Every time one of Arthur Adler’s grandchildren had a bar or bat mitzvah, he brought along the Bible he received at his own bar mitzvah at Amsterdam’s Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in March 1939.
Adler’s bar mitzah was not arranged by his parents, but instead by a non-Jewish Dutch woman named Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer (also known as Truus Wijsmuller) who had brought him and his sister Melly out of Germany on a Kindertransport four months earlier. A year after Adler’s bar mitzvah — shortly before the Netherlands came under German occupation — he and Melly sailed for the United States, where they reunited with their parents and other siblings. This, too, was thanks to Wijsmuller’s efforts.
“Auntie Truus” saved the lives of thousands of Jews — mainly children — during the Holocaust, yet her story is not widely known.
Other rescuers are household names: Steven Spielberg made a Hollywood film about Oskar Schindler. Streets in countries worldwide are named for Raoul Wallenberg. Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
But few, even in the Netherlands, have heard of Wijsmuller since her death in 1978 at 82.
Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, not many of the mainly German- and Austrian-Jewish children whom Wijsmuller rescued are still alive to share their memories of her and what she did for them.
Dutch filmmaker Pamela Sturhoofd is in a race against time to find these remaining “children” — now in their 80s and 90s — interview them, and make a documentary about the fearless and determined Wijsmuller.
Among the stories she has recovered are tales of a personal visit Wijsmuller made to Adolf Eichmann in Vienna in December 1938 to convince him to let her take 600 Jewish children out of the Third Reich to Holland. Hitler agreed.
Holland’s unacclaimed hero
“I grew up in the Netherlands having never heard of Truus. She wasn’t mentioned in the history books we studied at school,” said Sturhoofd, whose Jewish father survived the war in hiding.
Sturhoofd, 50, first learned of Wijsmuller when Rabbi Lody van de Kampinvited her to make a short film related to his recently published book about the Kindertransports that saved some 10,000 children, “Sara, het meisje dat op transport ging” (“Sara, The Girl Who Went on the Transport”).
“Truus’s name kept popping up. I couldn’t understand how her story was not well known, so I started researching about her. I decided to make a film about her, because she really deserves the recognition,” Sturhoofd said.
Among the documents the filmmaker used to track down surviving children rescued by Wijsmuller is the May 14, 1940 passenger list for the freighter SS Bodegraven, the last ship to sail from the port of IJmuiden to Britain after the German invasion in May 1940. Using her connections, Wijsmuller managed to place the remaining 74 children at the Amsterdam Burgerweeshuis orphanage on the ship. Wijsmuller could have left with them, but she chose to stay with her husband and continue her rescue efforts from within occupied territory.
Sturhoofd has found 14 of the children on the passenger list, plus three others who were rescued by Wijsmuller. Their ages range from 84 to 94, and they live in Israel, Switzerland, Canada, the UK, and the US. Among them are Adler, 91, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the four Scheinowitz sisters, two of whom live in Israel, one in Toronto and one in Zurich.
“When we were at the station, there was a train coming along with children and a lady, a big lady with a hat — I always remember her hat — and she said to my mother, ‘Look here, tomorrow I’m coming again with a transport of children, and you be there with your children and I’ll take them along,’” Sophie Scheinowitz, 87, recalls in the trailer for Sturhoofd’s film, “Truus’ Children.”
Engineering a ‘normal’ wartime childhood
Many of the rescued children were very young, so their memories of the experience are not detailed. Many suppressed the emotional trauma of being separated from their parents.
In Adler’s case, there were actually two points at which he was unsure he would ever see his parents again: He parted from them for a second time as they and his youngest sister Renee stopped in Amsterdam in September 1939 on their escape from Germany to New York. Upon their arrival in the US, Adler’s parents corresponded with Wijsmuller, and together they were able to arrange for Adler and his sister Melly to sail from Antwerp, arriving in New York on March 21, 1940.Adler’s daughter Sheryl Abbey, who lives in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel that her father rarely, if ever, spoke of his wartime experiences as she was growing up. He still cannot speak about the moment of separation from his parents.
As one of the older children among the 150 on a Kindertransport from Germany to Holland shortly after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Adler has clear memories of his time in Wijsmuller’s care. He recalled that the older teenagers were sent to a vocational training center in Eindhoven. His and Melly’s group of younger teenagers and children were housed initially in Bergen aan Zee, a town on the north coast of Holland.
By March 1939, Adler’s group had been moved to the Bergerweeshuis, the orphanage in Amsterdam. Adler resided at the orphanage for the next year, save for a period in a quarantine facility when he fell ill with diphtheria in summer 1939.
“Mrs. Wijsmuller came to the orphanage every day with a committee of Jewish women. It was only later that I learned that she was one of the people orchestrating our rescue,” Adler said.
He recalled Wijsmuller arranging for the children to have regular swimming lessons, and inviting him and some of the other older children to Friday night dinners at the home she shared with her banker husband.
“Although she herself wasn’t Jewish, Wijsmuller was conscious of Jewish traditions. She made sure the kids went to shul, and she made sure my dad had his bar mitzvah when he turned 13,” Abbey said.
A childless protector of children
Wijsmuller, who had no children of her own, was born in Alkmaar in 1896. Her liberal parents fostered Austrian orphans following World War I, which must have left an impression on her. After marrying banker Joop Wijsmuller in 1923, she got involved in volunteer social work, through which she came to know the Jewish Refugee Committee and the Committee for Special Jewish Interests in the 1930’s.
After the Netherlands surrendered to Germany in May 1940, Wijsmuller continued her rescue and resistance activities. She helped Jews from the Baltics and Poland escape to Palestine via Marseilles. In addition to personally accompanying fleeing refugees on their perilous journeys to the ports, she also delivered food, medicine and forged documents to inmates at the Gurs and St. Cyprien camps in the unoccupied zone of France.As a woman of means and position, Wijsmuller was able to use a variety of connections in continental Europe and the UK to organize and carry out the Kindertransports. From late 1938 until May 1940, she was constantly getting Jewish children out of Nazi Germany, into the Netherlands, and then on to Britain.
Arrested, interrogated and released in May 1941 by the Gestapo, Wijsmuller lowered her profile, though she continued to work with a church group sending food packages to the Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, and Theresienstadt camps, and also to prisons in Amsterdam.
In 1944, Wijsmuller stepped up again to save a large group of Jewish children, this time by persuading the Germans that 50 Jewish orphans interned at Westerbork were “Aryan.” Instead of being transported to Auschwitz, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and then Theresienstadt, where they receive preferential treatment and survived the war. Wijsmuller was at the train station at Maastricht to meet them after their liberation.
So how is it that this exceptionally brave and strong-willed woman and her life-saving heroic deeds have been largely forgotten today?
After the war, Wijsmuller remained in the public arena as a member of the Amsterdam city council and a board member of the Anne Frank House, and she fought to advance the rights of the disabled. She was named in 1966 as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, coming to Jerusalem in 1967 to receive the honor and plant a tree. Her passing in 1978 was marked by the Hebrew-language and English-language Israeli press.
But after that, she was largely forgotten.
According to Irena Steinfeldt, director of the department for the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, there are 26,000 inspiring stories of non-Jews who assisted and saved Jews during the Holocaust, but few of them get widespread public attention.
“You have to remember that at the time that she was honored, in 1966, research was more limited. At that time Yad Vashem wasn’t even a full museum,” she said.
“Also, the Holocaust did not have the meaning and significance it has today when Truus Wijsmuller was honored. All the recent books and films on the Holocaust trigger public interest in the subject,” Steinfeldt said.
Dr. Patricia Heberer Rice, a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, regretted that Wijsmuller is not better known, but is not surprised. Wijsmuller’s memoir “Geen tijd voor tranen” (“No Time for Tears”) has not been translated to English, nor has a Dutch TV interview found by Sturhoofd, or a 33-page German report of a 1957 interview with Wijsmuller held by the Wiener Library in London.
“Americans don’t have a wider worldview. They live in an English-language bubble, even historians,” Rice said.
Rice also pointed to the modest nature of the Dutch rescuers, almost all of whom moved on quietly after the war, preferring not to call attention to themselves. (Exceptions to this include Miep Gies, who hid Anne Frank, and Corrie ten Boom, who wrote the 1971 best-selling “The Hiding Place,”moved to California late in life, and was embraced by the American evangelical Christian community.)
Sturhoofd speculated that Wijsmuller’s lack of notoriety might stem in part from the fact that she does not have direct descendants to perpetuate her memory and legacy.
“I haven’t even been able to figure out yet where her estate went, who has her personal effects and photos,” Sturhoofd said.
Whatever the reason for the lack of recognition, Adler is glad that someone is finally shining a spotlight on Wijsmuller 40 years after her death, and 80 years after she saved his life.
“It’s disappointing it’s taken so long to make a film about her,” he said.