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Geraldien von Frijtag Lecture Summary

Geraldien von Frijtag (Utrecht University, the Netherlands)
2017-2018 Center Research Fellow
“Being and Belonging: Jewish-Gentile Relations in the Occupied Netherlands Through the Lens of a Microscope”
November 9, 2017

Professor Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel's lecture "Being and Belonging: Jewish-Gentile Relations in the Occupied Netherlands Through the Lens of a Microscope"

Language: English

In this lecture, Professor Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel explores Jewish-gentile relations in the Netherlands in the years just before, during and just after the Holocaust.

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Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Künzel, the 2017-2018 Center Research Fellow, gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on the relations between Jews and non-Jews in the Netherlands just before, during, and just after the Holocaust. In the lecture, Professor von Frijtag presented some of the preliminary conclusions from her four-month residency conducting research with testimonies housed in the Visual History Archive.

After beginning her lecture with a reflection on what people think of when they think about the Netherlands, Professor von Frijtag introduced the audience to the myth of Dutch tolerance. This myth, she argued, has its roots in the 16th and 17th century, the period when the Netherlands became a republic, and freedom of religion was established. Many Jews from other European countries found safe haven in the Netherlands, especially Eastern European Jews and Sephardic Jews from Spain. Consequently, Jews were well integrated into Dutch society, especially since the 19th century when they became politically and economically emancipated. 

Professor von Frijtag then juxtaposed this myth of tolerance with the so-called Dutch paradox -- the fact that, notwithstanding the existing culture of tolerance, the Netherlands became a country with one of the highest rates of murdered Jews during the Holocaust. In 1940, 140,000 Jews were registered in the Netherlands. Between 1940 and 1945, 101,000 Jews were deported, and only 5,200 actually survived the camps. Of those not deported, 8,500 Jews survived because of their mixed marriages to non-Jews; 7,500 Jews survived because of their successful escape abroad; and 16,500 Jews survived in hiding. At the end of World War II, approximately 35,000 Jews remained registered in the Netherlands, but more than 20,000 left the country by 1948. In 1950, only 14,000 Jews remained in the Netherlands. The Netherlands lost over 75% of its Jewish population, which seems to contradict the idea that the Dutch were tolerant of their Jewish neighbors. 

After reviewing the existing scholarship on the Holocaust in the Netherlands and its focus on institutional and political histories, Professor von Frijtag argued that while recently there has been more interest in the attitudes of the Dutch people, the prevailing focus remains on the perpetrators (such as Dutch collaborators). 

Little is written about the Jewish response to persecution. Professor von Frijtag explained that her aim is to look beyond the categories of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, and instead to look at the relations between people and how those evolved over time, with a special emphasis on giving voice to the Jews and bringing their agency more into the picture. 

Employing a microhistorical approach and centering her research on notions of identity and community, some of her research questions included: How do survivors remember and see themselves in terms of their prewar and wartime identity and community? Whom did the Jews perceive as their peers and members of their community at the time? How did these feelings and perceptions change over time? What was the effect of the Holocaust on these feelings and perceptions? Did their peers and those they considered to be members of their prewar community help them during the war? 

Professor von Frijtag spent most of the lecture’s remainder on answering these questions using many specific examples from the hundreds of testimonies she watched during her residency. She emphasized that there is not one story to be told. All testimonies are exceptions. While common themes emerge in the testimonies, there is wide variation when it comes to people’s experiences and reflections. She explored some common themes in the narratives focusing on identity, community, and the relations between Jews and non-Jews. The topics she covered included the complexities of prewar identity and community; the feelings of being and belonging before the war; the turning points interviewees describe where they felt everything change (most often due to anti-Jewish measures); the breakup and separation of prewar families and communities during the wartime years; the disintegration of community, collapse of social infrastructure, and the absence of trusted helping friends; the significance of initiative, creative thinking, and self-help; and post-war feelings of sadness, bitterness, and disillusionment. For each of these topics and more, Professor von Frijtag offered accounts from specific testimonies. 

Most survivor stories are stories of hiding, Professor von Frijtag pointed out, and she illuminated the dynamic, complicated, and messy aspects of hiding experiences revealed in the archive. She contrasted the accounts from testimonies with that of Anne Frank, who hid in one place, in the annex of her own building, with her family intact, helped by trusted friends, for a long period of time. That may be the prevalent view we have of hiding, especially in the Netherlands, but it is an exceptional case. Most survivors in the archive describe being separated from their families, being hid by people with a variety of motivations (from altruism to free labor to money), and being treated by their protectors in a variety of ways (ranging from generous treatment to sadistic treatment).  Rather than receiving help from trusted friends, as communities disintegrated, extended networks became essential for survival and assistance. One of the survivors in the archive, Hedy Markowitz, describes moving hiding places all the time. She ultimately had 17 hiding places.

Professor von Frijtag concluded her lecture by returning one more time to the myth of tolerance. She argued that the material she heard in the testimonies suggests that the myth of tolerance does not necessarily need to be rejected, but only rethought in terms of how we define tolerance. Tolerance can mean tolerating things that happen to your neighbors. Tolerance can become indifference. If this is how we think of tolerance, the Dutch may have been very tolerant indeed.

In the end, Professor von Frijtag concluded that her microhistorical approach and the contributions of the testimonies add to the understanding of the Holocaust in the Netherlands by bringing Jewish agency back into the story. In addition, she noted, testimonies provide a much more dynamic image of the prewar and wartime periods, and they illustrate that the story of hiding and Jewish survival in the Netherlands is much more complicated than what the historical scholarship currently suggests.

The discussion period following the lecture focused on, among other topics, the question of the Dutch paradox; why the Netherlands had such high rates of killings; Professor von Frijtag’s definition of “identity” and the distinctions between citizenship and religion; her methodology in her selection of interviews; and reflections on the significance, value, and challenges of a microhistorical approach. 


Summary by Badema Pitic