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Traitors, profiteers or collaborators: ‘The Jewish Council has long been judged too harshly’

For too long the Dutch collective memory has judged the Jewish Council too harshly. This perspective needs to be adjusted, Bart van der Boom argues in his new book ‘De politiek van het kleinste kwaad’ (lit. ‘The Politics of the Lesser Evil’).

The German occupiers established the Jewish Council of Amsterdam in 1941. Many of its members started out wanting to act in the interests of the Jewish population of Amsterdam and later all of the Netherlands. On the other hand, the Council was also used as an instrument by the occupying forces to enact anti-Jewish measures, and it eventually also assisted in the deportations.

After the war the Council was judged quite harshly, even in historical accounts. ‘The Jewish Council was an organisation of Jews that contributed to the persecution of Jews,’ says Van der Boom. ‘The obvious question has to be: What motivates a person to do that? In the 1960s and 1970s, historians Jacob Presser and Loe de Jong argued that it was probably to “avoid persecution themselves”. We have to remember that anyone who worked for the Council was given a temporary exemption from deportation.’

‘Little information available’

However, this perspective does not take into account that people had access to very little information during the Second World War, according to Van der Boom. ‘During the war, people only got half the story regarding what actually happened to the Jews who were deported. Everyone knew it was bad, but what they didn’t know was that all those who boarded the train would be killed immediately. That is why, for a long time, it was unclear whether the best strategy was obedience rather than resistance. The Jewish Council  is a good illustration of this. Members hoped that by cooperating they would be able to make the situation a little better, or at the very least ease some of the suffering.’

The department for Assistance to Deportees (Hulp aan Vertrekkenden) organised collections of supplies for people who were put on transport from Westerbork, for example. ‘People were clearly instructed on what to bring: working shoes, a warm coat and a sturdy rucksack,’ explains Van der Boom. ‘The Jewish Council went to great lengths to collect these supplies, but the rucksacks were all left behind on the platform at Auschwitz. It was a futile effort, but the council did not know that.’

The Jewish council did not know that it was a futile effort

The fact that the Jewish Council was still judged for its actions regardless of their lack of information, is partly due to the hindsight bias, according to Van der Boom. ‘Hindsight bias is a well-known psychological phenomenon meaning that, with hindsight, it is very difficult for people to look back and recall that they made wrong assumptions. People tend to think they foresaw things better than they did in reality, especially in the case of major catastrophes. That is why, after the war, it is difficult to imagine how people could not realise obedience was a disastrous strategy.’

Adjusting the collective memory

In his book, Van der Boom tries to argue that the decisions made by the Jewish Council made sense in the context of the time. ‘Historians do not exist to pass moral judgement, but I do attempt to view things from the perspective of the Jewish Council and explain why its strategies were at the time not so crazy compared to how they are viewed now. There is, of course, a kind of justification in that. Society views this subject through the lens of an outdated collective memory and I want to change that.’

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