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March 27, 2024   5 mins

There is no tram line 8 in Amsterdam. You could see this as a silent admission of guilt — during the Second World War, it transported tens of thousands of Dutch Jewish people to the Westerbork transit camp, and then on to their deaths. But it is also an omission, an erasure of the history of Dutch complicity as the Nazis murdered three-quarters of its Jewish population.

To this day, evidence is still emerging of how Dutch people looked away — and sometimes even profited — as 102,000 of their fellow countrymen, women and children were murdered. It is the worst record in Western Europe. But now, as survivors approach the end of their lives, the Netherlands seems ready to pass on a truer Holocaust story to a younger generation.

In his new documentary, Lost City, director Willy Lindwer highlights evidence of the tram journey that brought Anne Frank and her family from the Weteringschans prison to Central Station on 8 August 1944 after their “secret annex” hiding place was discovered. It turns out that the Amsterdam transport company, the GVB, invoiced the Nazi occupier for these tram rides for 48,000 Jewish people — and continued to do so even after the war.

“What we discovered,” says Lindwer, “is that the Amsterdam tram collaborated in a massive way with the Nazis. And that last invoice was never paid so Amsterdam got in bailiffs for two years after the war to try to get 80 guilders back from the tram ride that the Frank family was in.”

In the coming years, the Dutch will have to confront more unsettling truths. Earlier this month, the Netherlands opened its first National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam to tell not just the tales of the astonishingly brave resistance, but also stories of the Jewish people who were murdered, the civil servants who betrayed them, and the ordinary people who did nothing — or even took the houses and possessions of the deported.

Inevitably, these two cultural events have become entangled in the public consciousness following Hamas’s bloody attack on Israel on October 7, and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Israeli president Isaac Herzog used a speech at the opening of the National Holocaust Museum to call for the “immediate safe return” of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas — while, outside, crowds of pro-Palestinian protesters turned nasty, apparently jeering at Holocaust survivor Rudie Cortissos and his great-granddaughter (although they said they supported the museum). The number of reported incidents of antisemitism in the Netherlands doubled last year and the Centre for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) reported an “enormous peak” after October 7.

“The number of reported incidents of antisemitism in the Netherlands doubled last year.”

To understand all this, we must look to history, and the several important ways the Netherlands differed from other Western Nazi-occupied lands. On 10 May 1940, the German army invaded the neutral country, and after five days of fighting and heavy bombing of Rotterdam, the Dutch surrendered. The state was destroyed and a new administration was installed headed by Reich Commissioner Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian Nazi who would go on to order the deportation of the Dutch Jewish population to Nazi extermination camps.

The Netherlands — in particular, Amsterdam — had for centuries been a safe place of refuge for Jewish people. But during the war, there was far more solidarity with the Jewish populations in France and Belgium than in the Netherlands, possibly because Dutch society was based on separate “pillars”, communities living alongside one another rather than mixing. The geography of this small, densely populated and relatively unforested land certainly meant there were far fewer places for Jewish people to hide.

Indeed, while there was a Dutch resistance movement that smuggled 600 Jewish children to safety from the site of the Holocaust Museum, many citizens also profited from occupation. So-called “Jew hunters” were paid for betrayal, a Dutch railway charged Jewish people for their tickets, Amsterdam levied housing tax on Holocaust survivors for their time in the camps, and Jewish property was routinely stolen. In Lost City, a Jewish woman describes escaping arrest to find all her valuables stolen by her neighbours. Tini Jacobs-van Dulst remembers cycling through the city with her mother in September 1943, aged six, looking at empty houses and choosing one on the Diezestraat. “We never spoke about why these houses were empty,” she says. “I found out myself as a teenager.” And my late neighbour, Maud Hedeman, who survived via a prisoner exchange with Switzerland, could never understand why a Dutch family would not give her father back the family rug when they returned.

After the war, the extent of this betrayal was not discussed. For many Jewish people, the memories were simply too painful. Tram line 8 was scrapped, “Euterpestraat”, the street of the German headquarters, was renamed after resistance fighter Gerrit van der Veen, and there was little space for the Jewish war experience in public life.

“The memories of Dutch Jews were mostly suppressed,” says Bart Wallet, professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Amsterdam. “All the attention went to the resistance and to the military that liberated the Netherlands. Jews specifically didn’t fit the image that people wanted to convey during memorial activities and monuments
 The Jewish community held their commemorations until the Sixties exclusively inside synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, not in a public sphere.” Only now, he says, can the Dutch people bear to face the full story. “The Holocaust Museum is a pivot point in Dutch memory culture.”

But for many Dutch Jews, this doesn’t go far enough. Holocaust survivor Salo Muller, who won group compensation from the NS railway service to repay the cost of Holocaust train tickets, has also demanded an apology and reparation from Amsterdam’s trams.

Simmering in the background, meanwhile, is a row over a public-funded “cold case” study naming Jewish Council member Arnold van den Bergh as the “betrayer” of Anne Frank’s family. Rosemary Sullivan’s bestselling book on the case, The Betrayal of Anne Frank, was stoutly refuted by historians in the Netherlands and later withdrawn. It is seen by some as implicitly blaming the Jewish population for its own destruction. To the frustration of relatives, who have retained an American law firm to defend Van den Bergh’s name, the deeply contested book is still available in other countries.

Further research on the involvement of Amsterdam’s government in the Nazi’s antisemitic policies is expected to be released this year by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “We saw ourselves as the nation of Anne Frank,” says emeritus professor Johannes Houwink ten Cate. “It hurts when we are forced to see ourselves as the nation of the tram driver transporting the Frank family to the station and from there to a transit camp, and to a death camp from there. It took us a long time to come to terms with our not-so-good track record during the Holocaust.”

This reassessment is a function of a former colonial nation wrestling with its identity. The background is one defined by tumult: where Geert Wilders wins an election by attributing all social woes to asylum seekers, where middle-class Amsterdammers blame “expats” for their housing crisis, and where, in government, the Dutch apparently lose their famed ability to “polder” across differences and form a normal coalition.

And in this polarised, politically fragmented country, it throws up the question of who “belongs”, where we all originally come from and how much that actually matters. Was Dutch tolerance ever all it was cracked up to be? And where on earth is it now?

Faced with such a task, looking honestly at the past is a good place to start. But it is an uncomfortable journey, just like the tram ride when Willy Lindwer realised that, on the way to their deaths, Anne Frank’s family would have had a brief glimpse of their secret annex.

It’s a sentiment shared in Lost City by Izak Salomons, who was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. At one point, he explains how his sweet, six-year-old grandson asked him how he survived the war. “I said: ‘Well, we were in a camp
The Germans weren’t very nice.’ Then I saw that he was welling up and so to comfort him, I said, ‘Now they are nice again.’

“He mulled it over and then said: ‘True, but they are still ashamed.’”

Senay Boztas is a journalist living in Amsterdam.