They Thought They Were Safe

Approximately 25,000 Jews from Germany and Austria sought refuge in the Netherlands in the 1930s after the Nazis came to power. They were welcomed in the Netherlands because many Dutch were appalled by the treatment of the Jews in Germany. The picture above shows a large protest meeting in the Amsterdam R.A.I. in 1938 against the treatment of the Jews in Germany. More than 25,000 Dutch people attended this meeting.

The Dutch were always known as a multicultural and lingual, liberal nation. German and Austrian Jewish parents sent their children to the Netherlands, knowing they would be safe.

The German Jewish refugees arrived at the Burger orphanage in Naarden (1938), undergoing medical examination.

To facilitate the influx of Jewish refugees the Dutch government established a refugee camp at Westerbork (Centraal Vluchtelingenkamp Westerbork) in 1939 to intern Jewish refugees, mostly from Germany. The first refugees arrived in Westerbork in October of that year. In April 1940, there were approximately 750 Jewish refugees housed in the camp. Some of them were German Jews who had been passengers on the ship MS St. Louis.

On May 13, 1939, more than 900 Jews fled Germany aboard a luxury cruise liner, the MS St Louis. They hoped to reach Cuba and then travel to the United States, but were turned away in Havana and forced to return to Europe.

After a journey that took weeks, 907 German Jewish refugees arrived with the MS St. Louis in the port of Antwerp. Two children look with dejected faces through the porthole of the ship at the disembarkation in the harbor.

For those who ended up in Westerbork, their troubles were far from over. On May 10, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands.

In the first two years after the invasion, Westerbork continued to function as a refugee camp. From May 1940 to July 1942, the camp remained under Dutch administration. And the conditions were still relatively good.

In July 1942, the Nazis began operating Westerbork as a Jewish transit camp. The majority of Jews, Dutch and non-Dutch, were deported from Westerbork to predominantly Auschwitz and Sobibor.

Also, the Dutch Jews who had lived in the Netherlands as fully integrated Dutch citizens, for centuries, suddenly became ‘lesser’ citizens. They were persecuted by the German occupiers, but there were many Dutch, often their neighbors, who were eager to help the Nazis to identify them, and make sure that new laws introduced by the Nazi rir.

Westerbork. At the Post Office.

In this secretly taken photograph(below) on June 20, 1943, Amsterdam-South and the Transvaal neighborhood in east Amsterdam were hermetically closed. Loudspeaker cars drove through the streets. Almost all Jews had to go to certain assembly points, from where they were taken to the station by trams. Many Jews, however, turned out to be hiding. That is why, later that day, all houses were systematically searched and arrested Jews were removed with army trucks, such as here on the Krügerplein/corner Schalk Burgerstraat in the Transvaalbuurt. The Ordnungspolizei was assisted in this ‘collection action’ by the special Jewish auxiliary police from the Westerbork transit camp. These men were recognizable by a white band around their arms.

They all thought were safe, but at some stage, they couldn’t have been more wrong. They arrived in a country that had a civilian registration second to none in the world, this efficient part of the bureaucracy, made it so easy for the Nazis.


Max von Sydow


Max von Sydow has always been one of my favourite actors, we also happen to share the same birthday.(well obviously I am a bit younger). Unfortunately we had to say farewell to this legend of the silver screen last Sunday March 8,.

He was one of the most versatile actors in the movie industry, although he was Swedish he had an excellent command of the English language and also spoke several other languages.

His roles varied from comedies, science fiction and drama. He played in a number of WWII related movies where he played German officers like in ‘Escape to Victory and’ in the ‘Voyage of the Damned in which ge   he played Captain Gustav Schröder who in 1939 tried  to save 937 German Jews, who were passengers on his ship, MS St. Louis, from Nazi persecution.

st louis

Max von Sydow also played several movies in where he played Holocaust survivors like ” Emotional Arithmetic” ; “Intacto”and “Echoes of the Past” He also played Otto Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank”

anne frank

What probably is a lesser know fact is that Max von Sydow as a teenager entertained Jewish refugees in Sweden. The refugees were allowed to go to Sweden via the  “White Buses” operation  The  operation undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transport them to Neutral Sweden,

In a 2012 interview von Sydow recalled when his was a 16 year old boy in his hometown of Lund in Sweden.

There were some refugee camps in Lund where these Jewish refugees were housed. The local would provide them with food and clothes. Max von Sydow was a member of a  folk dance troupe, and they would provide entertainment for the refugees.

Of that time he said to the Jewish Journal “Some were carried in on stretchers to watch the shows; for many, it was their first entertainment after the hell of the camps. These were people, many of whom were gravely ill, who came and spent perhaps a couple of weeks in our town before they died. We were just trying to do as much as was possible for them at the time. Many of them are still in Lund, in a huge graveyard with foreign names.”

I wonder if he knew then about the fate of the passengers of the MS St. Louis. They were refused entry in Cuba, the US and Canada, only 29 were allowed the disembark in Havana. After sailing for several weeks, 288 were allowed to enter the UK, The remaining passengers were eventually allowed to enter Belgium, France and the Netherlands, but only a few months later war broke out and in May and June 1940, most of the passengers of the MS St Louis, were yet again persecuted by the Nazis, only about half of those who returned to continental Europe survived the war.


One of Max’s last movies was “Star Wars: The Force Awakens ” a bit of trivia on that Max and Daisy Ridley(who plays the main character Rey in the movie) share the same birthday too. This means I share my birthday with 2 Star Wars actors.


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