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Survey shows ‘worrying’ lack of Holocaust awareness in the Netherlands


The story of teenage journalist Anne Frank is known around the world. But a new investigation suggests a “worrying” lack of Holocaust awareness in the Netherlands, where she and her family hid for years before being discovered and deported to a Nazi concentration camp.

A Dutch Holocaust survivor and Jewish cultural leaders expressed dismay at the survey, which was released Wednesday and suggests more than half of residents were unaware of the deportation and murder of Jews of the country during World War II.

The survey, conducted and released by the New York-based nonprofit conference ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, found that 53% of respondents could not identify the Netherlands as a country where the events of the Holocaust happened – rising to 60% among Millennials and Gen Z respondents, i.e. those under 40.

Historians estimate that more than 70% of the pre-war Jewish population of the Netherlands was killed in the Holocaust, or more than 100,000 in total. Frank hid in a secret room in Amsterdam with her family from 1942 to 1944 before dying in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few weeks before her release.

Despite widely available comprehensive evidence of the systematic massacre of 6 million Jews, 12% of respondents told researchers either that the Holocaust was a myth or that the death toll was grossly exaggerated – the highest figure for the one of the six nations surveyed in recent years. years. For the Netherlands, this rises to 23% of people under 40.

Previous research by the Claims Conference found that 15% of young Americans also doubted the historical records of the Holocaust.

Starving prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. Keystone / Getty Images

“Inquiry after inquiry, we continue to witness a decline in knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust. The trend of Holocaust denial and distortion is equally troubling,” Claims Conference President Gideon Taylor said in a press release accompanying the investigation, which was released Wednesday.

“It was disturbing to see that so many of my compatriots, regardless of their religion, don’t know enough about the Holocaust. Some of them, a small part, don’t even know about the Holocaust,” Max Arpels Lezer, 86, a Dutch Holocaust survivor, told NBC News via video call from his home in Amsterdam.

After Jews began to be deported from the Netherlands, Lezer was sent from Amsterdam at the age of six to live with a host family in the rural Friesland region in the north of the country. He lived there with Ype and Boukje Wetterauw for six years and was never betrayed by the people of the village, where he was distinguished by his dark hair and unusual name. The Wetterauws’ only child had already died in infancy.

Today, Lezer has warm memories of an otherwise dark time. He remained close to the Wetterauws until their death and was named in their will. “I was really their son,” he said.

A wooden horse and cart he played with alongside his adoptive brother, Gerrit, is now in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Lezer spent years searching for his adoptive sister, Joke, who lived briefly with the family, without success.

Many other children who went into hiding, like Anne Frank, weren’t so lucky, as he told countless classes of children over the years.

Annelies Anne Marie Frank, circa 1942.
Anne Frank in 1942. Photo by Alay

“When you’re sitting in front of a class and you have students sitting on their stools, they hear there’s a guy coming in talking about the Holocaust and everyone does that and starts snoring,” said- he said, slumping back in his chair and closing his eyes. .

“When you have lived through the Shoah, it takes a lot of courage to continue this kind of work. Maybe in other countries this attitude is different, but I happen to live here.

A “red flag” for education

Emile Schrijver, chief executive of Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, told NBC News that the survey results should act as a “red flag” for how schools deal with the Holocaust.

“That a third of young people feel like it may never have happened, that the numbers are wrong, it’s shocking. The answer is clear, there’s only one practical answer : education, education and education,” he said.

Schrijver pointed out that during protests against the Netherlands’ strict social gathering rules during the Covid-19 pandemic, some protesters wore yellow stars to mimic badges Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied countries. , for the purpose of illustrating state persecution.

“We have a society in which conspiracy theories are taken for granted, in which people wore yellow stars during Covid protests, which a lot of people seemed not to object to. The amazing fact isn’t that people do this, there will always be idiots, it’s that people didn’t stand up to it,” said Schrijver, who works on the new National Holocaust Museum. , which is due to open in Amsterdam in September.

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema condemned protesters wearing yellow stars, Schrijver points out, but he said national politicians were much slower.

A memorial at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, where Dutch Jews were held before being sent to concentration camps.
A memorial at the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, where Dutch Jews were held before being sent to concentration camps. Klaus Rose/DPA via Getty Images File

The Netherlands plays a relatively small role in the history of the Holocaust, but an important role in understanding the whole story, said historian Anna Hájková, from the University of Warwick in England.

“In the Western European context, a disproportionate number of Dutch Jews were arrested and deported. On top of that, a disproportionate number of Jews from the Netherlands who were deported died,” she said.

Hájková’s work showed that approximately 70% of the Jews of the Netherlands, or 100,657 people, were deported from the Netherlands, between July 1942 and September 1944 – of which 57,552 were sent to Auschwitz. Only 854 returned, a very low survival rate compared to other countries.

“So the Netherlands, for a normal person reading the newspaper, might not know why the Netherlands is special. But for us as Holocaust historians, when you pay attention to the details , it’s remarkable,” said Hájková.

The prospect of terror was never too far off.

A man – a friend’s father, who was a Nazi collaborator – confronted Lezer as he and his friends headed for the seaside.

Max Arpels Lezer in 2019.
Max Arpels Lezer in 2019. Courtesy of Max Arpels Lezer

“It wasn’t a real uniform but something like that anyway, with shiny black boots,” Lezer recalled of what the man was wearing. “He looked at each child and said to me, ‘I know you’re a Jewish boy, we’ll come get you.’ And he pointed his finger at my chest and I was so scared that I fell backwards on the floor. My clothes turned dark blue between my legs.

Lezer’s mother died in Auschwitz but he was reunited with his father in 1948. Lezer initially thought his stepmother was his biological mother, but later learned the truth from a member of the Jewish congregation in Amsterdam . He says he suffered physical and emotional abuse from his stepmother, memories that are still hard to relive after all this time, and ran away three times to be with the Wetterauws, once on a bicycle for 12 hours to get there.

In 1961, Lezer married 86-year-old Sofia, another Jewish child hidden by a Dutch family during the war.

Having lived through and survived such horror, Lezer has no doubt that it is imperative that the history of the Holocaust be never allowed to fade from memory.

“Because if you don’t know enough about the Holocaust and you don’t know that so many people died because of Nazi persecution,” he said, “then you don’t know. enough to be realistic about the future”.

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