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

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.

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

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 352 pages
Author: Bernard Wasserstein
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardback
Publication date: 2014-03

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 He intertwines her letters and unpublished writings (i.e., memoirs) throughout the text so we can hear her voice and know her as a “human being” (265).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).

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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