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Remembering the Holocaust

Stories of Courage & Hope

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For Holocaust Memorial Day, Russell Bowles looks at the story of three buildings in Amsterdam and the people in them, who saved Jewish children from certain death. One of the key rescuers, Johan Van Hulst, died only last year, aged 107. His story highlights what people with amazing courage can do for others.
In the Plantage area of Amsterdam during the war, three buildings in one street, and the people that worked in them, were instrumental in saving hundreds of Jewish children from being transported to death camps.  One was a theatre used by the occupying Nazis as a deportation centre. Across the road was a crèche used for the same purpose and next to the crèche was a teacher training college. All three played important parts in the rescue of hundreds of young children.
In the theatre, the Nazis had somehow overlooked the fact that the man in charge, named Walter Suskind, was of Jewish origin. Soon after starting work there, he noticed that without too much difficulty he could help children escape. He falsified numbers and this enabled him to save some, so that if say, 75 arrived, he would register only 60, thereby allowing 15 to escape.
In early 1943 his efforts became easier when the Nazis took over the crèche across the road for a similar purpose. Suskind found that the head of the crèche, Henriette Pimentel was also looking to provide a means of escape for her young charges. They joined forces, sneaking children to safety whenever a tram passed in front of their buildings.
Next door to the crèche was a teacher training college where a Gentile man named Johan Van Hulst was a lecturer. Pimentel persuaded him to join the rescue effort and then things really picked up speed. A hedge separated their buildings and the nurses in the crèche would pass the little ones over the hedge to Van Hulst. He then in turn would hand them over to the Resistance groups who helped to hide them. None of the escapees had been registered and so their disappearance was not spotted. However, in order for the rescue work to be successful, only small numbers could be saved and this was dependent on the majority being handed to the Nazis. It was excruciatingly painful deciding who was going to be saved and who was not. Van Hulst told a Dutch broadcaster, “Everyone understood that if thirty children came in, we could not save them all. We had to make a choice, and one of the most horrible things was to make that choice.” 
One of the children Van Hulst and the rescue team saved was Lies Caransa, who was smuggled out of the crèche aged four, hidden in a bag. Most of her family was later killed at the Sobibor camp in Poland, but after the war she found her mother who had survived. “I was not allowed to say goodbye or hug my mother because that might make a scene,” she said. “I was just allowed to wave. I felt so lonely.”
In order for the rescue efforts to remain undetected, the team had to keep on uncomfortably good terms with the Nazis.  They had to continue with their day jobs and Van Hulst used to make friendly comments to the guards when they passed by. When the Dutch government wanted to close Van Hulst’s college he persuaded parents of students to contribute to it staying open, ostensibly so that education would be uninterrupted but really so the rescue work could continue. All this took place without him once telling his wife Anna, as he didn’t want her to possess compromising information.
Chance or the Hand of God also played a part in the success of the rescue work. A government inspector turned up at Van Hulst’s college one day without warning and she heard babies crying inside. Her curiosity was aroused but instead of her visit leading to a crisis, it actually became beneficial as she turned out to be a member of the Resistance and joined Van Hulst in the rescue effort.
The end of the rescue operation, when it came, happened suddenly. Henriette Pimentel, who headed up the crèche was arrested and died in Auschwitz in September of that year and the crèche closed. Not all the young ones could be rescued. “Try to imagine perhaps one hundred children standing there and you have to decide which ones you are going to save,” Van Hulst told a reporter in 2015.
After the crèche was shut down and the rescue work ended, the college continued to teach students and Van Hulst continued other work in the Resistance, later having to hide, with minutes to spare, after a tip off that the Nazis were coming to arrest him. 
When the war ended, Van Hulst entered politics and spent 25 years as a Dutch senator and later on as a Member of the European Parliament from 1961 to 1968.  He remained active in politics and in education, writing many publications and winning a chess tournament at the age of 99! His college now houses the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam.  In 1972, Yad Vashem awarded him the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, an honour bestowed on Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the war.
While Van Hulst rarely spoke of what he did, others highlighted its significance. In 2015 Bibi Netanyahu told Van Hulst, “We say: a person who saves one life, saves a universe. You have saved many universes.”
Johan Van Hulst died on 22nd March 2018 aged 107


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