Amsterdam Jews Debate How the Jewish Community Should Be Led

(November-December 1941)


At the initiative of the Zionist Movement, a Jewish Coordination Committee was established in late 1940 to unite Dutch Jewry and lead it during its time of crisis. The Committee was chaired by the President of the Dutch Supreme Court, Justice L.E. Visser, who had just been dismissed from his position. A short time later, the Amsterdam Jewish Council was established under Professor D. Cohen, another member of the Coordination Committee, and the diamantaire A. Asscher. In the course of 1941, the German-backed Jewish Council extended its influence and authority to the entire country. Disagreements erupted between the directors of the two agencies about the way to behave with regard to the Germans. Eventually, the Coordination Committee was dissolved by order of the Germans, to the no small delight of the Jewish Council. The following excerpts are from personal correspondence between Cohen and Visser in the early winter of 1941. Visser died shortly after the exchange of these letters.


Prof. Dan Michman.

(a) Visser to Cohen, 18 November 1941

The Jewish Council's standpoint is that we live under a powerful occupier. One must therefore comply totally with his will, and whoever does not believe that, lacks any sense of reality. The matter, however, is not all that simple. The members of the C.C. and numerous people in the country—among them some of your own co-workers who think as we do—are certainly fully aware that the occupier is here and that he is to be reckoned with, but they believe that that is not all there is to it. For besides this occupier there is another reality—the position one adopts vis-a-vis the occupation proper. This is a reality which the occupier must and does take into account; this reality you overlook. The attitude of the Jewish Council is to oblige the occupier, to obey his orders meekly, I would almost say, to be subservient to him, hoping thereby “to prevent worse to come,” a hope which has not been fulfilled. This, however, is not the attitude of the major and best portion of the Dutch people which does not submit meekly, but wants to stand up for its rights and convictions, wherever and as long as this is at all possible. In one of our meetings you referred to this attitude, with a hint of irony, as “a mere heroic attitude,” but that is really the attitude which inspires men such as Colijn, Donmer, Telders, Cleveringa and so many others, the attitude of men who refuse to forfeit their self-respect. Why must it be so different with us Jews? Both of you could have served as an example; it is all the more disasterous that you allowed yourself to be pushed in the direction which brought you to that which is apparent from your announcements in the J.W. and which will, probably to your own regret, push you much further yet. All this may cost Dutch Jewry the sympathy of the Dutch people, a sympathy which you yourself once termed one of our most precious assets. It is possible that in the end, the occupier will achieve his goal concerning us, but it is our duty as Dutchmen and as Jews to do everything to hamper him in achieving that goal and refrain from doing anything which might smooth the way for him. That is not what you are doing!

Moreover, it is tragic that, once started along this road, you will find it difficult to leave it. You allow yourself and others to be dragged along to such an extent that a “retreat” would lead to catastrophe, the more so since little by little your organization created quite a number of entities which stand or fall with you.

To prove that you serve the Jewish cause well, you call attention to the mitigations you obtained. I am willing to assume that here and there you accomplished something on minor points, but it is highly debatable whether you did not pay too high a price. You certainly did not accomplish more than the C.C. has achieved now and again through the intervention of the Dutch authorities. Moreover, if your publications regarding the refugees are reliable, something of which I am not convinced, then all your achievements amount to less than nothing as compared with what Mr. Frederiks managed to accomplish, as a result of my appeal to the “College.” But please do not conclude from the above that I do not admire your great self-sacrifice—because you yourself probably hate your job—and your great energy, which you display now more brilliantly than ever. On the contrary, I respect that enormously, and therefore regret even more that we can no longer march together.

(b) Cohen to Visser, 30 November 1941

Regarding the contents of your letter, it will not be easy for us to agree with each other. This is not because I do not understand or appreciate your point of view. In fact, I would like to concur with it. If ever I called it heroic, it was not done in irony; I did so deliberately. However, just as Heracles the hero perished by fire, so, mutatis mutandis, fared the heroes of our time. Just as he was received among the Gods, again mutatis mutandis, will this be their lot.

What I mean is this: in every epoch there are people who pave the way for the future—the strong-minded revolutionaries, and others who make the best of existing conditions—the realists. These two groups can never cooperate with one another. At best the second group may not admire the first, but never vice versa. What you call breach of law and order, I view as exercise of power. We are both right, but our viewpoints and the way we see things are different, as are the consequences. You offer resistance; I do not exclude resistance, but first try to find a way to make the best of given circumstances . You could therefore not appreciate certain remissions which we achieved, thereby aiding hundreds, even thousands; you only notice, and rightly so from your point of view, that we, by making ourselves accessible, pave the way for measures which harm thousands. It does not help at all if I deny this and maintain that these rules would have been implemented just as well without our knowledge, and without us, or with others who could not have obtained these exemptions. For, in the words of Pindar (and truly, I do not mean this ironically, because he himself says elsewhere that all of us carry something divine within us); “The one is the family of gods, the other of mankind”—and therefore different. Undoubtedly Frederiks achieved a lot—and for that we are indebted to you and to him. However, we achieved more in the minor day-to-day problems, and now we achieve it with greater ease—as I know from experience—than do the organs of our government. And concerning contact with the latter, and the much wider question, that of our own community which is connected with this and with other problems, it is so totally different in practice than what it seems to be in theory. After all, all questions end up with the German authorities and the direct course, as proven, leads more quickly and easily to the goal. During our deliberations about the Van Leer Foundation, you yourself saw how alarming the two sides of this problem are, and knowingly chose one specific side, a fact for which many non-Jews blame us. However, one does not escape criticism; and we, constantly faced by choices and conscious of the inescapability from the principle of the separate community, try in this respect to make the best of everything from the other side of the problem. I know that many people find fault with us for using the Jewish Weekly for this purpose, but they forget that had we not taken this matter into our hands, this Jewish Weekly would have been published in an entirely different form and that the concessions, which, for example, you will find by comparing the last issue and the previous one, would have been out of the question.

But, as I said before, I cannot convince you. So, as you rightly desire, let us each go our own way. We cannot practice the saying of Homer, “Where two go together, each one thinks for the other as well.” But I shall think of you. Because one thing would be fatal; if I, putting my own views into practice, should forget yours.

c)Visser to Cohen, 30 December 1941

I agree with your eloquent apology on two points, in the first place, where you say that I cannot have any admiration for your work and its results. This is true, but do not think that I do not fully respect your immense energy and push and the courage and self-control which you must have for your discussions with the German authorities. In the second place, you say (quite correctly) that we have to try to “make the best” of the present situation. The point, however, is how this is done. Therein lies the root of our disagreement, and this is the crossroads where our paths, alas, separate.

I believe that the guiding principle should be to remain true to oneself, to uphold personal and Jewish dignity and, wherever necessary and possible, to remind and impress this upon others.

You intend to make the best of the situation by trying, co–te qui co–te , to get as many concessions as possible from the occupier, and in order to achieve that, are subservient to him. This, to my mind, is pure opportunism which lacks principles and norms and therefore will come to no good.

What then did you achieve? You were never consulted about the very ordinances which oppress us. Everything has been done behind your back, like the well-known saying: “ De vous, chez vous, sans vous .” Perhaps you imagined things differently, in accordance with the information of the gentlemen from Prague. This proved to be a vain hope. The only thing you obtained are concessions, possibly only temporary ones, on a few minor points, with which you have undoubtedly been of service to many.

For that I will give you full credit. But what price did you have to pay in return? In a way, you entered the service of the occupier for that purpose and had to resign yourself to execute his orders. And that was not the end of it. Even worse is that you must act as instigators of his policy of oppression, or rather of that of certain authorities whose alleged right to enforce obedience I have reason to doubt. Through your Weekly you are obliged to help him with his secret and illegal attempts to separate us from the rest of the nation, and to convey his illegal threats and intimidations to us in the “Announcements of the Jewish Council,” not to speak of that dangerous card-index and the pressure put on the German Jews to register. Is that not too high a price for what has been obtained? Did it have to be paid, no matter what? Everything will happen anyway, you say. If that is true, then why all your endeavors? Be that as it may, but then, let the—according to you inevitable—worst find us without guilt and with a clear conscience, the Horatian “impavidum ferient ruinae.”

How did you ever come to all this? I am convinced—numerous conversations in the Coordination Committee prove this—that had you known from the beginning what would be asked of you, you would have broken away in good time. That would not have been difficult in the first period after the establishment of the Jewish Council. You were afraid then that by withdrawing, “others” would take your place, albeit badly. This fear was groundless, as I tried to impress upon you then, without success, since these “others,” by refusing to cooperate, would have been powerless and harmless. I am afraid that it is not too late for that. Just like the hero in Thomas Manns “Zauberberg,” you are imprisoned in a vicious circle from which you cannot break forth. For the “krach” which would follow would leave the Jewish masses rudderless, as thanks to you and to the Permanent Committee, the free Jewish representation has disappeared. Besides, your view on “making the best of it” does not allow the shackles to be broken.

According to your letter, and this I consider as the tragedy of the case, you yourself realize this and would prefer my views but you cannot help yourself; perhaps you do not want to. “ Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor .”

Do not think that this is only my own opinion. Numerous Jews of various rank and degree—I am not even speaking of non-Jews—do not want to condone an attitude of the Jewish Council which expresses itself in aiding and abetting the occupier. And their number grows constantly, the more so since the experiences which one now and then has when encountering the methods of the Council, do not always appear to be exactly stimulating.

I do not very much like writing all this to you. You are one of the few amongst us who is truly capable of “leading,” and it is therefore such a pity that you use this invaluable quality in a manner unacceptable to so many, consequently ruling out cooperation. How gladly I would have wished it otherwise.


Source: Yad Vashem