WWII saw so much evil but also so much bravery. People with disregard of their own lives would defy the Nazi authorities to save lives of others, often complete strangers whom they’d never met before prior to saving them. These people are not always recognized enough for what they have done.Geertruida (Truus) Wijsmuller-Meijer aka Auntie Truus(Tante Truus) was one of these people.
Geertruida (Truus) Wijsmuller-Meijer (Alkmaar, 21 April 1896 – Amsterdam, 30 August 1978) was a Dutch war hero, resistance fighter, and probably afterRaoul Wallenberg and Aristides de Sousa Mendes the greatest savior of Jews. She was recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In all likelihood, she, together with others involved with Kindertransport, saved more than 10,000 Jewish children
In December 1938, a 42-year-old Dutchwoman met with Nazi lieutenant Adolf Eichmann to negotiate the transport of Jewish children out of Vienna. Her name was Truus Wijsmuller Meijer, but to thousands of children she would be known as “Tante Truus” – Auntie Truus.
Truus Meijer was born into a wealthy banking family and was working in the bank when she met her husband, Joop Wijsmuller. She and Joop loved children and were saddened when they couldn’t have their own. Truus left the bank and started doing social work in Amsterdam. This brought her in touch with the Committee for Special Jewish Interests, who alerted her to the desperate situation of German and Austrian Jews.
By 1938, following the attacks of Kristallnacht in Austria and Germany, the Jewish population feared for their lives.
Many tried to get asylum abroad, but few countries were willing to take large numbers of refugees. An exception was Britain, which allowed for the temporary entry of unaccompanied children. So began a rescue effort called the Kindertransport, in which Truus was a pivotal figure.
She was a friend of resistance fighter Mies Boissevain-van Lennep, whom she knew from the Association for Women’s Interests and Equal Citizenship (VVGS).
From the thirties onwards “Auntie Truus” (as they soon called her) arranged, with Mies Boissevain and others, children’s transports for the Committee for Special Jewish Interests. These transports saved 10,000 Jewish children from Germany and Austria, on a route via the Netherlands to the UK.
In Germany she worked with Recha Freier, the wife of a Berlin rabbi. She was not intimidated easily, made a fuss if necessary, bribed railroad men with gifts and German officers with charm. She negotiated with the man who would later organize the transports of Jews to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, Adolf Eichmann, who was working in Vienna at the time. Eichmann joked with her: no negotiation, she could take 600 Viennese Jewish children immediately
-In case you are wondering, you did read it right. She did meet Eichmann as in Adolf Eichmann , one of the most evil men of the Nazi regime.-
He thought she would never be able to accomplish this undertaking. He didn’t know Auntie Truus! She gathered the children, organized the paperwork and the trains, and had a welcoming committee meet them with apples and chocolate when they reached the Netherlands. 500 children sailed immediately for England, with the remaining 100 leaving on later boats.
The later transports were smaller and more orderly. Truus travelled to Germany several times a week and helped to arrange 49 transports. She used charm, stubbornness, and occasional bribery to get the children through.
Transport from central Europe became more restricted with the outbreak of war in September 1939. Many Jewish children remained in the Netherlands, which was still neutral. The orphanage in Amsterdam had become a refugee camp, and Auntie Truus was a popular figure there. She and Joop visited regularly, entertained the children at home, and brought them to the zoo on Sundays.
In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Truus was in Paris, but she crossed troop lines to return to Amsterdam. There she collected Jewish children from the orphanage and foster homes, and arranged for coaches to get them on the last boat for England. The children hoped that Auntie Truus would come with them, but she didn’t want to leave Joop and so she waved them goodbye from the dock.
In all, 10,000 children entered Britain on the Kindertransport. Some would eventually be reunited with their parents, but sadly many were the only survivors from their families.
During the occupation of the Netherlands, Truus continued to smuggle Jewish people into Spain and Switzerland. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, but released through lack of evidence. She sent thousands of food packages to Westerbork transit camp, where Jews and other prisoners were held before being sent to other concentration camps.
In 1944, she found out that a group of young children were to be sent from Westerbork to Auschwitz, where they would be killed immediately. Truus persuaded the guards that these were not Jewish children, but the Aryan offspring of German soldiers and Dutch women! The children were sent to a different camp, Theresienstadt, and almost all of them survived the war.
As the war progressed, she devoted herself to obtaining and distributing food. She sent thousands of packages to camps like Westerbork and Theresienstadt, and delivered duck eggs to elderly houses in Amsterdam every week. During the Dutch famine of 1944 (the Hongerwinter or “Hunger winter”) she took care of malnourished children in the Randstad.(Amsterdam,Rotterdam,The Hague and Utrecht) She took many across the IJsselmeer to more rural areas like Groningen, Friesland, Overijssel and Drenthe to recuperate.
After the war, Truus Wijsmuller Meijer was recognized by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Her obituary in 1978 read: “Mother of 1001 children, who made rescuing Jewish children her life’s work.” An asteroid was named “Tantetruus” (Auntie Truus) in her honour.
A sculpture of her, made by Herman Diederik Janzen, was unveiled in 1965 in Beatrixoord in Oosterpark in Amsterdam. When Beatrixoord was redeveloped “Auntie Truus” took the statue home. After her death in 1978 it was reinstated on the Bachplein in Amsterdam.
This courageous woman embodied the best spirit of aunthood, loving and risking her life for children who were not her own. She deserves to be more widely known.