A continued exploration of the authors’ Dutch Jewish ancestry and how the past can guide us through turbulent and dangerous times. Links to previous stories at the end of this article.
He asked that they not answer the question. “What harm can their be in one little question?” his colleagues replied.
He argued with them to no avail. In the end they all answered the question. Within the next four years, over 100,000 people were murdered. Because of that one little question.
The man was L. E. Visser. When Nazi Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, he was President of the High Court of Holland (equivalent to the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). Visser was also Jewish. The people he argued with so forcefully about not answering the question were his fellow High Court Justices. The question was “are you Aryan or non-Aryan?” It was called the Aryan Attestation.
Until Germany’s invasion, Jews had lived for centuries as full citizens of Holland, experiencing little of the discrimination so prevalent in some other European countries. Many Jews considered themselves fully Dutch, and only secondarily Jewish.
When Germany invaded Holland, they hoped to win many of the Dutch people (who were generally fair-skinned and blond) as allies. So, in a speech the first month of the invasion, they promised that Dutch law would be maintained. That promise proved to be short lived.
In October of 1940, the Germans distributed their Aryan Attestation – Form A for Aryan and Form B for non-Aryan. All Civil Servants were to fill one out within 8 days. People (both Jews and Aryans) discussed and agonized over this question and whether or not to answer. What harm would it do to answer? What were the possible penalties if one refused to answer? What were the possible penalties if one was caught lying?
Visser argued that to make any distinction among Dutch citizens (based on religion or any other reason) was in conflict with Dutch law and tradition – and thus in violation of the German’s promise that Dutch law would be maintained. What might have happened if the entire Dutch High Court had ruled on the Aryan Attestation in this way?
In the end, Visser’s fellow Justices signed Form A (for Aryan).
In November the Germans began dismissing all Jewish Civil Servants – including the President of the High Court, L.E. Visser. In January of 1941, all Jews were required to register (including full Jews, half-Jews and quarter-Jews).
From there followed an increasingly onerous series of restrictions. Jewish-owned businesses were required to register. Jewish-owned businesses could only serve other Jews, and not Aryans. Jews could not attend school with non-Jews. Jews were barred from public parks, cafes, restaurants, hotels, theaters, cinemas, beaches, swimming pools, art exhibits, concerts, public libraries, museums, and more. Eventually all Jews had to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothes whenever they left their homes. Restrictions were followed by more restrictions, all designed to separate Jews from the larger Dutch population.
Photo credit: Statue Honoring the Dutch Resistance, Amsterdam – D. Monroe
Deportations to Death Camps began in July of 1941 and were in full operation by 1942. In the end over 100,000 Jews were deported from Holland to their deaths.
Visser spent his remaining time on Earth fighting a losing battle for the rights of Dutch Jews – which he maintained were as fully citizens of Holland, and entitled to all the rights guaranteed under Dutch law, as every other Dutch citizen. He died of a heart attack in February 1942, before the worst of what was to come.
As I write this article, the Trump regime wants to add one simple question to the census – Are you a US Citizen. What harm can there be in answering this simple question – if you are living here legally? If you are a citizen?
At this point, our government has been ripping children from the arms of their parents, who come asking for asylum in accordance with US and international law. Our government is already deporting legal residents with minor legal blemishes from decades past (see http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-lawful-resident-20180628-htmlstory.html or Google “legal immigrants deported”).
I would like to rephrase the question. For me the questions is: What are the potential dangers in asking such a question, in separating people into categories based on citizenship – especially under a regime that has repeatedly shown itself as hostile to everything it deems “foreign” (generally non-European in origin)?
And what are the potential dangers, for those of us born into citizenship, of turning away (due to naiveté or something worse), – to our hearts, our souls, the future of humanity – of failing to notice and take seriously all that is going on and the possible consequences.
As I write this article, Trump has nominated his choice for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy. The future of many decades of legal decisions widening our nation’s concept of Human and Civil Rights hangs in the balance. Yet the course of history may still be malleable. There may still be creative ways to stem this dark tide.
There are times when the future course of history hangs on the actions of an individual – sometimes an “ordinary” person, sometimes a person who has achieved stature, recognition and even power in the society in which they live. It takes a person (and/or many people) acting with moral courage, integrity, and creativity. Since the Trump election we have already seen a multitude of such people – both named and un-named.
Visser and his fellow Supreme Court Justices had achieved stature and power in their times. They were the final arbiters of Dutch law, which the invading Nazi’s had pledged to respect. What might have happened if all the justices had refused to identify themselves as Aryan or non-Aryan, ruling that this question was contrary to Dutch law? How might the flow of history been changed? How many of the over 100,000 Dutch Jews who perished in the Holocaust might have been saved?
More importantly – how may learning from this history show us ways we can respond today?
There are ancestors (if not of blood and DNA, then of spirit and soul) who call out to us to learn from the lessons of their lives. There are future generations calling out to us to listen to those ancestors and heed those lessons.
At this moment in time, what legacy can we leave for those who come after?
For previous articles from the Lessons from the Holocaust for our Times Series:
I publish this article with a broken heart, overflowing with grief over the actions and policies of the state of Israel in regards to the Palestinian people (and many other issues). I have long been one of a large and growing number of Jewish people who feel that these policies and actions do not reflect the teachings, traditions and true meaning of Judaism.
Teaser photo credit: Amsterdam Canal – D.Monroe