Refugee children from the Third Reich in foster care in the Netherlands

By Miriam Keesing

How the refugee children came to the Netherlands

In response to the many refugees from Germany after the Nazi takeover in January 1933 the Dutch government wanted to restrict immigration, if not completely stop it. Many measures were taken so it became very difficult for refugees to enter the Netherlands. In May 1938 this process was completed and the Dutch eastern border was closed.

The events of Kristallnacht on 9 and 10 November, 1938, in Germany and Austria made it clear to the Jewish families still residing in the Third Reich that the situation in Nazi Germany would not get any better and that at least their children should flee as soon as possible. For many women there was also a pure financial necessity because after the arrest and deportation of their spouses they often had no more income and could not care for their children.

The argument of the Dutch government against admission of Jewish refugees was not only the poor economic situation but also a fear of rising anti‐Semitism1. Yet it was decided, under pressure from public opinion and the Jewish organizations, to admit a limited number of refugees in November 1938. For children an exception could be made easier because they would not end up in the labour market. But the Dutch government wanted to be a transmigration country only. Everything had to be done to let the admitted children (and adults) emigrate as soon as possible. In retrospect, this policy has saved many children’s lives. In May 1940, almost 30% of the 1900 known children that were admitted had travelled to another country. In most cases to England and the United States, but sometimes to Belgium or France because their parents had fled there in the meantime.

Many of the refugee children who came to the Netherlands, were part of a “Kindertransport”. Most of these groups went to England, but there were also some that had the Netherlands as final destination. Already on November 22, 1938, there were two groups of children coming to our country. A group of 23 children were accommodated in the holiday house of the Utrecht orphanage in Den Dolder. Another group of 12 children arrived on the same day and was housed in the holiday home of the Rotterdam orphanage in Monster. Several “Kindertransports” followed, including two large groups in January and March 1939. Sometimes, part of a group of children who were en route to England remained in the Netherlands.

There were many children who came across the border illegally. Usually they walked over the border, but in some cases they came on a bike, sometimes aided by smugglers. At the Nijmegen train station there was often someone of the refugee committee, who would pick up children from the train from Germany1. The policy towards these “illegal” children was not clear. Sometimes they were sent back to Germany. Often they got permission to stay in the Netherlands.

There were many family ties between the Netherlands and Germany2. Moreover, there were many German refugees who had come to the Netherlands after 1933. Because the government wanted to make a gesture, but did not want to spend any money, initially it was decided to grant permission only to children who had family in the Netherlands. These were usually uncles, aunts or grandparents, sometimes an older brother or a sister. But despite numerous written requests by the relatives of the children to have the children stay with them this was not allowed. The family was kindly requested to pay a monthly payment of 50 guilders ‐ an enormous amount in those days – as contribution to the “nursing costs” of the child. The government wanted the children in institutions because they thought they could monitor emigration better that way. Here as well there was no consistent policy because some children moved in with relatives right away. Most of the children went to homes.

Initially there were homes for refugee children in 13 cities spread across the country. Some homes were closed soon, for example because it was too cold, because many of the homes were “colony houses” which were used only in the summer. Colony houses were vacation homes for the “weak, poor blooded, gland‐like or anaemic” (urban) children, who could recuperate there during the holidays. Other shelters were opened, and sometimes closed. Some children were transferred frequently. At the time of the German invasion on May 10, 1940, there were only a small number of homes specifically for refugee children in use. Refugee children also stayed in two alijah houses, the work village in the Wieringermeer and some children were included in the mainstream Jewish orphanages.

But in January 1939, it was already discussed that the assignments to families would be better for children under 14 and preparations for this began right away. In June of that year the decision was taken, and the execution was started immediately3. Because of this a number of homes were closed in the course of 1939.

The inclusion in foster care

Many German and Austrian refugee children went to England. There too, the children were eventually placed with families. On Sundays the future foster parents would come to a children home and choose a child. The children experienced this as a cattle market4. In the Netherlands, the placement of refugee children with families was set up differently. Questionnaires that had to be filled in by the head of the family were drawn up. On this form were 15 questions about social prosperity, the moral tone and political direction. This was Question 9:

“Is the family aware of the great responsibility which in will take upon itself? Or is the offer more a spontaneous gesture, and will the spontaneity disappear or fade when the pressure of a permanent assignment with the family will last a long time? ”  Question 11 reads:

“Is the family aware that the placement will include the complete care and nursing, schooling, training, care in case of illness etc, in short, that the burden is equal to that for an own child?”.

Finally question 14 was:  “What family ties exists between applicant and requested child?”

From this last question it becomes clear that no distinction was made between the Dutch foster parents and the biological parents, who sometimes had managed to come to the Netherlands, and who reported to the authorities as “foster parents”, because this was apparently the only way to get ones own children. They too had to answer questions 9 and 11. In some (often poignant) cases, the Dutch authorities believed it was better that a child would not live with their own parents. In this article, only the children who were taken in by Dutch families will be discussed5. According to Prof. Dr. D. Cohen, chairman of the “Special Committee for Jewish Interests”, approximately 700 refugee children were placed with Dutch foster families6.

The placement in Dutch households

The Ministry of Interior thought the questionnaire alone was not sufficient and therefore proposed a control commission in addition, consisting of a number of ladies of the “Council of Jewish Women”, who would visit all the children in foster families on a regular basis7.

In a few cases the inclusion in the foster home was not good. Recha Häusler from Gelsenkirchen arrived illegally in Nijmegen in January 1939, along with her older brother. Recha had just turned nine when she was placed with two elderly ladies in the summer of 1939. While the two ladies were full of goodwill and surrounded Recha with lots of love, the girl was deeply unhappy. Her brother remembers that everything in the house smelled of “old”, and that his sister seemed to be become old very quickly. After two years of living with the elderly women Recha had turned into a quiet and withdrawn girl. The ladies of the control commission saw this too eventually and it was through them that she was transferred to the parents of her best friend in 1941. There Recha flourished again and she could laugh and dance again8. Recha was deported to Sobibor two years after this transfer, where she was killed on July 23, 1943.

Horst Eichenwald came to the Netherlands from his hometown Erwitte in January 1939. In the summer of 1939 he was placed with a family in Eindhoven. Initially he had problems with his foster parents: the seven‐year‐old boy suffered from frequent tantrums and was also therefore very difficult. In time it became better. Horst asked his foster mother if he could call her “Muttie”, and when she asked him why he had been so difficult in the beginning the answer was “Mich hat auch keiner geliebt”9. Horst was ultimately transferred to another foster family in Eindhoven. This was after another foster child that was living with the family had returned to his parents in Germany. On June 8, 1943, Horst was deported from Westerbork to Sobibor, where he was gassed immediately after arriving on June 11.

Klaus Rosenthal was still a baby when, late in 1939, he was smuggled to the Netherlands from Essen. After a short stay with his aunt he moved in with a childless Jewish couple in Rotterdam. Both Klaus and his foster parents survived the war in hiding. His biological parents were killed. Klaus’ foster parents never told him that he was their foster child. When Klaus was nearly 18, he discovered who he was by opening a letter from the Department of Defence, in which he was informed that he did not have to serve in the military because he was not Dutch. Probably partly because his foster father hated everything German after the war, Klaus had a very difficult relationship with his foster parents10. It is not clear how Klaus ended up with this family in Rotterdam, but it is unlikely that this had gone through the refugee organizations.

Unlike the above cases there was in most cases have a good relationship between foster children and foster parents. Esther from Velbert was just eight when a family in The Hague took her in. Both Esther and her foster family survived the war; her biological parents did not. Esther has always seen her foster parents as her real parents. Her foster mother died in old age in 200811.

Judith from Berlin was somewhat older. She was nearly 11 when she came into the home of a family in Heemstede. She felt good there. After hiding, she returned to this non‐Jewish family and a few years after the war, she even married one of their sons. Out of love, not out of gratitude, of that she is quite sure12.

A letter from the Committee for Special Jewish Interests to the Rotterdam Orphanage shows that although the placement of foster children went well in principle, there are several, especially Orthodox, children who could not be placed anywhere. There were not enough religious families who wanted to take a foster child, which is why the orphanage was asked if they could take a number of these orthodox children13.

So far no sources have been found suggesting that any authority paid the foster parents. But Jakov Lind writes in his book that “the Committee” paid for two other foster children who lived in his foster parents house14. Jakov was a Viennese refugee child (born in 1927) who survived the war by leaving his foster family during a raid in Amsterdam in 1943. During the war he worked on river barges under a false Dutch identity.

After the invasion

The invasion in May 1940, changed much in the situation of the German refugee children residing in the Netherlands. First, two of the four homes where at that time mainly the older refugee children stayed were evacuated by order of the Nazis. The children who were staying in “Huize Kraaybeek” in Driebergen, and “Huis ten Vijver” in Scheveningen, were placed in foster families in The Hague and Amsterdam in utmost haste. This often did not go well. Marianne Weil (Mannheim, 1923) came from “Huis ten Vijver” to a family in The Hague. This family used her to work in the household. Until 3 pm she had to help the maid, and then she did all the mending. After dinner Marianne did the dishes15.

Ruth Stern (Bad Hersfeld, 1921) was also in a family in The Hague right after the evacuation of “Huis ten Vijver”. Although Ruth was 19, she could not cook, and that was just what was expected of her: the family consisted of a poor widower with two children, and Ruth was considered to do the housekeeping16.

In essence this was more unpaid work than a foster family situation. This has much to do with the fact that these cases involved mostly older girls. And now, in the chaos after the invasion, there was no time to fill out questionnaires.

Because there were not enough foster families, many of the children were placed in the regular Jewish orphanages. Some others could now finally move in with his/her own family in the Netherlands. A blessing in disguise!

Due to the changed circumstances after the occupation, many foster families were forced to give up their foster child. Many families lost their incomes or lost their home and feared for the future. These children were also mostly placed in the orphanages.

Arno Baruch, born in 1928 in Recklinghausen, came to live with a foster family in 1939. When he arrived from the Utrecht orphanage in Drachten (Friesland) he was physically not well. He was nervous and stuttered, was also constantly hungry and very thirsty. After some time this improved. He went to school with his foster brother, and was taught how to skate in the cold winter of 1939‐1940. In August 1940 his foster parents could not take the responsibility for taking care of Arno any longer and brought him back to the orphanage in Utrecht. There he stayed until February 12, 1942. On that day 22 pupils from the Utrecht orphanage were deported to Westerbork. Arno ended up in barrack 35, which served as an orphanage. His former foster parents also came to Westerbork in September 1943 and there his foster mother once again took care of Arno. It was she who helped him pack his bags when he was sent to Theresienstadt in February 1944. Arno was probably send to Theresienstadt because his father was a bearer of the Iron Cross, a military decoration that many German Jews had received for their merit in the first World War. Arno’s parents themselves were deported already in October 1941 from Düsseldorf to the ghetto of Lodz, where his mother died in July 1942, and his father in February 1943. But Arno did not know that. After three months in Theresienstadt, Arno was deported to Auschwitz. Arno also never came back17.

There were many parents who preferred to let their child return to Germany after the invasion. The children now lived here under the same Nazi regime as in the Third Reich. Take the parents of Walter Eylenburg (born in 1929) for example. When they were summoned to go from Berlin to Theresienstadt, they asked Walter’s foster parents in The Hague to send Walter back to Berlin so he could go with them to Theresienstadt. His foster mother was torn between her desire to meet the parents’ request on the one hand, and, on the other hand, her instinct to keep the boy with her. In a letter that the foster father wrote in May 1946, to the Dutch Red Cross, he describes how Walter was taken by the SD from the foster parents house in The Hague in the night of August 5, 1943 and put on the train to Germany18. His older sister, Erna, who lived in the home of a widower in Amsterdam, was deported already with one of the first trains to Auschwitz in the summer of 1942. Walter probably travelled directly to Theresienstadt, from where more than one year later he was sent to Auschwitz with his parents. His foster mother survived the war. On her deathbed she still talked about Walter19.

Times of persecution

A remarkable fact is that relatively speaking many refugee children have survived the Shoah. Of the 1115 Jewish refugee children who stayed behind in the Netherlands, 587 were killed in the extermination camps. This comes down to a rate of 59%, which should be compared with the national figure of around 75%. It must be said that the fate of some of these 1115 children is still not known. The children in the orphanages and the “boyshome” in Arnhem were collectively picked up at different times to be deported to the camps in the East via Westerbork. The children who were placed in foster care often succeeded in going into hiding. In most cases the foster parents arranged for and paid the hiding.

Of course there was a number of exceptions. Charlotte Rechtschaffen (born in Duisburg in 1927) had lived with a family in Roermond since late 1939. When the family decided in a panic to go into hiding in 1942 they did not take Charlotte with them, but left alone. Charlotte then stayed with a priest for a few days, but eventually ended up in Camp Vught. It is not entirely clear where Charlotte died. She was seen in Bergen‐Belsen, but never returned20.

Kurt Falkenstein from Stadtlohn was just lucky: after the occupation, he had moved in with his uncle and aunt in Haaksbergen. He was ten years old. When his aunt’s family was taken from the house for deportation, a neighbour, who turned out to be involved in the resistance, called out that Kurt was not part of the family, but belonged with her. Then she arranged a hiding place for him, where Kurt survived the war21.

Apart from hiding, some of the children survived the death camps. Some of the older kids have seen a whole row of camps, Auschwitz often being one of them. Some of the younger children survived the horrors of Bergen‐Belsen.


Exactly how many refugee children from the Third Reich came to the Netherlands in the years just before the war will never be established because some of them were never registered.

For the same reason it is impossible to know how many children have been sent back at the border. In any case, simultaneously with the arrival of the first transport from Vienna on December 11 1938, a group of about 40 children was sent back to Berlin at the station of Nijmegen. In the archives22 some documents of cases where children were sent back are preserved. But exact numbers will be impossible to give.

As for the foster care placement in Dutch families, this can be called a success. The extensive procedure and careful control process made sure that the placement in most cases went well. On the other hand, all this caution also meant that some children eventually lived separated from their parents, who were also living in the Netherlands, for years. And that is, certainly because in many instances these were the final years of these children, a bitter conclusion.

Misjpoge (January 2010)


  1. David Cohen, Zwervend en Dolend, de Joodse vluchtelingen in Nederland in de jaren 1933‐1940 (Haarlem 1955), 52
  2. Frederic Zeller, When time ran out, coming of age in the Third Reich (Sag Harbor 1989), 163
  3. This was especially the case with German Jewish families. Here were fewer ties with the Austrian Jews.
  4. Cohen, Zwervend en Dolend, 243.
  5. Mark Jonathan Harris en Deborah Oppenheimer: Into the arms of strangers (New York 2000), 145 .
  6. This article is part of a research project into unaccompanied children from the Third Reich, done by the author through 4association with the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, under supervision of Prof. Dr. Evelien Gans.
  7. Cohen, Zwervend en Dolend, 246.
  8. Ibidem, 244.
  9. Interview by phone with Rechas brother Israël Haüsler, March 5, 2009.
  10. Letter of Mrs. H. van Straten‐Wallig of the “controlecommissie”, March 11, 1941, Municipal Archives The Hague, archive Jewish Orphanage, 194, inv. nr. 52.
  11. Interview with Klaus Rosenthal, January 9, 2009.
  12. Interview by phone with Esther (made‐up name), December 10, 2008.
  13. Interview with Judith (made‐up name), January 19, 2009.
  14. Municipal Archive Rotterdam, archive NIG, 29, inv. nr. 860
  15. Jacov Lind, Counting my steps (London 1969), 83
  16. Letter Marianne Weil to her mother in London, September 3, 1940. Marianne was killed in Auschwitz on October 19th, 1942.
  17. Lisa Phillips: Nevertheless we lived (Xlibris 2008), 45.
  18. E‐mail from Arnos foster brother Bert Israels, December 6 2008.
  19. Archive Dutch Red Cross, dossier number 3.666.
  20. Interview by phone with Walters foster brother Siep Wijsenbeek, September 15, 2009.
  21. E‐mail Hein van der Bruggen, June 10, 2008
  22. Interview with Kurt Falkenstein, February 6, 2009.
  23. Much information about the refugee children can be found in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague, especially in 2.09.45 (care of German refugees) and 2.04.58 (justice).