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