed orders, even cooperating in rounding up Jewish families to be transported to processing centers; these eventually led to death camps, but that was not known at first. Dutch trains transported Jews to the processing centers and the death camps.
  • Jews were easy to identify. When the Nazi Occupation started, Jews–like Protestants or Catholics–were already registered on the basis of their faith, as they were in Germany. Otto von Bismarck in 1883-1889 set up a system of social insurance that was adopted throughout Germany and copied in the Netherlands. Some programs were administered based on religious affiliation. It was a simple matter to instruct the compliant bureaucracy to stamp the hard-to-forge national identity cards held by Jews with a large "J". From there it was a small step in the logic of Nazi madness, to require everyone with the "J" card to wear a yellow Star of David.
  • Holland was hard to escape. The Netherlands, as noted in detail in Chapter 7, was totally surrounded by Germany, by German-occupied Belgium, or by German-patrolled waters. It was the most densely inhabited country of Western Europe, making it harder for Jews to hide in woodlands. Most Jews in Amsterdam could not afford to pay for transportation to escape, especially after the SS confiscated their assets. 
  • The Dutch were at first confused by friendly Nazi propaganda. Until the underground newspapers became active, the average Dutch citizen was not made aware in the major newspapers of the extent of the Nazi campaign against Jews, because the news was censored by the Nazi-controlled propaganda bureaucracy. The implications of deportation were not initially negative, because the camps were at the beginning used only as temporary processing and education centers, not for forced labor or extermination, or supply chains for these purposes. The first nine months of the Dutch Occupation were relatively benign for most Dutch people. As the Nazis continued tightening the screws on Dutch Jews, and their plight became clearer, the Dutch Resistance organized the first act of mass civil disobedience in occupied Europe during WW2–the Februaristaking or “February strike” of 1941, engaging an estimated 50,000 Dutch workers.
From the beginning of the Occupation, Dutch Jews were subjected to increasingly severe sanctions. They were first banned from certain occupations and were progressively isolated from public life. Starting in January 1942, some Dutch Jews were forced to move to Amsterdam’s Jewish ghetto. Others were directly deported to Westerbork, a concentration camp near Hooghalen–originally built in 1939 by the Dutch government as a temporary shelter for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in other countries

Westerbork became a hub for transit to the Nazi death camps for all Jews, Dutch and expatriate. Deportation of Jews from the Netherlands to Poland and Germany began in June 1942 and lasted until September 1944. From Westerbork, 101,000 Jews were deported–57,800 to Auschwitz, 34,313 to Sobibór, 3,724 to Bergen-Belsen, 4,466 to Theresienstadt. Most of them were worked to death, starved or gassed to death in these camps. From other locations like Vught in the Netherlands, 6,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Austria (such as Mauthausen).

The best-known Dutch Holocaust victim was Anne Frank, who with her sister Margot died from typhus in March 1945 in Bergen-Belsen. Anne Frank's mother, Edith Holländer Frank, was starved to death in Auschwitz. Only Anne Frank's father, Otto Frank, survived.

Hiding and Rescue Efforts in Holland

Members of the Dutch underground found hiding places for an estimated 25,000-30,000 Jews, of whom 16,500 survived to 1945. An estimated 7,000-8,000 Jews fled the Netherlands during the war, often on the Dutch-Paris line, headed for Spain, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.

As a prominent example of the many people who helped Jews and others escape Holland,  Dutchwoman Geertruida (Truus) Meijer Wijsmuller is credited with saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish children and others hunted by the Nazis. She survived the war and received a "Righteous among the Nations" award from Yad Vashem. In brief, she organized
  • The first train transport of 600 Jewish children from Vienna in December 1938–an outcome of direct and brave negotiations with Adolf Eichmann, and 
  • The last ship out of Holland, Kindertransport, on May 14, 1940, with 74 children on board.
  • Many rescues in between those two.
Dutch people received the largest number of awards from Yad Vashem for saving Jews relative to their population–5,200 awards as of 2013. Poles were given 6,100 awards, but the Polish population is larger–the Dutch received one award for every 1,800 people, twice as many as the Poles, who received one award for every 4,300 people. Only the Dutch received as many as three Yad Vashem awards for groups or organizations. The three groups were:
  • The February Strike (February 25-26, 1941) organizers, involving perhaps 50,000 strikers, protesting deportation of Jews from the Netherlands
  • The village of Nieuwlande in the province of Drenthe, where the whole population took part in hiding Jews.
  • The so-called "NV" (Naamloze vennootschap), the anonymous partnership in Utrecht that rescued and hid about 600 Jewish children, all of whom survived the war.
Bob and Sonia Boissevain, Hiders of Four Jews

Robert Lucas ("Bob") Boissevain, Sr. (1895-1945) (NP 74) was the third child and third son of Charles Ernest Henri (Eh Ha) Boissevain (NP 69), the eldest son of Charles Handelsblad Boissevain (NP 67).  

[PHOTO CAPTION: Robert Lucas Boissevain (1895-1945) (NP 74). See photos at end.]

He and his wife Helena Suzanna (Sonia, also spelled Sonja) van Tienhoven Boissevain (NP 74) hid  their eldest son, who turned 18 during the first year of the Occupation and was required to report for work in Germany. In addition, they hid four Jewish people starting in 1943, when it became clear that deportation by the Nazis meant likely death. Bob and Sonia and their six children all received awards from Yad Vashem.

Bob and Sonia's Early Life and Prospects

Bob's wife Sonia was from another big Dutch family, the van Tienhovens. Sonia's mother was Suze van Hall. Both Bob and Sonia could have expected to look forward to a luxurious life, but like many other Dutch families, their fortunes were dissipated first by the Crash and the Great Depression and then by commercial competition, then Nazi confiscation of assets in the mid-1930s, and finally by the occupation of Holland.

Bob and Sonia had six children. The eldest was Robert L. (Bob Jr.) Boissevain, born June 20, 1922. (He died Feb. 14, 2017, of complications from dementia.) He was required by the Nazis to report for work in Germany the month after the invasion, but instead went into hiding in the Boissevain home for the duration of the war. The youngest children, the twins Charles and Hester, have been helping me with this chapter. They were born 12 minutes apart on April 5, 1934.

Until 1936, Bob Boissevain lived with his family in a large home at Emmaplein 2 in Amsterdam that is listed as a Monument by the Netherlands National Commission on UNESCO. The Commission says, in part (my translation from Dutch):
It is the left-hand building of a semi-detached three-building villa. It was built in 1911 in rationalist style by J. F. Steel Jr. , commissioned by I.L. Nienaber. In 1913, the pantry was converted into a garage by Steel, commissioned by W. Zweerts de Jong. In 1924 it was re-landscaped by K. Perk Flanders to create a garden and terrace masonry wall, commissioned by R. L. Boissevain. It is in the heart of Amsterdam.
Bankruptcy, 1936

Bob Boissevain followed his father into the chemical industry, which was growing rapidly in the 1910s and 1920s. In the fertilizer industry, farmers were switching to commercial fertilizers to increase their yield per acre and per hour worked. The average annual consumption of commercial fertilizer in the United States, for example, grew 65 percent from the 1900s to the 1910s, from 3.7 million to 6.1 million tons. It grew again to 6.8 million tons in the 1920s.

The German chemical industry was leading the world during this period in the development of new chemical products, including explosives but also for the dying of fabrics, working closely with financiers in New York City.  I. G. Farben was formed by the merger in 1925 of six chemical companies.

Charles E. H. Boissevain and his son Bob were actively involved in the Dutch fertilizer sales company of Van der Elst & Matthes, which during 1853-1928 had a large market share of the Dutch fertilizer market, delivering chemicals mostly manufactured by German companies–i.e., by I. G. Farben after 1925.

[PHOTO CAPTION: Dr. Charles Ernest Henri (Charles Eh Hah) Boissevain (NP 69), father of Robert L. 
(Bob) Boissevain, Sr.; eldest son of Charles Handelsblad Boissevain.]

After 1928, three big Dutch chemical companies worked together to intercept the sales of octopus I. G. Farben Holland–D.S.M. (Dutch State Mines), Hoogovens and Shell with its daughter Maatschappij tot Exploitatie of Kooks Oven Gas (MEKOG). Van der Elst & Matthes appears to have been a casualty of this effort, having been misled by both Shell and DSM on one side and I.G. Farben on the other. There was a lot of backroom dealing with commercial tricks, says Charles Boissevain.

By 1935, the three Dutch companies succeeded in ousting Van der Elst & Matthes from its leading position in the fertilizer business in Holland and it eventually went bankrupt in 1936. I. G. Farben may have intended to place itself in the position of Van der Elst & Matthes, but it failed, at least until the 1940 occupation.

[PHOTO CAPTION: Bob Boissevain's first home–Emmaplein 2, Amsterdam, where he lived
until 1936, but he had to sell and move to Zandvoort when he was bankrupted.]

Bob Boissevain had to sell his Amsterdam house after his bankruptcy in 1936. They moved to their smaller summer home on the dunes in Zandvoort ("Sand-fort"), overlooking the North Sea. The house, which was called De Duinhut, was in the family because someone won a lottery and used the money to buy the house, a story confirmed by Charles and Hester Boissevain.

After the Invasion

From their house in Zandvoort, Bob Boissevain's family could see the air battles taking place over the sea as the Dutch army and air force initially resisted the Luftwaffe. Huge floating mines washed up on the beach, posing a grave danger to local residents. Hester Boissevain Grinberg says:
We saw many airplanes shot down, burning up and disappearing into the sea. When Bob came home it was often late and he was very tired. Often he looked grave and troubled. For some time he had already been involved in Resistance work. We never knew or were able to find out the big secrets in which he was involved. 
Bob Boissevain early on in the war is believed by his daughter Hester to have engaged in underground activities such as "helping people cross the border" as well as rescuing downed pilots through networks of safe homes and transfers in small boats (Grinberg 2008, 4; 2011, 1-2).

In May 1940 Bob Boissevain gave each of his six children a little bag to take with them in case they had to flee. But Hitler's Blitzkrieg was too sudden for such an escape.

Hitler appointed an Austrian Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, to head up the government of the occupied Netherlands as Reichskommissar. He had been a supporter of the Nazi Party in Austria before the Anschluss–the so-called "union", although Hitler did not offer Austria an option–in 1938. Seyss-Inquart reported directly to Hitler and worked with the SS and the Wehrmacht:
  • He rounded up more than 500,000 Dutch citizens in razzia style and forced them to work for the Nazis–250,000 of them in factories and other workplaces in Germany. In a razzia, which comes via French from an Arabic word for a slave raid by Barbary pirates, a street or a block of houses would be completely encircled and each house, person and vehicle would be searched by the SS while troops kept the perimeter secure to prevent escapees. Young men were told that if they did not report to work their parents would be killed.
  • He helped create the Dutch Nazi Party's Landwacht–the paramilitary organization that was allied with the police force to use traitors to maintain control of the Dutch population.  These "landwatchers" inspired great fear, because the Nazis recruited children to spy on their own parents.  (Hilda van Stockum shows this in the character of Leendert in her book The Winged Watchman.)
  • In 1941, he banned all political parties except the Dutch Nazi Party.
Seyss-Inquart also cooperated in the genocide of Jews in Holland. He:
  • Ordered the civil service to register approximately 140,000 Dutch Jews according to the  Nazi protocol of identifying the number of grandparents who were Jewish.
  • Collaborated in operating the "Jewish assembly camp" at Westerbork. This was a way-station to the death camps.
  • Restricted Jews in Amsterdam to the ghetto. 
  • Assisted in transporting Dutch Jews to Buchenwald in February 1941 and later directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 
  • Sent to their deaths by the end of the war an estimated 110,000 Dutch Jews, either immediately if they resisted or in the death camps if they were not considered fit to work. 
After the war, Seyss-Inquart was convicted of multiple war crimes at Nuremberg and was executed.

From Zandvoort to Haarlem

One day, says Hester, "the SS circled around our house and threw us all out forever". Soon after the invasion by the Nazis, Bob and Sonia and their children had to abandon their Zandvoort home on one day's notice. The Germans were fortifying the beach against invasion from England and they flattened the Zandvoort home.

The family moved from house to house four times in six months. They finally ended up in the large house in Haarlem where they stayed until the end of the War–Spruitenbosstraat 11 in Haarlem, about 10 miles east of Zandvoort and 25 miles west of Amsterdam. According to Charles Boissevain (email of Feb. 8, 2015), it belonged to Floris Adriaan ("Floor") van Hall, who died in 1941 in a nursing home, having been predeceased by his wife.

[PHOTO CAPTION: The borrowed Haarlem house, Spruitenbosstraat 11, today.]

So they lived in a borrowed house. Floor's twin brother and executor, Adriaan Floris ("Aat") van Hall, father of Walraven and Gijs van Hall and eight other children, had a valid fear that the SS would take over the empty house since the children had left Holland. So he quickly moved in Bob Boissevain's family of two adults and six children.

The large house was full of van Hall family belongings–"books, toys and clothes, which kept us busy during all those years to come in the dark days of World War II", says Grinberg. The large well-kept parlor (in Dutch, the Pronk or "Flaunt" room) with beautiful furnishings, was from the beginning off-limits to the children (Grinberg 2008, 5). As the war proceeded and other members of the family were displaced, the room filled up with boxes and it became a storage room.

Until the end of 1943, schools continued in some fashion. However, they were a long distance away and German soldiers took away Hester's older sister's bicycle with a gun to her head, so she had to walk three miles each way. Bob Boissevain Jr. turned 18 years old the month after the invasion and from that date was hiding from razzia recruiters at the family house in Haarlem.

Life was bad for all Dutch people during the Nazi Occupation, but was much worse for Jews in the area. A good friend of Hester's eldest brother Bob, Dick Polak, was required to wear the yellow Star of David.

In addition, Bob and Sonia had their four Jewish guests in the Haarlem house from 1943 to 1945:
  • The extremely talented Goldberg family. Three members stayed with the Boissevains and survived. Two others survived elsewhere.
  • The unfortunate Vecht family. Two members were killed during the war. Two survived, one by living with the Boissevains. Both died soon after the war was over. 
Hidden Family #1: The Goldbergs

One afternoon in March 1943, Bob Boissevain called his wife Sonia to ask her to prepare more dinner because he was bringing "friends" to eat with the family. It was revealed later that the father was a business friend of Bob Boissevain or his cousin Jan "Canada" Boissevain or both (Grinberg 2008, 6; Grinberg 2011, 1). The friends stayed the night, and then for the next two years. After a few days of mystery, the children were introduced to the Goldberg family:
Leo (Lowske) Goldberg (1873-1957?)
Lyubova Elperin Goldberg (1881-1959)
Anya Goldberg, later Anna Ormont (1916-1988).
Many years later, it emerged there were two other Goldberg children:
Maria Goldberg Penkela in Amsterdam (1912?-1986?)
Alexander Goldberg, later Alexander Forest, in the United States (1914?-1991?)
From the files kept by the SS during the war and now accessible through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the records show that Leo Goldberg was born May 30, 1873 in Borstna (? writing constrained by index cards can be hard to read), Russia. His wife was Lyubova Elperin Goldberg, born September 17, 1881 in Minsk, Belarus.

[PHOTO CAPTION: Survivors–Dr. (?) Leo Goldberg (R) and Lyubova Elperin Goldberg, 1948. They lived through the Russian Revolution, the Depression and the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of the Forest Family]

They survived the Russian Revolution by leaving (1918?) for Finland. Capitalist businessmen were not valued by the Bolsheviks, so he found it difficult to operate under the Communist regime. In addition, they faced continued antisemitism long after the Tsars were dethroned. But Finland was economically depressed and the family decided to move in 1920 to Berlin. Slowly they rebuilt their lives.

When in the 1920s German money was destroyed by hyperinflation under the Weimar Republic and then Hitler rose to power, the Goldberg family decided to move yet again, to Amsterdam, where they settled in a house on Minervalaan. That is the period when Leo seems to have found a place in the Boissevain family banking and shipping business:
  • Several Boissevains served on the board of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and attended every Thursday evening. Possibly they met there the musical Goldbergs. 
  • Since the Boissevain family was close to the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper before the war, Leo's fluency in multiple languages–Russian, German, Finnish and others–might have been useful to the newspaper as a translator.
This time Leo and his family did not anticipate the swiftness of the Nazi invasion of Holland and so were caught in the Occupation and its murderous SS web. At some point their son Alexander escaped Holland and moved to Washington and New York City. Their daughter Maria apparently married a non-Jewish man named Penkela, and thereby seems to have been saved from deportation during the war. The other three–the parents Leo and Lyubova, and their daughter Anya–survived World War II by hiding with Bob Boissevain's already-large family of eight in Haarlem.

Anya Goldberg was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on December 24, 1916 (one source says 1910). German Occupation war records indicate she had been married to G. Haimisch, presumably before the war, but was divorced. She had already published, before 1940, the novel The 500 Wives of Genghis Khan, in excellent Dutch. She may well have been born in 1910; otherwise it is hard to understand how she wrote so well in Dutch.

Hester Boissevain Grinberg says of the three Goldberg guests: "These people argued a lot with one another–we could not understand their language."

Hidden Family #2: Dr. Jacob Vecht–"Mr. Knoppers"

The following account about the dentist Dr. Jacob Vecht is based almost entirely on one source, Charles Boissevain. I append a note on my efforts to corroborate the information with official records.

Unless they were married to Christians, Jews in Holland had just three options, as described in the previous chapter: Wait to be arrested, try to escape, or hide. None of these options was attractive.

For the family harboring an onderduiver (hider) it was very dangerous. Many Dutch houses are too small to hide anyone. And what if someone in the house gossips about their guest(s)? For families with children, it could be impossible to be sure they would keep quiet. The same for families with older people who might be forgetful. Or families with neighbors who are collaborators, or are incorrigibly nosey and talkative or fearful.

Dr. Jacob Vecht was a Jewish dentist in Amsterdam. He was a professional and lived quietly with his wife, son, and daughter. On the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue as a faithful Orthodox Jew. At some point, he realized he was in danger and had to go into hiding.

The Boissevain children never found out how the contact was made with their father Bob Boissevain, but somehow Bob agreed to hide him in his home in Haarlem. The parents decided that a fourth person in hiding was possible. Robert Boissevain said:
If people are in great danger, then you will have to do your "duty as a Dutchman" to save them.  
So, one day, Mijnheer (Mister) Knoppers arrived–Dr. Vecht with a new name that did not sound so Jewish. Under this name, he spent the war with the family and the other three Jewish hideaways, the Goldbergs. Mister Knoppers was a silent man. The children did not realize that he was anxious about his own family. They did not know even know he was a dentist. He just was “Mister Knoppers”. What you do not tell to children, Charles Boissevain observed, has a greater chance of remaining secret.

I attempted to find Jacob Hecht's name in official Amsterdam records. I found only one person named  Jacob Vecht who might have been the right one. He was born on March 19, 1887, and died on October 26, 1960. He would have been 53 at the time of the invasion of Holland by the Germans.

Bob's Resistance Work

A routine activity of Bob Boissevain was to listen with his family to Radio Orange on their radio. Even this was illegal under Nazi rules because all radios were supposed to have been declared and turned in. The Boissevains violated the Nazi laws even more because the children were involved in typing up and distributing news reports. Charles Boissevain describes how the news-collection and news-distribution system worked:
The Dutch Government and Queen Wilhelmina van Oranje were in London during the war. From there they issued a daily broadcast with radio news... about the war, but also with messages to the Dutch about what to do, like food distribution. Or what not to do, like suggestions for a strike or disobedience. Sometimes even cryptic messages were sent for the Resistance. It was strictly forbidden by the Nazis to listen to Radio Orange. Everyone had to deliver their radio to the authorities, which is what the Boissevain family did. Of course they had another radio and listened to it secretly until the end of the war. Bob Boissevain Jr. typed the most important news with an old typewriter, making six or seven carbon copies. Since he was older than 18, he was hidden and could not go out, so copies were distributed by his younger brothers Willem and Charles. Strictly forbidden and dangerous–a nice thing for boys to do.
Charles Boissevain notes that his father had spent time in public school in England and was fluent in English, had many friends in England, and served in the Navy in World War I. He was a skilled Marconi telegraph operator and could read and send messages. He would therefore have been of great value to an underground organization seeking help abroad and was the kind of person who would not refuse to serve when needed. Bob believed in DDD–"Doing the Dutchman's Duty".

In addition, Bob might have helped arrange the exit of hunted people via the Dutch Paris Line, i.e., a train from Amsterdam to Paris. However, no one can be sure of all the details of what Bob did during World War II, because one of his superior skills was being good at not talking about it–and he died on the day of liberation when he could have started talking.

Bob's Betrayal

Bob was caught in his Resistance work in the summer of 1943 because of a betrayal that appears to have had nothing to do with his hiding Jews in his house. His daughter Hester says:
Father had to flee–we never saw him again. He was discovered, was arrested and spent ten months in solitary confinement in Scheveningen [near The Hague]. His great optimism stayed with him. It was part of who he was. He never gave up.
Charles says that their father had an appointment with a man in Utrecht who betrayed him. He did not even tell his wife Sonia where he was going. Charles says that his mother once told him: "If he would have told me that he was to meet this man, then I would have warned him not to. I knew that this person was not to be trusted."

Bob was taken away to the special prison in Scheveningen meant for Resistance fighters, who were treated by the Nazis as very dangerous criminals. (Today this prison is used for criminals on trial at, or after conviction by, the International Criminal Court.)

On many occasions, the Nazis would take one or more prisoners outside of this prison to be shot in the dunes nearby. Every year on May 4, the last day of the war, many Dutch people go there, to remember the war dead and the Resistance fighters. This prison had the ironic nickname "Orange Hotel" because of the noble and courageous persons held in prison, true to their country, to their Queen of Orange and to their personal beliefs.

Every autumn a special memorial meeting is called, by invitation, to remember those who were kept in this prison. The people who remember the war are now old, but new generations come to the memorial as well–the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who died. Many representatives of the government, parliament and the Supreme Court attend. Flowers are brought to the so-called "Death Cell". Charles has been going almost every year to the prison in Scheveningen to remember what went on there during World War II.

Bob was moved to the concentration camp at Vught in Holland in June 1944. In September he was moved on to Sachsenhausen in North Berlin through the end of 1944. Some time after the end of 1944 Bob was moved to the Zweiberge camp near Buchenwald west of Berlin, probably because Russian troops were getting closer to Berlin. His son Charles says:
He died April 12, 1945, the day that the camp was liberated. He was completely exhausted by torture and hunger, and deadly ill with high fever, dysentery and typhus. –CB, email of Feb. 16, 2016.
It was the day of Bob's wedding anniversary. The last available photo of Bob Boissevain is from the summer of 1943.

Bob Boissevain's Last Letter to His Wife Sonia

Bob Boissevain was transferred from the Dutch prison to a concentration camp north of Berlin, Sachsenhausen. Hester Grinberg has sent me a copy of her father's last letter to his wife Sonia at Keizersgracht 743.at Zwieberge, near Berlin. The Lager (Camp) Commandant required that the letter be written in German, so that it could be censored.

[PHOTO CAPTION: Back and front of the envelope from Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin.]

[PHOTO CAPTION: Bob Boissevain's last letter, in German, to his wife Sonia and their family. He was prisoner no. 100493 at Sachsenhausen.]

Here is a translation of the German, provided by Grinberg:
Christmas 1944
My beloved Sonia,
These days our thoughts are closer than ever. One may call me happy, since the beautiful memories of our Christmases together live inside of me.
Now the year 1945 begins. I know with great certainty that all the children love you very much, and they know why.
They are now at the age when their spirits are ready to understand abstract, intangible things.
Their minds and hearts are developing a shape and character that will strengthen them later in life and help them distinguish good from bad.
Misusing personal talents leads to instability. Our children have a big advantage in being close to such a personality as their mother, to love her and be in awe of her ability to create and preserve a positive atmosphere at home–which probably requires the greatest level of inner strength.
We remember Willem Barentsz [the Dutchman who discovered Novaya Zemlya but was forced to spend a winter there with his crew]. 
The dear earth soon grows
Green–not only 1945,
Sending eternally,
Blue skies from a distance.
R.L.B. [Robert Lucas Boissevain]
The last four lines are a paraphrase of Der Abschied, "The Farewell", from Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. A recording of it is here: http://bit.ly/1SDkBr8. The Boissevain family was active in forming the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Mahler was popular. The conductor, Willem Mengelberg, performed Mahler's work during the Occupation, even though Mahler was Jewish.

Surviving the Hunger Winter

After Bob was imprisoned in 1943, life for the extended family got much worse. Sonia received ration cards that allowed her to get watery soup for six, but she had to feed 11 people including the Goldbergs and Mr. Knoppers/Jacob Vecht. 
We had to go to different shops to buy butter and cheese, milk, meat, vegetables, and soap. We were supposed to be only six people–one mother and five children. We had to shop at two or three stores to avoid suspicion. Many things required coupons. The younger children spent a lot of time shopping. –CB, email of Feb. 8, 2015.
For one seven-month stretch, they survived by eating tulip bulbs. Charles says:
To get tulip bulbs Sonia Boissevain and the older children (but not Bob Jr. after he became 18 and was in hiding to avoid the Arbeitseinatz) would travel for miles on bikes with no tires or with wooden rims. The only bulbs that were not poisonous were tulips. They were not very appetizing, but they could be cooked like onions. Sugar beets were the only sweets that we knew. –CB, email of Feb. 8, 2015.
The Boissevain family and their guests in Haarlem were severely malnourished during the “hunger winter” of 1944-45. They hung on with their guests until American and Canadian soldiers arrived on Liberation Day, May 5, 1945. Many other Dutch residents were not so fortunate and died.

After the War: Discussion Questions

Bob and Sonia and their children have been named to the list of Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which takes pains to verify claims to be on the list. Why were Bob and Sonia willing to take such risks, which Bob paid for with his suffering in a concentration camp and his early death in 1945? Hester believes that her father "never forgave the Nazis" because I. G. Farben was part of the group that bankrupted him and his father in 1936.

When Charles Boissevain speaks to teenagers in Holland about World War II, he asks them to think about these questions:
  • Could you take somebody in hiding in your house for a long period? 
  • If there was a search of the house, a razzia to find young men to send to Germany for forced labor or to find Jewish people to deport, could this person or persons hide without being found?
  • Can you be sure that everyone in the house will keep their mouth shut, always and absolutely?
  • If you yourself wanted to hide, where would you go? Who would you stay with? 
My wife Alice asked Charles at the 10th Boissevain Reunion in 2011 whether he was afraid as a child about hiding Jews in the house? Charles answered: "No, there was no added fear, because hiding Jews was just one more illegal thing the family was doing on top of eight other Resistance activities."

In Chapter 11, we return to the Goldbergs and Dr. Vecht and find out what happened to them after the war ended.

Other Chapters: The above post is a draft of a chapter of a forthcoming book, How Holland Defied Hitler: The Boissevains and van Halls.


Yad VashemYad Vashem List of the Righteous for the Netherlands.

Jews in Holland, 1900: Joodsche Courant, 44, 1903.

Concentration camps: Friedhoff, p. 92.

SS vs. Wehrmacht Antisemitism: Research by Bryan Rigg while a student at Yale and Cambridge showed the surprising number of senior Wehrmacht officers with Jewish parentage. His book on the subject won a Colby award.

Bob's Family: Charles Boissevein, emails (see Sources).

Bankruptcy: See Ernst Homburg with the collaboration of Arjan van Rooij, Groin door Kunstmest DSM Agro ["The Dutch Fertilizer Industry and DSM"], 1929 - 2004 (Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren,  2004, 383 pp., in Dutch only, €30 plus shipping cost.) Several pages tell the story about the period between 1928 and 1937. Charles Boissevain has been very helpful in explaining the intricacies of what happened. He is not responsible for any errors that remain in what I have written.

Dick Polak: Grinberg 2008, 6. This Dick Polak is not to be confused with the older Marius Polak, who married Engelien de Booy, daughter of my great-aunt Hilda de Booy. Engelien told me late in her life that although the SS was viciously abusive towards gentiles who were married to Jews, the SS put them on a special list and spared the Jewish spouses from deportation to concentration camps. So Polak survived the war, but the couple divorced after the war because, Engelien told me, the burden of her having saved his life was too much for him to carry on a daily basis. However, they remained friends for the rest of their lives - a story confirmed by Charles Boissevain.

Goldbergs and Concertgebouw: Charles Boissevain, email, Jan. 19, 2015.

Anya Goldberg: Charles Boissevain, email, Feb. 8, 2015.

Mr. Knoppers/Dr. Vecht: Charles Boissevain, emails, Jan. 5 and 19, and Feb. 8, 2015.


Boissevain, Charles (Leidschendam), emails beginning January 5, 12,  and 19, and February 8, 2015.

Forest, Greg, personal interviews in Tequesta and Vero Beach, Fla., January 2015 and February 2017.

Friedhoff, Herman. Requiem for the Resistance. (London: Bloomsbury, 1988.)

Grinberg, Hester Boissevain, Autobiographical Notes, 2008 and 2011; phone interviews; and letter to author, January 2015.

Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: the Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945.

Jerusalem Post, May 2012.

U.S. Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C. - phone interview, 2014.

This is a draft chapter of a book © 2016-2017 by John Tepper Marlin, jtmarlin@post.harvard.edu.


The people. 
Dr. Charles Ernest Henri (Eh Hah)
Boissevain, father of Robert L. 
(Bob) Boissevain, Sr.; eldest
son of Charles Handelsblad Boissevain.

Robert Lucas Boissevain
(1895-1945) (NP 74)

Hart Juda (Harry) Vecht,
maybe brother of Jacob Vecht.

Survivors–Dr. (?) Leo Goldberg (R) and
Lyubova Elperin Goldberg, 1948.
Photo courtesy of the Forest Family.
The houses.
Bob Boissevain's home, Emmaplein 2,
until 1936, when he was bankrupted,
sold it and moved to Zandvoort.

The borrowed Haarlem house,
Spruitenbosstraat 11, in 2015.


His last letter, in German, from
Robert Lucas Boissevain,
Christmas 1944.

Envelope of letter from R. L. Boissevain
in concentration camp, north Berlin.


  1. July 2, 2015 - I have added Bob Boissevain's last letter from concentration camp in Germany to his wife Sonia.

  2. Mar 21, 2017 — I have added that Bob Boissevain Jr., who turned 18 the month after the Nazis invaded Holland and therefore was required to report for work in Germany, died in Feb. 14, 2017.

  3. Your article is amazing. I bumped into it after searching on the subject of "Dutch Resistance". Your abundance of details, historical and visual references are so interesting, that I couldn't stopped reading until the end. Thank you for sharing such an incredibly story of courage and "love for your neighbor". -M. Sawicki

    1. Thank you. I am working on putting my stories on World War II into a book, and it requires patience to collect all the needed information. Your encouragement is appreciated.

  4. i have heard there was a family whose business was a butcher in a small village, of whom they were th only Jews, they had a little son David. If anyone knows this family please reply.

    1. Was this a Boissevain Family member? I don't know of anyone who fits that description.