'The Ambiguity of Virtue' Is an Important Contribution to the Field of Holocaust Studies

by Allison Schottenstein

14 March 2014

Gertrude Van Tijn was a social worker who became a Jewish leader in Amsterdam and spent her life securing the emigration of Jewish refugees. Unlike Anne Frank, Van Tijn survived.
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The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews

Bernard Wasserstein

(Harvard University Press)
US: Mar 2014

In popular imagination, Anne Frank has come to symbolize Dutch Jewry during the Holocaust period. Another sympathetic figure emerges in Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews. Through his narrative, Wasserstein takes us beyond the annex and into the complex life of Gertrude van Tijn.

Van Tijn was a social worker who became a Jewish leader in Amsterdam and spent her life securing the emigration of Jewish refugees. Unlike Anne Frank, whose life was cut short in a concentration camp, Van Tijn survived. Wasserstein reexamines her life and weaves her story beautifully into the fabric of Holocaust history.

Wasserstein captures the reader’s interest in van Tijn by revealing her human side, describing the first time she had sex, her lovers, the beginning and end of her marriage, and her deep love for her children. He intertwines her letters and unpublished writings (i.e., memoirs) throughout the text so we can hear her voice and know her as a “human being” (265). At the same time, Van Tijn’s development from an assimilated middle-class Jewish woman into a Zionist leader concerned about the displaced Jews of Europe reflects Zionism’s transformation of the Jewish psyche. Wasserstein’s narrative focuses on Van Tijn’s experience working with refugees from the rise of the Third Reich until nearly the end of World War II.

In 1933, Van Tijn’s life changed forever with the Nazi ascension into power imposing anti-Jewish measures. She then took on the responsibility from being not only the head of the department of social worker of the Dutch Council of Jewish Women, but also to serve as secretary for two committees dedicated to helping Jewish refugees: the Committee for Special Jewish Interest and the Committee for Jewish Refuge (21). Wasserstein asserts that Van Tijn’s “work for the committee was far from any Lady Bountiful philanthropic exercise. Refugees required food, shelter, medical aid, and child care; help in dealing with the Dutch bureaucracy; assistance in arranging onward travel; and in the case of those remaining in the country, guidance toward suitable jobs, language instruction, and much else” (23).

Wasserstein keeps a record of how many people Van Tijn and others worked to save as they transported refugees from different parts of world to places that were willing to accept Jews. Although the numbers are substantial, the reader with knowledge of Holocaust history will be aware that that they pale in comparison to the numbers of those who were murdered in concentration, extermination, and labor camps and in random killings. However, Wasserstein’s count highlights the immensity of the work that occupied Van Tijn’s time and effort.

At the same time, Wasserstein explores the ethical dilemmas that Van Tijn faced. When immigration restrictions hit hard, the Council for German Jewry formed in 1936. At times, the committee chose to save certain immigrants rather than others on the basis of socioeconomic class, raising the question as to whether one life is of greater value than another. Yet Wasserstein claims that Van Tijn took responsibility for her decisions.

When times became worse, Van Tijn took “more adventurous courses in the hope of finding havens for the persecuted” (43). For example, she worked to secure illegal immigration to Palestine through the ship The Dora,the only ship to sail from western Europe (64). She accomplished this with the help of a small group and with Zionist agents in the Mossad (59). Unfortunately, this had consequences when immigration to Palestine became stricter (64).

When the Nazis had completely taken over Dutch society, Van Tijn’s only means to aid refugees was through the Jewish Council, where she acted as a functionary (99). Through Van Tijn’s story, Wasserstein reveals a complicated and nuanced perspective on the Council that contrasts with those of other historians, such as Raul Hilberg, whose Destruction of the European Jews argues that the Council was complicit in the “annihilation of their own people” (241). Under the Jewish Council, Van Tijn “was now answerable not to an independent charitable body, but to an organization created by a subservient to the end” (99). Although she did not have the same role as the Jewish Council members, her work was “tarred with its brush” (99).

Wasserstein also demonstrates the great risk that Van Tijn was willing to take in the name of saving lives. When she gained permission from the Germans to travel outside Amsterdam to Lisbon to meet with European Representative Morris Tropper from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for “securing trans-Atlantic passages for refugees reaching Lisbon from Germany and the Netherlands,” the reader feels frightened for her. At this point, the refugee problem was spreading throughout Europe and was no longer restricted to Germany. Jewish emigration was still officially allowed in December of 1940, but “shortly afterwards, however, the German position shifted” (101-102).

However, Wasserstein points out that Van Tijn was only permitted a temporarily stay with her exit permit, and she was still at risk as a lone woman and a Jew (1-3; 103). When she was given the opportunity to escape her fate, she refused the Joint: “ ‘It was a hard decision to make…particularly as I had no illusion about my ultimate fate. But I knew that, were I to choose safety over duty, I would never be able to live at peace with myself again” (109).

The Jewish Council at times caused Van Tijn to be involved in tasks that caused her moral anguish. For example, when the Nazis asked her and the Jewish Council for the Wieriengen students’ addresses, they instructed the young boys to “comply” and give a list to the Nazi Klaus Barbie. The Nazis did not return the students to their home but rather “round[ed] up these and other young Jewish men, ostensibly as a reprisal for recent bomb attacks by the Dutch resistance” (115). Those who did not escape were eventually taken to the Mauthausen and Schoorl concentration camps (115-116).

In spite of her shortcomings, Van Tijn was able to find ways to help refugees within the system. She worked with the Jewish Agency in the summer of 1943, helping to create exchange lists of Jews: “The Jewish Agency had discovered that mere placement on a list of potential exchanges often gave holders some degree of protection against deportation to death camps. As a result, there was a great competition to secure certificates and places on exchange lists. Such lists proliferated in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Switzerland—and Amsterdam. By June 1943, Gertrude had registered at least 798 potential exchanges” (161). Commenting specifically on Tijn’s role, Wasserstein states that she “took morally hazardous decisions in order to save lives,” but unlike David Cohen, a Jewish Council member, she was “not ready to sacrifice some lives in order to save others” (257).

Wasserstein demonstrates that heroism can have terrible consequences. Van Tijn was first taken to the transit camp Westerbrok but was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen. As Van Tijn commented after liberation, “it is really like being re-born and I am still really rather dazed” (236). But Wasserstein does not end his story with her liberation. He describes how, after the war, she was blackballed for her role with the Jewish Council, which led to incrimination for the death of Jews. Yet in spite of this indictment, she continued to work fiercely to help displaced Jews, this time in Shanghai. She also recorded an early history of Dutch Jewry under the Nazi regime.

Eventually, she immigrated to America, where she continued to fight for others. In fact she was “active in liberal politics, even participating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington in August 1963” (238).

This book is an important contribution to the field of Holocaust studies, as it shows the ethical complications that Jewish leaders faced, especially leaders involved with refugees. How could they organize so more would live? How could they make the difficult decisions that would ultimately lead others to die? Wasserstein’s ability to reconstruct this story is impressive, given that many of the materials he used had been destroyed and the heroine was deceased. In spite of these challenges, Wasserstein manages to breathe life into Van Tijn’s story. Wasserstein eloquently articulates why we should remember Gertrude van Tijn:

Gertrude’s story is a study in the ambiguity of virtue. She was an altruist who saw no reason to damp down her natural idiosyncrasy; a woman of principle, who understood the need to compromise—a spiritual dimension, untrammeled by conventional religion. She was her own kind of feminist and her own kind of Zionist. She was a humanitarian who drew her values from the great store of the European enlightenment, to which the German Jewish bourgeoisie, into which she was born, was heir (259).

The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews


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