In Holland, a concerted effort is being made to compensate for the horrors and the displacement many suffered in the Holocaust. We could certainly take a lesson.
As you may remember, I am in Holland at the moment. And sometimes that leads to interesting comparisons and thought experiments. The other day, for instance, we were looking at a house for sale. Tyre kicking, of course, dreaming of the moment that the Lotto win finally happens. Anyway, this was a beauty. Big rooms, lots of light, in a nice neighbourhood close to family. Unfortunately, I am a historian, so when I had a few minutes to spare I typed the address into Google.
It had been built in 1903, it said, by a man called Maurik van Wijzenbeek. He had been a cigarmaker in nearby Culemborg for a number of years before he decided to try and make it in the big smoke. So in the early 1900s, he bought a block of land in Utrecht, commissioned an architect and then a builder and for the substantial sum of 13,923 guilders put up a cigar factory and, attached, a house for himself and his family. He employed twenty people until in 1913 the Depression got the better of him and he had to sack half his workforce.
Nevertheless, he was one of the very few who managed to keep his business going and even built it up again in the late 1920s and 1930s. Then WWII broke out and that spelled doom for the Jewish factory owner. In 1941 the Germans confiscated Van Wijzenbeek’s factory and house. A year later he died in Auschwitz, 75 years old.
History doesn’t tell us what happened to his family.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Halina Robinson on surviving the Holocaust and the Courage to Care/a>
- Should concentration camp workers stand trial?
- Reflections on Mirka Mora: Child of the holocaust, mother of our Melbourne
- Nee, Geert: Dutch take lead against populism
Before I knew all of this, I had been eager to have a look at the place. I am a big fan of houses. When I am depressed, I start drawing floorplans, interiors, folding walls, glass walkways over creeks. It always makes me feel better, and so does looking at somebody else’s solutions to building problems.
This one was built on a corner; it was narrow, but long, and I had been curious about the placing of doors and windows. Yes, I know, I am a nerd. Anyway, the moment I found out about Maurik van Wijzenbeek the house became an untouchable entity. There was no way I could even set foot in a place that had been ‘confiscated’, which, of course, means stolen, by the Nazis. Especially because I knew that it would be unlikely that compensation had ever been paid. The council report was vague on what had happened to the house during the war, but in 1947 it was bought by the local Roman Catholic diocese, probably for a song.
And although the current owners were not responsible for what had happened to their building during the War, they were profiting from it now, still. No way was I ever going to contribute to that.
During my time as a journalist in Holland I have met many, many Holocaust survivors, Jewish and others. Sadly, they all shared one story. Whether they had been in concentration camps in Indonesia, Holland, Poland or Germany, all of them were treated with cold disinterest when they came back home.
Very few people wanted to listen to what they had to say, because the Dutch thought that in the who-has-suffered-more stakes, they themselves had surely come out on top. They could think that, since they refused to believe that so many millions of people had been murdered on an industrial scale, under their noses, and often, even more problematically, with their help.
Only now, seventy years after the war ended, is that shameful history slowly coming to light. In 2005, for instance, the NS, the Dutch Railways, apologised for transporting more than 100,000 Jews, Roma and Sinti to the concentration camps and (often) their deaths. It took a while to also put its money where its mouth was, but last month the company also established a fund to compensate the survivors. Forty to fifty million; 15,000 euro per person.
Also, in 2016, legal historian Raymund Schutz published his PhD as a book called (roughly translated) Cold Mist. In it, he concluded that during WWII most Dutch solicitors cooperated with the Germans in selling Jewish property that had been stolen from them. Although it was legally and morally wrong to ‘launder’ the purchases, they were being paid handsomely for their services. So they did not only not object, they willingly assisted the Nazis in profiting from their criminal behaviour.
When David Simons came back to Holland in 1945, miraculously with his family in tow, after spending three years in several concentration camps in Holland and Germany, he quickly got a bill from his Council, The Hague. He was behind in his council taxes, they said, and could he pay up as soon as possible.
A few days ago, one of the biggest Dutch newspapers, De Volkskrant, published a story about another shameful part of this country’s history, again related to property.
When David Simons came back to Holland in 1945, miraculously with his family in tow, after spending three years in several concentration camps in Holland and Germany, he quickly got a bill from his Council, The Hague. He was behind in his council taxes, they said, and could he pay up as soon as possible. Simons, who was a lawyer, objected. He reminded the Council that the Germans had ‘confiscated’ his house in 1942 and that it had been sold to a Dutch family who sympathised with the Nazis. He had not used his house in three years, because it had been stolen from him, so he was certainly not going to pay council taxes. The Hague was unmoved. In letters and during Council debates they told him not to whinge. He got his house back, didn’t he? So it was wiser to stop asking for more.
In the coming years, Simons became an important man in Holland. A law professor, an advisor to a succession of Ministers, chair of a number of government committees. And still, he didn’t manage to sort out the problem with The Hague. Not surprisingly, others, far less prominent, decided not to even try, and the case, with its principle, disappeared into the bureaucratic archives.
But a few weeks ago, Simons’ daughter-in-law, Marita Simons-Deen, received a letter from the Council.
Marita has a Holocaust history herself. At age two, she was transported (by the NS) to a concentration camp, which she barely survived. She had never been told about the council tax issues, although Simons sr. had left her his personal files about the case. That was fortuitous because it meant that when The Hague Council wrote to her, she could prove, again, Simons’ claim.
This time the tone of the Council was less cold and its actions a little warmer too. It told Simons-Deen it was very ashamed of what it had done all those years ago. It apologised and said it had decided to inaugurate a special fund called the Jewish Moral Judicial Compensation Fund. In total, 2.6 million euros could be distributed to Jewish people who had been wrongly paying things like council rates. So far, they said, they had found nine Jewish property owners or their heirs, which meant they had paid out around 55,000 euros. They would be honoured, they wrote, if Simons-Deen would accept 13,600 euro as compensation, not just for the taxes her father-in-law had paid, but also to reimburse her for his legal fees.
Marita Simons-Deen was happy to accept, especially because she knew exactly what to do with the money. During the War, her mother-in-law, David Simon’s wife Ida Simons-Rosenheimer, was instrumental in putting up a parodistic opera in Westerbork, one of the Dutch concentration camps. The text and music miraculously survived, in 68 hand-written pages bound with cardboard. Because of the money, the opera, Ludmilla, was again performed a few weeks ago, with Marita Simons-Deen in the first row. For her, that meant that things had come full circle.
For me, it only started the thought process. About responsibilities, in particular. Mine, ours, Dutch, Australian, personal, collective.
Two days later I had a dream, in which Maurik van Wijzenbeek was telling me about Eddie Mabo. I am still wondering about that.