Meuwese on Wasserstein, 'The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews'

Bernard Wasserstein
Mark Meuwese

Bernard Wasserstein. The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 352 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-28138-7.

Reviewed by Mark Meuwese (University of Winnipeg) Published on H-Low-Countries (January, 2016) Commissioned by Nicolaas P. Barr Clingan

Revisiting Dutch-Jewish Responses to Nazism

This book is a fascinating contextual biography of Gertrude van Tijn (1891-1974), a strong-willed Dutch-German Jewish woman who tried to save other Jewish people’s lives from Nazi persecution. Bernard Wasserstein, professor emeritus of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago and the author of several books on the European Jews in the twentieth century, rescues Ms. van Tijn from historical obscurity and portrays her in a sympathetic yet nuanced way. Wasserstein's book is an excellent case study of the practical and ethical dilemmas faced by Jews who were tasked with helping the Nazis facilitate the “final solution.”       

Wasserstein’s biography of Ms. van Tijn can be situated in the growing subfield of Holocaust studies that focuses on Jewish experiences and resistance during the Nazi era. The Nazis and their policies feature largely as background actors in Wasserstein’s account. The book builds on the recent work by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt that gives a detailed overview of the Jews who tried to escape from Nazi Germany and occupied Europe during the late 1930s and early 1940s.[1] An older historiographic theme that is examined by Wasserstein is that of the infamous Jewish Councils that were established by Nazi authorities throughout occupied Europe. In the influential interpretation of Hannah Arendt, the Jewish Councils were tragically complicit in the destruction of the European Jews.[2] From 1941 until her own deportation in 1943, Van Tijn worked at some key positions of the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, offering an important case study for reexamining these issues. Finally, Wasserstein’s book contributes to the ongoing debate as to what people inside and outside Nazi-occupied Europe knew about the systematic destruction of the Jews after 1941. Wasserstein’s book nicely complements the recent study by Bart van der Boom, which examines what ordinary Dutch people, including Jews, knew about the Holocaust during the years of German occupation.[3] 

The prologue describes how Van Tijn traveled from the occupied Netherlands to neutral Lisbon in May 1941. Her mission to the Portuguese capital was an attempt to coordinate a possible migration of Jews from the Netherlands to the United States. As Wasserstein emphasizes, Nazi officials in the Netherlands supported Van Tijn’s remarkable voyage to Lisbon because at this time, the Nazis had not yet developed plans to deport the western European Jews to “the East.” Her unsuccessful visit to Lisbon raises several questions for Wasserstein: How did this Jewish woman come to play such a daring role as mediator in the middle of World War II? Moreover, was Van Tijn truly working on behalf of the Jews, or was she a pawn of the Nazis?    

Wasserstein provides answers to these two questions over the course of the biography. The first three chapters examine Van Tijn’s tumultuous life before the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. Van Tijn was born into a secular German-Jewish middle-class family in 1891. Family life took a turn for the worse after her mother died in 1902, and her father’s business collapsed shortly thereafter. Wasserstein suggests that the difficult and restless early life of Van Tijn shaped her independent and at times rebellious spirit. After Van Tijn attended a vocational college in Berlin, where she completed a course taught by the feminist social worker Alice Salomon, she moved to London at age twenty. In London she worked as a secretary but also joined the suffragist movement. In 1915, she was labeled an enemy alien and expelled from the United Kingdom. She decided to move to Amsterdam, where she quickly found new work as a secretary for a major Dutch bank. She also became involved with the Dutch Zionist movement. Because of her English-language skills, she soon corresponded with leading Zionists, including Chaim Weizmann, and with relief organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In 1920 she married Jacques van Tijn, a Dutch Jewish engineer, with whom she lived in Africa, Switzerland, and Mexico for more than a decade. Although the marriage ended in divorce in the 1930s, she kept his family name. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, she began to devote her professional life to the support of Jewish refugees who arrived in increasing number to the Netherlands during the 1930s.    

After the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, Van Tijn’s work gradually shifted from working on behalf of Jewish refugees to the preparation of Jews for deportation to the East. In early 1941, her prewar Committee for Jewish Refugees became part of the newly established Jewish Council. This institution was created by Nazi officials in order to more efficiently administer and control the Jews in the Netherlands. The Jewish Council was led by Abraham Asscher and David Cohen, two Dutch Jewish academics who were always careful not to provoke the authorities. During the summer of 1941, Nazi leaders in the Netherlands received orders from Berlin that further emigration of Jews would no longer be permitted. From now on, Van Tijn became involved with the controversial task of registering the Jews for “labor duty” in Poland. In late July 1942, when the deportations of Dutch Jews to Auschwitz began, she became head of the new office of Help for the Departing. The office frantically organized food and clothing for Jews who had been rounded up for transportation to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp from which they were sent directly to Auschwitz. Van Tijn finally refused to work any longer for the Jewish Council in early 1943 after the Germans demanded that she and other senior staff members draw up a deportation list of their own colleagues. In September 1943, when the Netherlands was effectively judenrein, she was arrested and sent to Westerbork. Because of her prior work as a Zionist activist, Van Tijn was saved from deportation to Auschwitz and instead ended up on a list of Jews used by the Nazis as hostages. After a brief stay in Bergen-Belsen, Van Tijn and the other fortunate Jews were sent to Istanbul, where they were exchanged for ethnic Germans from British-controlled Palestine.

The last two chapters of the book discuss Van Tijn’s difficult postwar life and legacy. At the request of the Dutch government in exile in London, Van Tijn completed an eyewitness account of the German destruction of the Dutch Jews in October 1944. Although the account was never published, Van Tijn’s manuscript became very influential in shaping the historiography of the Holocaust of the Dutch Jews. For example, Van Tijn's account was used in Lou de Jong's authoritative multivolume study The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War.[4] She was unable to work as a repatriation commissioner for Jewish refugees in the Netherlands, partly because there were hardly any Jews left, but also because the survivors blamed her for having collaborated with the Nazis. Van Tijn also maintained an acrimonious relationship with David Cohen, who accused her of having obtained favors from their persecutors. Faced with a hostile reception in the postwar Netherlands, Van Tijn moved to the United States. In the final chapter, Wasserstein critically evaluates Van Tijn’s actions. He calculates that Van Tijn and her staff were able to rescue no fewer than 22,000 Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe. Moreover, while David Cohen was willing to draw up a list of Jewish Council members to be deported, Van Tijn refused to contribute to this odious task. Concerning the matter of whether Van Tijn knew about the fate of the deportees, the author suggests that as late as October 1944, Van Tijn still held a faint hope that some Dutch Jews had survived their deportation to Poland. This finding is in line with the work of Van der Boom, who argues that most Dutch people remained uncertain of the exact fate of the deported Jews, despite all of the rumors about the gas chambers in Auschwitz.[5] Wasserstein also claims that Van Tijn’s office of Help for the Departing made a difference, even though most of the deportees were ultimately killed in Auschwitz. By providing the deportees with adequate clothing and food, she and her staff at least enabled the Jews who were sent to Westerbork to live in humane circumstances before their deportation. Ultimately, Wasserstein concludes that even though some of her actions were questionable, “at least she did not respond passively or fatalistically” (p. 258).   

Wasserstein has written a compelling narrative account of Van Tijn’s life and career. The author has utilized all the relevant archival and printed sources in the Netherlands, Israel, the United States, and Germany. Although writing about a seemingly narrow subject, Wasserstein does a great job of providing historical context for Van Tijn’s life and examining its implications for larger historiographical questions. The book contains vivid portrayals of Zionist social work programs in the Netherlands during the interwar period and of the complexities of Nazi rule in the occupied Netherlands. One minor criticism is that the author could have examined more fully how gender shaped Van Tijn’s experiences. Only at the end of the book does Wasserstein briefly acknowledge that Van Tijn was a woman operating in an often hostile patriarchal world. However, because Van Tijn’s life spans so many different and controversial aspects of Jewish life before, during, and immediately after the Holocaust, Wasserstein’s book will make excellent reading for students in courses on European Jewish history and on the destruction of the European Jews.  


[1]. Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 (New York: Norton, 2009).

[2]. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

[3]. Bart van der Boom, “Wij weten niets van hun lot:” Gewone Nederlanders en de Holocaust (Amsterdam: Boom, 2012). 

[4]. Lou de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, 14 volumes (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969-91).

[5]. Van der Boom, Gewone Nederlanders, 219-262, which discusses the information available in the Netherlands about the destruction of European Jews from 1942 to 1945.

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Citation: Mark Meuwese. Review of Wasserstein, Bernard, The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews. H-Low-Countries, H-Net Reviews. January, 2016. URL:

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