Edition 28 December, by Benjamin Roberts
In late November, the director of the Dutch national railways (NS), Roger van Boxtel, announced that NS would set up a commission to reimburse Dutch Holocaust victims. During the Second World War, NS was responsible for transporting more than 107,000 Dutch Jews to Westerbork, a transit camp in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands. From Westerbork, Dutch Jews were then deported to Auschwitz, Sobibor and other concentration or extermination camps in Nazi Germanoccupied Poland. NS earned millions of guilders from its transportation services to the German occupiers, today estimated at the equivalent of around 2.5 million euros. Dutch Jews were required to pay for their own travel costs, which were paid by the financial institution Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co., a Jewish bank that was established by the German occupiers to systematically confiscate all Jewish money, assets and valuables.
In 2014, 82-year-old Holocaust survivor Salo Muller started a campaign for compensation from NS after the French government announced its plans to compensate Holocaust survivors on behalf of the French national rail company SNCF. The French national railways transported French Jews and Roma to Nazi death camps and have decided to offer compensation totaling 60 million dollars. For the last four years, Muller has been negotiating with NS, and finally threatened legal action, but NS decided to avoid a legal process and set up a committee to arrange compensation. When NS made the announcement in November, this came as a complete surprise for Muller, who had been expecting a long legal battle. Van Boxtel believes that no one will benefit from a long-drawn-out legal process. The committee will examine how reimbursements will be allocated to survivors and their families. Muller believes the Dutch railways’ decision to reimburse Holocaust survivors is “extraordinary” because it means NS acknowledges that many Jews in the Netherlands still suffer emotionally from the Holocaust.
In 1941, Muller’s parents were arrested and held in the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theatre in Amsterdam, for some days. Five-year-old Muller was separated from his parents and stayed in the daycare across the street. While he stayed at the daycare, his carers found a foster home for him. During the war, more than 500 Jewish children survived the Holocaust because employees at the daycare hid children and found foster homes for them. During the war, Muller stayed with eight families; afterwards, he lived with this aunt and uncle, who survived the war. Muller’s parents did not survive. They stayed in Westerbork for eight weeks before they were deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered.
When Van Boxtel made the announcement in November, he commented in the Dutch television program Nieuwsuur: “At some point you have to say, I acknowledge the fact, not on legal grounds and in terms of liability, but on moral-ethical grounds”. In 2005, NS had already publically acknowledged its role in transporting and profiting from the deportation of Dutch Jews, but had not done anything for individual survivors, instead choosing to invest in collective monuments and educational programs. According to the chairman of the Sobibor Foundation, Maarten Eddes, NS financially supports an educational program for high school teachers in the Netherlands about the Holocaust. It includes a study program to the Operation Reinhard camps (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) in eastern Poland where more than two million Jews were systematically murdered. Eddes adds: “The study program allows high school teachers to have a better understanding of how the Holocaust was implemented and how teachers can relay that to their students, so that it will never happen again”.
In the Dutch late-night television program Pauw, Muller stated: “The committee should not take too much time in compensating survivors, because most of them are in their 80s and 90s.” Just a few days after the program aired, Selma Engel-Wijnberg, the last remaining Dutch survivor of Sobibor, died at the age of 96 at her home in the United States. Engel-Wijnberg was one of the 300 inmates of the extermination camp that participated in the uprising on October 14, 1943; she survived by living with peasants in the Polish countryside until the war ended. Engel-Wijnberg and her husband Chaim Engel (1916-2003), whom she met at Sobibor, spent the last decades of their lives speaking at American high schools telling young people about the Holocaust.