I had heard the story of the ‘Zookeeper’s wife’ about the lady who saved hundreds of Polish Jews by hiding them in in the Warsaw Zoo.
However I had not been aware that Artis Zoo in Amsterdam also had hidden Dutch Jews and resistance fighters. ARTIS was founded under the name Natura Artis Magistra by Westerman, Werlemann and Wijsmuller in 1838, with the objective of “Promoting the knowledge of Natural History”.
The initial collection was not particularly spectacular – a few parrots, monkeys and a wildcat from Suriname – but a year later ARTIS was able to adopt C. van Aken’s entire ‘travelling menagerie’. A parade of animals, headed by the big elephant Jack, accompanied by numerous other animals including lions, a panther, a tiger, a puma, hyenas, polar bears, brown bears, a zebra, a gnu, a kangaroo and even a boa constrictor more than five metres long. ARTIS had suddenly become a real zoo.
Because ARTIS was located in the Portuguese part of the Jewish quarter, Sephardic artists were a regular here. Among them were Henri Teixeira de Mattos, an internationally renowned animal sculptor, his two cousins Joseph Teixeira de Mattos and Joseph Mendes da Costa, the painter-illustrator David Bueno de Mesquita, the renowned Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, whose oeuvre consists of graphic representations of animals, and the Ashkenazi painter Martin Monnickendam.
In 1938 a large charity event was held for the benefit of the Jewish refugees, at the zoo.
Emanuel Boekman was o Jewish member of the board of ARTIS. On May 14,1940 the Dutch Army capitulated, A day later on May 15, Emanuel Boekman and his wife both committed suicide
During the Second World War, ARTIS was one of the few places in Amsterdam where people could still relax. The zoo remained open throughout the war and many Germans regularly visited the zoo to spend an afternoon there.
During the war years, between two and three hundred people found safe shelter in the garden – hidden in numerous animal shelters, in haylofts and in the cavernous monkey rock and goat rock; especially Jewish residents, young men trying to escape forced labor in Germany and people from the resistance.
No one knew exactly how many people there were. It was also not discussed for safety reasons.
For example, they were hidden in the Monkey Rock, the Buck Rock and in the attic of the Predator Gallery. During raids in the Jewish quarter, people fled to Artis, where they reported to the sitter Van Schalkwijk. He laid a plank over the moat around Monkey Rock so that the people could hide in it. Because of the water around the rock, the Germans had no idea that people were hiding in it.
That the permanent and temporary residents of Artis did succumb to hunger is due to the director Armand Sunier. Before the war, he had already stocked up on large quantities of fuel, hay, seeds and meat as a precautionary measure. In addition, Dr. Sunier had managed to get a large allocation (the Nazis loved animals more then some people) ,with great persuasion, from the Nazis for the necessary quantities of hay and straw, and a reasonable assortment of fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and seeds. For example, in the first years of the war in Artis no animals and people had to go hungry.There were even cigarettes; above the lions were in fact 2 sons of tobacconist Swaan in hiding.
The resistance fighter Henk Blonk went into hiding in the zoo in 1942 because he was wanted by the German police.
He spent several weeks in the wolf enclosure because he made or repaired weapons for the resistance. It got a little too hot under his feet when he narrowly escaped during a raid by the Grüne Polizei, He recalled:
‘Go into the chimpanzee’s cage tonight’. So I slept in the chimpanzee’s cage. It was bursting with cockroaches. They walked all over me and even ate part of my eyebrow.
In the cage next door was the gorilla Japie. Jiminy (a chimp) was watching me through a hole in the wall the whole time. You thought you were pretty safe, but that monkey actually told everything.”
During the day Blonk, like all other Artis people in hiding, simply mixed with the public. There was a strange atmosphere in the garden.
A Jewish person in hiding who spent some time in the birdhouse’s kitchen said in 2008 that he had certainly had a pleasant time – despite the austere menu of carrots, onions, leftovers of homemade bread and syrup from sugar beets cooked on the stove. Another survivor later recalled the nighttime walks by a “beautiful, bright moon.”
Minder Van Schalkwijk – 52 years employed by Artis – managed the monkey house and the monkey rock during the war. He was the one who let in the Jews looking for a hiding place:
“During a raid, the boys came through the Plantage Doklaan and then I let them through the back door into the monkey house. We then went straight to the monkey rock where I put a plank over the water. They would sit in the rock with the monkeys. Because of the water around the rock, the Germans didn’t mind that there were Jews. The soldiers also entered the garden themselves during a raid, but we were warned from the office that they were at the entrance, so that we could take our measures.”
It is amazing that no one was betrayed to the Nazis, given the fact that some Artis employees were Nazi sympathizers One employee of the planting department enlisted in the Waffen SS and traveled to the Eastern Front. Before his departure, he had added to his colleagues: “I am not betraying you!”
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