Standing Firm Under Nazi Occupation in the Netherlands
THE United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) displays the world’s largest collection of artifacts and films documenting the crimes committed by the Nazis during World War II. Since the museum opened to the public in 1993, some 12 million visitors have explored this increasingly popular exhibit, located in Washington, D.C.
The museum also displays some documentation of the intense persecution suffered by Jehovah’s Witnesses under the Nazi regime. In addition to the limited permanent exhibits, the USHMM has presented a series of special programs on Jehovah’s Witnesses. These programs have highlighted specific examples of endurance and integrity on the part of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On April 8, 1999, the museum sponsored a special presentation entitled “Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands Under Nazi Occupation.” It was held in the museum’s two large auditoriums.
The program began with opening remarks from Ms. Sara Jane Bloomfield, executive director of the USHMM. Ms. Bloomfield expressed a genuine interest in the story of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In an interview with Awake! she explained that a great effort is being made to increase public awareness of the integrity of Jehovah’s Witnesses under persecution. “Events like this one,” she said, “are advertised in the same manner as all other important programs held at the museum.”
Several historians were present and shared in the program that evening. One of them was Dr. Lawrence Baron, professor of modern German and Jewish history at San Diego State University. In his discourse Dr. Baron stated that “Jehovah’s Witnesses admirably resisted any complicity with the Third Reich.” He noted that the Witnesses “placed their faith in God above the demands of the Nazi state. They viewed the leadership cult of Hitler as a secular form of worship and refused to sanction his deification by giving the Nazi salute or saying, ‘Heil Hitler.’ . . . Since God commanded them to love their neighbor and not to kill others, they refused military service . . . When ordered by the Third Reich to stop holding their services, Witnesses typically responded, ‘We must obey God as ruler rather than men.’” For this, many Witnesses from several European countries were sent to concentration camps, tortured, and even executed.
The USHMM invited Dutch researchers and a group of Holocaust survivors to provide examples of Nazi persecution against Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands. On May 29, 1940, shortly after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Jehovah’s Witnesses, numbering about 500, were banned in that country. Over the months that followed, hundreds of Witnesses were arrested. In an effort to obtain the names of other Witnesses, the authorities tortured those arrested. By the end of the war, more than 450 Witnesses had been arrested. Of these, more than 120 died as a direct result of the persecution.
A Dutch researcher explained that the Netherlands branch office of the Watch Tower Society has in its archives “more than 170 video interviews and 200 written life stories of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands who survived the Holocaust. All of it shows that what motivated the Witnesses was their love for God and their fellowman.”
Several speakers emphasized the fact that unlike other groups targeted by the Nazis, most of Jehovah’s Witnesses could have obtained their freedom simply by signing a declaration renouncing their beliefs. Still, both the speakers and those interviewed explained that the vast majority of Witnesses made a rational and well-informed choice to accept persecution rather than compromise. A few individuals signed because they wanted to end their association with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There were some who signed the declaration in confusion. These never intended to abandon their form of worship. A few felt morally justified in misleading their persecutors in order to gain freedom and return to their preaching activities. At some point after their release, they realized that regardless of their motives, signing the declaration was wrong.
Their error in judgment did not result in ostracism. As they returned to their homes and congregations, they received spiritual assistance. A letter from the Netherlands branch office of the Watch Tower Society, dated June 1942, encouraged the Witnesses in that land to understand the circumstances that led some to sign the declaration and to treat them mercifully. Although the Nazi occupation was still a fact, soon these former prisoners were again sharing in the preaching work, and this at great risk. Some were arrested a second time. One of them was even executed because he refused to share in military activities.
Despite much suffering and years of tense, dangerous underground work, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands grew in number from some 500 in 1940 to more than 2,000 when Nazi rule ended in 1945. Their courage and determination to obey God stands as a great witness down to this day.
[Picture on page 25]
Researchers addressed the assembled group
[Picture on page 25]
An interview with Dutch survivors of the Holocaust