Amsterdam Student Group

After the first mass deportation from Amsterdam, in July 1942, students from the University of Utrecht initiated rescue operations (Utrechts Kindercomité---UKC). Very shortly afterward, university students from Amsterdam followed suit. The two student groups later branched out on their own. The founders of the Amsterdam Student Group (ASG) were four in number: Jur Haak, a student of mathematics at the Gemeentelijke Universiteit (Municipal University), who was in touch with the Utrecht group’s leading figure, Jan Meulenbelt; Piet Meerburg*, a student of law at the same university and a member of the same student organization as Jur; Jur’s sister, Tineke Haak, and Wouter van Zeytveld*, her boyfriend. Soon this small group of young people were devoting all their time to the rescue effort.

At the start, the two university groups complemented each other: Amsterdam, with its large Jewish population, contained more persecuted Jews than any other city, while Utrecht had a strong group of student Resistance workers with a support network consisting mainly of family and friends.

For a variety of reasons, the two groups concentrated mainly on the rescue of children: the young age of the rescuers heightened their sense of identification with children; it was easier to persuade non-Jewish families with children to “adopt” a young child; it was sometimes easier to persuade Jewish parents to give up their children to be hidden than it was to persuade them to do the same for themselves. One young rescuer once remarked that it was hard for him to rebuke an adult when he was behaving badly while it was easy to do so with a child. It also seemed to the rescue workers that saving young, innocent lives would somehow seem more legitimate in the eyes of the oppressor than saving adults. Many of them were fearful of involvement in “illegal” activities, the concept of resistance and subterfuge running counter to their upbringing. In efforts to persuade Jewish parents to abandon their children to young Resistance workers unknown to them, the Amsterdam students turned to a well-known pediatrician, Dr. Ph.H. Fiedeldij Dop*. Dr. Fiedeldij Dop had inherited a large Jewish clientele from two Jewish partners who had been barred from practicing by the German racial laws. Dr. Fiedeldij Dop, who had won the confidence of the Jewish parents, supported the efforts of the Amsterdam Student Group and mediated between the two sides. Thus by the end of August 1942, the students had already managed to bring 70 children to safe havens outside Amsterdam.

At the same time, however, the success in persuading parents had created tremendous pressure on the Utrecht group to find more and more addresses. The UKC, though able to find addresses in far-flung areas, deemed this formidable task beyond their capacity and thus forced the Amsterdam group to branch out into locating new areas where children could be placed. Piet Meerburg’s first attempts, in July/August 1942, at finding hiding places in Friesland were met not by unwillingness but by disbelief on the part of the local population. Stories told of deportations and expulsions were simply considered inconceivable. Student rescuers tried to circumvent this obstacle by claiming that the children were war orphans from Rotterdam who needed a break. In the course of time, however, it became clear that the incredible fact of the mass persecution of Dutch Jews was in fact true and with this realization came a willingness to accept Jewish children as such. Piet Meerburg’s cousin, Mia Coelingh*, then 31 years old, was enlisted in the cause. In January 1943, Mia was living in Friesland, where she worked as assistant minister of the Liberal Protestant(Hervormde) Church in Sneek and taught religion in public schools. She therefore had connections with the clergy, and used those connections to lay the groundwork for finding hiding places. Her connections were first of all with Father Gerard Jansen (alias Jan Zwart) and the Baptist minister Willem Mesdag*, whose spacious home became a haven for new arrivals. The three of them together covered an area in the southwest of Friesland from Sneek to Bolsward and Gaastmeer where they were able to place many children.

Once this entry into Frisian territory was established and with the active support of Jansen and Mesdag, Piet Meerburg and Wouter van Zeytveld branched out to Leeuwarden, the provincial capital, where chaplain Felix van der Wissel was his anchor. Of van der Wissel’s parishioners, Krijn van den Helm*, a tax official, became one of the main contributors in the illegal undertaking. He established the connections with Drachten in the east, where he knew Pieter Wijbenga*, the head of the city’s ration distribution office, an obviously important position for the Resistance. With Harm Kingma, also of Leeuwarden, Krijn brought many children to Friesland. In May 1943, Krijn, as local representative of the ASG, joined the LO and became one of its leading members. He was also active in the KP in Friesland, the armed resistance. The LO, a national organization, commanded considerable financial resources as well as stocks of ration coupons obtained from the armed resistance; thus the ASG task in Friesland was completely taken over by the local resistance.

Other important and colorful resistance workers enlisted by the ASG in Friesland included Sjoerd Wiersma* and Uilke Boonstra, both of Joure near Sneek. These two were among the leaders of the Friesland chapter of the LO, the largest illegal organization in Holland, of which van der Helm was also a leading member. Wiersma, in his early thirties, had a laundry business and owned a large truck. Once a week he drove to Amsterdam, returning with a truck full of Jewish fugitives, a very risky undertaking. Boonstra also risked his life and that of his family many times. Both were devout Calvinists whose religious motives were rather eccentric (Love Thine Enemy, the “enemy” being the Jew, who did not recognize the Savior), but whose zeal and courage in saving Jews were unsurpassed.

In Amsterdam, the Student Group found a second main source for Jewish children in the roundup center,opposite the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the crèche. The leading representative of the Jewish Council at the Hollandsche Schouwburg, Walter Süskind, indefatigably active in smuggling children out of the crèche, desperately needed safe houses and received support from the Amsterdam students. The number of children thus spirited out rose significantly, starting in May 1943. Meerburg now needed more safe havens and started to create a network in Limburg. Through two fugitive Dutch students hiding in Venlo, he was able to make contact with Hanna van de Voort*, a 38 year old midwife from Tienray. Hanna lived with her parents and was encouraged by them to go from helping French and Dutch fugitives to helping Jewish ones. Hanna’s mother, Marie, herself seriously ill and in need of assistance, told her daughter that if she found safe addresses she herself would help by praying for the children. Thus Tienray became a center for illegal assistance to Jewish fugitives. Hanna, with her thorough acquaintance with the area, was further assisted by a Dutch fugitive, Nico Dohmen*, a 22 year-old student. In spite of her connections, it took Hanna more than two months to establish a network of addresses. In part the delay was caused by, again, the incredulity of the local population. Once a beginning had been made, however, the area became very active in accommodating Jewish fugitives. In all, 123 Jews, mostly children, found shelter in the area around Tienray, the youngest one only two weeks old. The ASG group supplied the children and then left the job of providing for them to the local Resistance workers.

After 1942, it had become very dangerous to travel by train for young able-bodied men (because of the general recruitment for forced labor) and Meerburg and van Zeytveld had to reduce risk taking to a minimum. Most of the work, therefore, of transporting the children, was performed by women, the outstanding of whom were Iet van Dijk, Mieke Mees (later Louwers*), and Alice Brunner. The Tienray group never associated itself with the LO; their “addresses” were mostly able to do without outside help. Other locations in Limburg where the ASG found safe havens were in south Limburg, where Piet Meerburg linked up with Arie van Mansum*, a salesman from Maastricht who had set up an illegal network on his own already. Children taken to the Sittard train station were accommodated in the area in Brunssum, Heerlen, and other places. Altogether 33 children found shelter in this area. In addition to contacts established by Meerburg, Wouter van Zeytveld established a valuable contact in the north of the province of North-Holland, namely with Cees and Lien Kracht of Wijdenes. This family and their network of friends also rescued dozens of Jewish children. It is estimated that some 350 Jewish children were saved by the Amsterdam Student Group, among whom 140 were from the Amsterdam crèche.