The Children of Tante Truus

by Miriam Keesing

On May 14, 1940, one hour before the capitulation, thousands of desperate people try to board a ship in IJmuiden. Most did not succeed, but Truus Wijsmuller Meijer managed to bring 74 of “her” children refugees aboard the SS Bodegraven.

Since late March 1939 refugee children stay in a wing of the Amsterdam “Burgerweeshuis”, at the Kalverstraat. Shortly after Kristallnacht, the night of November 9th, 1938, when in Germany 92 Jews were murdered, thousands of men and boys were arrested, 267 synagogues were set on fire and about 7,500 shops and businesses of Jews destroyed, about two thousand children fled the Third Reich without their parents, and came to the Netherlands. Their parents wanted to come to the Netherlands as well, but the Dutch government did not allow that.

The children were placed in homes. During 1939, most children younger than 14 were placed in foster families. The government was still hesitating about what to do with children older than 14: let them go to camp Westerbork, or let them stay in homes?

Truus Meijer (1896‐1978) was born in Alkmaar in a reformed liberal family. After World War I her parents temporarily take Austrian children in their home. Truus finishes trade school and then starts working in the banking sector, where she meets her husband, Joop Wijsmuller. After her marriage in 1923, she starts doing social work, which gets her in touch with many people. The Jewish Refugee Committee (JRC), which was founded in 1933, often asks her for help. She is a volunteer but has a large and financially strong network. In November 1938, she gets involved immediately in the evacuation of children from the “Third Reich” through her network. In early December 1938, she has a tough conversation with Adolf Eichmann in Vienna, who directs the Jewish emigration office. In 1938, the Nazis still see the forced emigration of the Jews as resolving the “Jewish problem”. In 1942 Eichmann will be present at the Wannsee Conference where the decision to exterminate Jews en masse is taken. Eichmann becomes responsible for the logistics of this operation. When Eichmann says to Wijsmuller that he is not accustomed to talking with women, she says “I’m sorry sir, but I forgot to bring my husband, you’ll have to do with me.” She manages to get his consent to let 600 Jewish children leave. This is just a start because until early 1940, thousands of children from the Third Reich are able to leave because of her actions.

If necessary, she hires a plane to transport the children. For her it does not matter where her children go: to England, the Netherlands, to Sweden, to Palestine. In March 1939, the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis officially becomes a “refugee camp”. Truus Wijsmuller joins the board. Usually her contacts with the refugee children are short, but with the children in the Burgerweeshuis both Truus ‐ and her husband – form a bond. They come almost daily. On Sunday they take the children along to Artis, the zoo, where they have obtained free access for them. The children also visit the Wijsmullers, who do not have any children themselves, at home.

On May 10, 1940 Wijsmuller is in Paris. Once she hears about the invasion in the Netherlands she does everything possible to come back as quickly as possible. Crossing all troop movements she manages to be in Amsterdam three days later. She goes straight to the Burgerweeshuis to talk to the 66 children who are there at that moment. The next morning, Tuesday, May 14, she receives a request from the garrison commander of Amsterdam to see him. He tells her to take the children of the Burgerweeshuis to Ijmuiden and gives her a special authorization bill. Prof. David Cohen, chairman of the JRC, has also got word from The Hague that there was a boat in IJmuiden ready for Jews wishing to leave. But while the JRC starts a meeting to discuss the present situation, Wijsmuller is looking for coaches. She obtains five and sends them to the Burgerweeshuis.

The children have not been out for four days. That was not allowed. Friday morning the oldest girls did set off to go to school by foot. But they quickly turned around. “We met a group of NSB(1)‐boys who scolded us. It was also strangely quiet in the street, “recalls Hanna Scheinowitz (1923). Hanna is one of the survivors that I have spoken to for my research on refugee children from the Third Reich.

“We had to dress in our best clothes and take our pajamas. Some of us put on two layers of clothes. We did not know where we were going, “says Wolfgang Plessner, who had just turned ten. Gisela Glatt (1925) says, “I wanted to take all my photos with me, but that was not allowed. Yet I did take a few.” Hannah cries because she is not allowed to take her diary. The doorman of the Burgerweeshuis does not want to admit Wijsmuller because she would be an enemy of the state, after which she asks him to send the children outside. With the children aboard, the buses ride to the JRC on the Lijnbaansgracht. The JRC has tried to warn as many people as possible.

Lieselotte Gross (1927) does not live in the orphanage, but with a foster family on the Vijzelgracht. “My aunt’s cleaning lady came to tell me that buses would leave. My uncle and aunt and their two children would go, and the lady also went to my sister’s foster family to warn her. I decided to go and grabbed my backpack. My foster mother agreed. I walked to the Lijnbaansgracht and waited for my sister. When the buses arrived, she was not there yet, but everyone said I had to get in, I would surely see my sister in IJmuiden.” At about four o’clock the buses depart from the Lijnbaansgracht. Not everyone could come along. Gisela: “My cousin Nathan was there too and said he would take the next coach, but there was no next coach.”

The note from the garrison commander is not worth much outside Amsterdam, because Wijsmuller and her buses are stopped at the roadblocks. But Wijsmuller sees an acquaintance, the director of the “Netherlands Society”. He takes her to the navy commander, who gives her permission to continue. Many other people are stopped.

In the port of IJmuiden Wijsmuller brings the children aboard the freighter SS Bodegraven. Besides the kids, about 190 other people board, including the Amsterdam art dealer Jacques Goudstikker with his wife and child. At 19.30 the captain gets the message that he must leave immediately. Therefore the ship left half empty, while many people were waiting on the wharf. The children hope that “tante Truus” will come with them. Her coat and bag are on board. But when at ten to eight, ten minutes before the Dutch government capitulated, the SS Bodegraven takes off, “tante Truus” is on the dock, waving. She thinks she can not leave her husband.

“On board, I looked for my sister and my uncle and aunt. They were not there. I saw that there were many other children and followed them into the hold. It turned out that they, like me, were refugee children without their parents. The boat was moving up and down very much, I thought we would all drown. I was alone, scared and seasick, the whole trip” recalls Lieselotte. The ship is being shot at by two German planes, but nobody gets hurt. The first day everyone eats rice, After that there are only ship biscuits, which Hannah and her sisters call ‘dog food’: “they tasted like that as well,” she says. It is cold on board and the children sleep in rice paper bags. There is no opportunity to wash.

Because of their German nationality the British prohibit the passengers of the Bodegraven to come ashore. Initially they did not even give permission for the landing of Goudstikker’s body, who dies the first night on board. For a moment it seems that the ship will go to South America. But later the captain gets orders to go to Belfast. Ultimately the Bodegraven docks at Liverpool on the evening of May 19. “The food there was very, very good,” notes little Wolfgang.

Even though the children know how the Nazis behave towards the Jews and that they have every reason to be happy that they escaped, many are not, or not completely, as their brothers, sisters and sometimes even parents were left behind in the Netherlands. Reports that all refugees currently residing in camp Westerbork were evacuated to England turned out to be false. Five lonely years would follow for most of these children. In England, the children are also placed in an orphanage. Some have relatives in England and are allowed to live with them. Hanna and her sisters discovered after the war that their parents and brother had survived the war in camp Westerbork, and returned to the Netherlands. Ultimately, Hannah, her sister and brother went to Israel, followed by their parents. None of the other children returned to the Netherlands.

Truus Wijsmuller continues her work for children throughout the war. She ensures that unaccompanied children are reunited with their parents. Sometimes she brings them to Belgium, France or Spain. She sends food parcels to Westerbork and later to Bergen‐Belsen and Theresienstadt. She interferes with the orphans in Westerbork when they are being threatened to be sent to Auschwitz. Thanks to her intervention they eventually end up in Theresienstadt. During the hunger winter she is involved in the evacuation of children to the northern provinces.

Truus Wijsmuller‐Meijer has saved the lives of thousands of children. In 1966 she received the award “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Despite the fact that she got a number of rewards in the Netherlands as well, her work remained practically unknown in the Netherlands. She deserves more.

Het Parool (1 mei, 2010)