Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Dutch hero saved 13 Jews — ‘but it was not enough’

Sickening Parasitism: Making the world guilty about a sickening fiction

COR Suijk, who devotes his life to educating the world about the Holocaust, is haunted by regret.

Suijk (pronounced Sowk) defied the status quo and hid Dutch Jews during WW II.

For decades he directed the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam at the behest of Otto Frank.

During his tenure, he supervised powerful traveling exhibits on the Holocaust.

Now 86, he teaches young people all over the planet to avoid the tragic consequences of hate and indifference.

But Suijk buries his own light beneath a gnawing burden he can never forget.

“Our small group saved 13 Jews in the war,” he tells the Intermountain Jewish News in the lobby of the Marriott DTC as families rush to see the Colorado sites.

“But how many more we could have saved! How many more the Dutch Christians could have saved!”

He shares something Miep Gies, who helped hide the Frank family in an Amsterdam attic for two years, once told him.

“She said to me, ‘I was so lonely during the war. I couldn’t even tell my parents what I was doing, because I felt they would not be in agreement. I was so lonely during the war.’” Read the IJN blog entry on Miep Gies

His gaze, which often fixates on some distant point, turns front and center.

“I discovered that true courage is being willing to live with the disapproval of your friends and family,” he says.

When Suijk and his father Jacob later visited Yad Vashem, they noticed a memorial to a righteous gentile from Holland.

“My father got so upset,” Suijk says, his gentle mouth curling into an imitative hiss. “He said, ‘People must think the Dutch are wonderful. It’s not true.

The Dutch don’t deserve to be honored by Yad Vashem.’”

Although the Dutch underground did save many Jews, Suijk’s moral criticism is blistering.

Christians in the Netherlands, he says, were no different from Christians all over Europe. They did not care about the Jews.

In fact, the percentage of Dutch Jews killed by the Nazis surpassed Holland’s European neighbors.

“I was raised to be anti-Semitic,” Suijk admits. “I’m a Christian, and it was unavoidable. In my schoolbook there was a picture of angry Jews demanding the death of Jesus. In my textbook!

“I believe this had a huge impact on Christians during the war, allowing Hitler to accomplish his mission. It was simply viewed as G-d’s will.”

Suijk is in Denver for Rachel’s Challenge, a conference named for Columbine shooting victim Rachel Scott that imparts values of compassion and tolerance.

During a break, a woman approaches him and thanks him “for everything you have done.”

He accepts her kind words but rejects their accuracy.

“That is very nice,” he says, taking her hand. “But I have done nothing.”

Suijk is unable to forgive himself, or his country, for acting too late and doing too little for the Jews.

“Only the victims can forgive me,” he says.

“And they are dead.”

BORN in 1924 in a village several hours removed from Amsterdam, Cor Suijk was raised in a large conservative Christian family.

Cor and his five siblings were forbidden to dance or go to the movies.

Electric lights were forbidden on Sunday, their Sabbath. No gas could be turned on, and his mother had to prepare the meals on Saturday.

Jacob Suijk, Cor’s father, was a principal at junior high school and earned a meager salary.

“I did not get any pocket money,” Cor says. “My father always said, if you need something, you tell me. Since I was fond of chocolate and I was sure my father would not come up with money for that, I developed a system.”

Bicycles were the main mode of transportation, “so I always had some money for repairs. But I did not use it for repairs,” he smiles. “I would make up fantastic stories about how my bike broke down by the side of the road and I had to use all my money to fix it.”

The smile fades.

“I was an accomplished liar and thief,” Suijk says. “And I did not like that feeling.”

One day he decided to come clean to his unsuspecting parent.

“He was shocked. I thought he was going to throw me out of the house. Then he said, ‘Obviously you don’t know the difference between good and evil people.

“‘We all make terrible mistakes. The difference is that evil people deny their mistakes. You are still a good person.’”

WHEN the Nazis occupied Holland in May of 1940, the seeds of denial took firm root.

Six months after the occupation, Jacob Suijk learned that one of his teachers had been fired because both of his parents were Jewish.

“This surprised my father,” Cor Suijk says, “because the man was a practicing Christian. My father told me, ‘It’s not nice. It’s not right. But it must be G-d’s will.’”

By January of 1941, when Suijk was 17, authorities ordered that Jewish students could no longer attend school with Aryans.

“One day the director came into our classroom and said, ‘Joop Norden is leaving our school and will go to a Jewish school,’” Suijk says. “We all felt Joop was one of us. It was just shocking.

“I turned to the boy who sat next to me and said, ‘Don’t we have to do something about this?’ And he said, ‘No Cor, you don’t have to do anything. Jews like to be on their own.’

“And I felt relieved that I didn’t have to do anything.”

The next morning, the director returned to make another announcement:

“I regret to tell you that Joop Norden is no longer alive. He hung himself.”

A shadow falls on Suijk’s pale features.

“I should have gone to his home,” he says. “I should have said, ‘Joop, if you need something, I will help you.’ But I failed, simply because that boy told me I should do nothing.”

Suijk attended Joop’s funeral, which was held in the Jewish cemetery. He remembers a broken-hearted father sobbing by the grave. A Nazi took copious notes.

The rabbi invited individuals to step forward and say a few words about Joop.

“I was the only one who spoke,” says Suijk, neither proud nor boastful.

“All I said was, Joop, you are one of us and you will always be one of us, no matter how other people feel about this.”

The following day, Suijk was suspended from school for six months for publicly expressing anti-Nazi sentiments.

“My thinking changed because of this,” he says. “My father was telling me we had to obey the Nazis, but I was not so obedient. For me, going to Joop’s funeral was the only possible reaction.”

Then he punctures the mood with white-hot irony.

“You see, I still believed that Jews were Christ killers,” he says. “This belief prevailed throughout Europe and made it possible for Hitler to do what he did.

“The Holocaust happened because many, many Christians allowed it to happen.”

THERE is a particular moment in Holocaust narratives that transforms the old life forever. It may be a mother’s last loving goodbye, or entering the eternal night of Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.

For Cor Suijk, it was a routine shopping trip for food in Amsterdam.

“My father and I rode our bicycles to Amsterdam to buy food at a popular open air market in the city’s central square,” he recounts. “We arrived at three in the afternoon. To our surprise, we saw empty streetcars lining the square.

“I wondered what they were doing there,” Suijk says. “The answer came soon.”

Jews could only shop in that square from 3 to 5 p.m., when most of the fresh produce was gone and hardly any commodities remained.

“The square was crowded with Jewish families. Suddenly the soldiers and Dutch police came from the side streets and began arresting all the male Jews — in front of their wives, mothers, children, sisters.”

Suijk had overheard rumors of Jewish roundups. Adults were snatched without warning. Unsuspecting children returned to vacant homes, where they waited and wept — until the Nazis came for them.

That afternoon, Suijk woke up to the awful truth.

“I still see Jews running on that square — I can never remove that from my eyesight — trying to escape arrest, fleeing into shops and cinemas, the Nazis chasing after them. When they were caught, they were literally thrown into those empty streetcars.

“And I can hear the children weeping and screaming. It was so terrible, hearing all those women weep.

“My father turned to a Dutch officer standing next to him. The officer could tell he was upset and put his arm on my father’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘We put them to work.’ But we knew it was a lie.”

Cor Suijk changed forever that day. So did his father.

When they finally arrived back home, Jacob Suijk told his wife they had to help the Jews.

“We were a family of six. My father had a small salary. My mother Jeanne said, ‘How can we do this?’

‘My father said, ‘If we don’t help them, I foresee many sleepless nights and an unhappy life. I don’t want that kind of future for myself.’ My mother immediately understood.”

JACOB Suijk had no idea how to contact the resistance. Relying on his instincts, he eventually met with four members of the underground and offered his services.

The actual rescue operations were conducted like a stereotypical Hollywood reenactment: covert looks, code words, knocking on strange doors, escorting frightened Jews on bicycles through rain-drenched streets.

The Nazis, whose uniforms were unable to deflect the chilling rain, stayed inside during inclement weather. “But we never had to wait long for the rain,” Suijk smiles. “Those were the best days for us.”

After several furtive instructions and exchanges, Cor Suijk led his first Jewish family — a mother and her son — to his family’s home, where they survived the war.

A few acquaintances joined the Suijks in their efforts — including the boy who had reassured Cor that he “didn’t have to do anything” after Joop Norden’s suicide.

“He approached me and asked me to produce a list of people I knew who might be willing to save the Jews,” Suijk says.

“I came up with a list of 81 names, all good Christians. My father said, ‘Cor, you go talk to all 81. And don’t take no for an answer.’

“I expected them to say they were too afraid of the Germans. But I seldom heard that. Most of them simply did not want to take the risk. Many said yes at first, but when I came back they had changed their minds after talking to relatives.”

Only seven finally agreed to help.

“The Dutch Christians could have saved more Jewish lives but we were misled by our pastors and priests.”

On Dec. 24, 1944, the Nazis stopped Suijk because they noticed something sticking out of socks.

“It was a couple of ID cards,” he says. “So I had to undress on Christmas Eve in the middle of the street. I stood there absolutely naked. And the Nazis found 35 IDs that were not in my name.”

Suijk was deported to a camp. He lost “all the flesh on my body, but I was released after four months. The point is, I survived.

“And as you can see, I have put on all my weight since then,” he laughs. “Too much, I think.”

AFTER the war, the Dutch treated Suijk with extreme wariness. They accused him of acts of sabotage that he did not commit; labeled him an adventurer.

“I think they felt guilty,” he says, “because I tried to improve the situation, while they remained silent.”

Suijk earned a degree in economics and found a job as a tax inspector in Amsterdam.

In 1965, he accidentally ran into one of the Jewish men he hid in the war.

“He said, ‘Cor, would you like to meet Otto Frank?’ Well, of course I knew about Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank. I had seen his picture in the paper shaking hands with the Pope. He was a good friend of Marc Chagall, the artist.”

Frank, who lived in Switzerland, periodically came to Amsterdam to check on the Anne Frank House, located in the narrow apartment and attic the Frank family inhabited until the Nazis arrested them in August of 1944.

Suijk walked to the hotel where Frank was staying.

“Then I thought, Oh my G-d. I have never been to the Anne Frank House! My next realization was that there was a movie called ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ that I had never seen. And now I’m going to meet Otto Frank! Oh boy . . .”

Although the restored Dutch government never formally acknowledged Suijk for his actions in WW II, Frank was aware of him.

“He was under the impression that I was a good man,” he laughs softly. “So he asked me to join the board of the Anne Frank House. I felt honored. But I asked him, why would you want a Christian on the board of a Jewish institution?”

Frank answered in his pragmatic, understated way that the house needed a good accountant and Suijk possessed the right qualifications.

A few years later, Frank elevated Suijk to the position of director.

“That was truly a shock,” he says. “But I always looked at the Anne Frank House as an educational opportunity, not just a historic memorial.

“I felt we should use the lessons of WW II, and our failures, to make a better world — to tell young people how miserably we failed and make sure they don’t repeat our mistakes.”

During his first year as director, 20,000 people visited the Anne Frank House. By the time Suijk became CEO emeritus 27 years later, that number had soared to 200,000.

All those connected with the museum were immensely gratified — but popularity exacts a structural toll.

“The house was sinking,” Suijk recalls. “It needed a new foundation, and experts told me it would cost millions.

“Much to Otto’s chagrin, I introduced an admission fee for the first time in our history to raise the money.”

Frank was furious.

“We should not make money on the Holocaust!” he insisted.

Suijk explained that without the repairs, the cherished house would sink into the water.

“We had our disagreements,” he acknowledges, his lips curving wryly. “Otto called himself a German. I could never understand how a Jew could be proud of being a German.”

Frank even changed a sentence in his daughter’s diary to reflect his affinity.

“He told me that he altered the sentence, ‘The Germans are criminals’ to ‘These Germans are criminals.’ He did not want to indict the entire country.”

It’s common knowledge that Frank edited Anne’s diary. He was concerned that her adolescent insights might insult both the living and the dead.

“When you open the diary, it says, ‘As edited by Otto Frank,’” Suijk says. “I knew why he wrote that. If you make a few changes, you have the copyright.

“Otto was a shrewd businessman. But you have never read what Anne really wrote.”

Asked to describe Otto Frank, Suijk leans forward with a grin.

“I now describe him as an agreeable irritation.”

FRANK entrusted five diary entries he considered objectionable to Suijk before his death in 1980.

The pages were under lock and key at the Swiss-based Anne Frank Fonds (foundation), which holds the rights to the young diarist’s writings.

In 1998, the foundation sued the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool for running the previously unpublished pages.

Cor Suijk was considered instrumental in the newspaper’s receipt of the privileged passages.

At the time, Suijk was a senior official at the Anne Frank Center in New York City. He also was a source for German journalist Melissa Muller’s 1998 biography, Anne Frank.

Although he neither confirms nor denies his role in the mystery, Suijk says the five pages will be inserted into a new edition of the diary scheduled for release this September.

Several decades ago, he was making copies of some pages from Anne’s diary when Otto Frank produced an envelope.

“He told me to make only two copies,” Suijk says. “I asked if I could read them, and he agreed.”

Suijk, whose emotions vacillate between dry repetition and anguished recollection, is overcome.

“This 14-year-old girl who was always so negative about her mother wrote a beautiful paragraph that everyone should read. It shows that Anne could see beyond the surface of things. She wrote, ‘I can understand the bitterness of my mother. My father never truly loved her.’”

Otto Frank never forgot his first love, Suijk says.

Frank had been engaged to a young woman in Frankfurt, but her parents ultimately refused to bless the union. Some time later, he married Edith, Anne’s mother.

Apparently, Otto shared his secret with Anne, who put it in her diary.

“Once I asked Otto how he felt about his daughter’s diary,” Suijk says of another poignant moment. “I was expecting a triumphant response.

“But he turned his head away, and when he looked at me again there were tears in his eyes.

“He said, ‘Cor, I am so disappointed. I thought I was so close to my daughter. She loved me. I loved her.

“But she must have felt that I only saw her as a child. She was afraid to open up to me.’”

Suijk says the parents of Rachel Scott, who was killed in the Columbine massacre and also left a diary, experienced the same revelation.

“After they read Rachel’s diary, they finally understood her inner strife.”

SUIJK has been speaking virtually non-stop for over an hour. He ignores hunger, fatigue, all human needs except one — to finish what he began.

“Yes, yes, the Holocaust can happen again,” he says unequivocally.

“The world has always needed scapegoats. If people are unhappy, they always look for someone to blame for their unhappiness. There is always a possibility they will again pick the Jews.

“There is still racism in our world. And some people are jealous about the achievements of the Jewish people. Let’s be honest.”

Yet he also harbors hope.

Now residing in Aachen, Germany, Suijk works with German students who are determined never to repeat the sins of their grandparents.

“I sit with embarrassed young people who say, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’

“I’m not saying every German feels this way, but it’s a large majority.”

To critics of cultural rehabilitation, Suijk suggests they read the words of Elie Wiesel: “The child of a criminal is not a criminal. He is a child.”

The future, Suijk insists, “is still in your own hands.”

He believes this with a whole heart.

Yet regret closes the conversation.

“I spoke at a church not long ago. I had to confess before 800 people that I am a sinner.

“This was not so hard.

“Then I spoke at a Jewish synagogue. I stood before the congregation and confessed that I was a sinner — because I did not do enough for the Jews.

“This was very hard, and very necessary.

“I did not do enough. And I will live with that for the rest of my life.”


No comments: