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So Sorry

The old story: European politician gets in trouble, helps the Jews.

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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But in the slow period after the Christmas holidays, a reporter for De Pers, Dirk Jacob Nieuwboer, took a closer look at Judging the Netherlands. He found that the book included interviews with a couple of retired Dutch politicians who had been active in the 1997 negotiations, and who made comments on a subject the book didn’t treat, but was much sexier: the holocaust of Dutch Jewry itself, and how little the Dutch government in exile in London during the war tried to do to prevent Holland’s Jews from being deported and largely exterminated.

Nieuwboer’s story was printed on January 3, headlined “Sorry About Looking the Other Way.” Its subhead told the story: “The Dutch government in London said almost nothing about the Holocaust. Apologies would be in order, according to Gerrit Zalm and Else Borst”​—​the two politicians quoted in Gerst-enfeld’s book.

As a child, Gerstenfeld was in hiding in the Netherlands until the very end of the war, but the politicians he quoted have no particular expertise on the 1940-45 Nazi occupation of Holland. One was a child during the war; the other is a baby boomer. (This period was not the subject of the negotiations in which Zalm and Borst were involved in the ’90s.) Gerstenfeld quotes their conventional and reasonable indignation about the fate of Dutch Jews (71 percent perished) and their stern judgments about the wartime behavior of Queen Wilhelmina, grandmother of the present Queen Beatrix. The government in exile, according to Zalm, a conservative, “took a rather slack attitude regarding the persecution of Dutch Jews.” Borst, a Christian Democrat, was more passionate and felt she could see more deeply into the racist motivation of the Dutch government in London.

“They, along with many others, saw Jewish Dutch citizens as a special group and thought: ‘We have real Dutch people and we have Jewish Dutch people.’ ” Borst told Gerstenfeld that she “believes the response by the Dutch wartime government in exile would have been tougher had Nazis been deporting Catholics or Protestants.” (One should note here that the Nazis did deport Catholic and Protestant Dutch men, by the scores of thousands, to work in forced levees in the defense of Germany in the later years of the war.) Gerstenfeld himself spoke to Nieuwboer from Israel, advising the Dutch government not to wait for a request from the Jewish community, but to apologize immediately. “It’s not up to [the Jewish community] whether or not you should apologize. This is a debt of honor.”

Wilders saw an opening. Within a few hours, a tweet let it be known that he had sent a letter to the prime minister (who is also his cabinet colleague) demanding such an apology. The tweet echoed the language of the De Pers story: “Apologies from the Dutch government are in order after the weak response of the government-in-exile to persecution of the Jews during WWII.” The tweet linked to a Freedom party press release detailing three questions which Wilders tabled in parliament for his prime minister: Had he seen the news story? What did he think of Borst and Zalm’s opinion that the government should apologize? Was he ready to announce such an apology and if not, why not?

Wilders’s challenge to his colleague and his strongly implied criticism of the royal family was much bigger news than the opinions that Borst and Zalm expressed to Gerstenfeld two years earlier. It was so big it was picked up abroad. When the Washington Post and AP reported the story the next day, it was Wilders who played the leading role: “Wilders: Dutch government should apologize for ‘passive’ attitude to WWII deportation of Jews,” ran the headline. The “outspoken Dutch lawmaker . . . is best known for his strident criticism of Islam and also is a strong supporter of Israel.”

The demand for an apology was echoed by the president of the Auschwitz Committee, the Netherlands’ most prominent Holocaust remembrance organization. But -others who might have been sympathetic to the idea seemed to have been alienated by Wilders’s association with it. Selma Leydesdorff, who led a flamboyant radical feminist group in the early ’70s, is an oral historian of the Holocaust, writing copiously about the camp in Sobibor where scores of Dutch citizens were exterminated. She refused to align herself with Wilders: The present queen, she said, had offered far more than the formal apology Wilders called for when she addressed the Knesset in 1995, after being shown the honors that Yad Vashem paid to heroic Dutch men and women who saved so many Jews. “But we also know that they were the exceptions, and the people of the Netherlands could not prevent the destruction of their Jewish fellow citizens.”

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