AMSTERDAM — June 1945: “The dead walk along in endless rows,” wrote Elie Dasberg, a Dutch Jew who survived Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and returned here to what had been, before the Holocaust, his home. “From the demolished houses their faces stare. There is no square, no street without memories. Because the endless row keeps traveling along.”
But the ordeal was not over. The few Dutch Jews who survived the vast bureaucratic horror of the Germans’ “final solution”—the “banality of evil” described by Hannah Arendt—found added to their injuries an insult by the Dutch bureaucracy.
Amsterdam’s city administration fined Holocaust survivors for being late paying the rent on the land their houses were built on, the so-called leasehold payment. The city administrators were unmoved by the fact those who came back did so from the concentration camps and the city fathers chose to ignore the fact that Nazi opportunists were living in many of the properties.
In an attempt to make amends, Amsterdam’s city council this month pledged €10 million ($11.13 million) to the Jewish community. Some of the money reportedly will go to the new National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.
The record of this affront to basic decency only recently came to light. Just after the war ended in 1945, Jewish Holocaust survivors had written heartbreaking letters to the city of Amsterdam, but those somehow went missing. Then 270 turned up in the city’s archives only three years ago. In the letters, Amsterdam Jews who survived the concentration camps or returned from hiding, argued—pleaded—against administrative fines for being late on their leasehold payments.
“You will have noticed that I still exist and work, albeit not as a doctor and not in Amsterdam, where my house was pillaged and is lived in by others,” Dr. J. Schrijver wrote to a friend in the Amsterdam city council. “Because of my 2 1/2 year forced stay in concentration camps I have, of course, not been able to pay my leasehold payments. I have to rebuild my existence and have to, relieved of all property and income, pay taxes and mortgage interest due…. Because of these circumstances it is quite impossible for me to pay the owed amount.”
During the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, the Jewish population was robbed of its houses, bank accounts and other possessions. Homes often were sold to Nazi “war buyers.” After they saw the odds of winning turn against them, these new “owners” mostly left their bills unpaid.
The fact that Dutch Jewish physician J. Schrijver and others were picked up by collaborationist bounty hunters and shipped off in cattle wagons to various concentration camps may not come as a surprise. After all, 75 percent of the estimated 150,000 Jewish people in the Netherlands at the beginning of the war did not survive. But the fact that, when he finally was back in Amsterdam, the city decided to charge him fines for failing to pay his leasehold struck many Dutch today as, to put it mildly, a little insensitive.
In an effort to restore the historic damage the caused by the city government, Amsterdam’s current mayor, Eberhard Van der Laan, announced the “leasehold fines” case was to be researched and “no stone left unturned” to set things right.
“Where did it really go wrong?” World War II historian Hinke Piersma asked herself. She and Jeroen Kemperman were the two specialists assigned the task of reconstructing what had happened.
According to Piersma, what on the surface appears to be cruel policy targeting Holocaust survivors turned out to be a classic case of blind bureaucracy.
Right after the war, the Dutch government decided that all anti-Jewish laws implemented during the German occupation were to be abolished.
“It was meant to give back their rights to people who suffered through the war,” Piersma told The Daily Beast. “Jewish people for instance, had lost their bank accounts, their houses and everything in it. That needed restoration.”
But in post-war Amsterdam the city did everything it could to distance itself ideologically from the German occupation, and the city council did not want to feel responsible for what it saw as the fault of the German occupier.
In making any sort of distinction among citizens it felt as though the new administration would do what the Germans had done. In post-war Amsterdam everyone had to be equal and thus be treated as such.
“Unfortunately the implication was that Jewish home owners were again responsible for the unpaid taxes on their houses.” Piersma says, “The leasehold taxes were part of that.”
The city hoped people would sort it out among themselves and introduced procedures to facilitate that: What to do if there is still someone living in your house, or what to do with the upkeep of the house, the bills due etc. Amsterdam justified its policy by pointing to the new laws.
But, says Piersma, “There is no justification for the fines. We felt we needed to dig deeper. We wanted to know to what extent Amsterdam diverged from other Dutch cities.”
What the historians found was painful and sobering. “As far as we’ve been able to establish, Amsterdam was the only city [in the Netherlands] in which fines were added to the outstanding bills.” Piersma says.
To this day cities have lawyers to advise on difficult issues. This case was no different, and the lawyer advising Amsterdam in 1947 argued against exacting fines. But the city council decided not to heed his advice. The imposition of the fines was purely local policy.
Immediately after the occupation ended in 1945, the letters of complaint started pouring in. “And then they [the city council] decided in all their wisdom, in 1947, to deduct 50 percent from the fine.”
Significantly, the bureaucrats who had worked under German occupation were still in place after the war ended. Most notable among them was a Mr. De Graaff, still responsible for all the cases involving leasehold bills.
He had been directing the city council department dealing with the taxes since 1926.
“De Graaff thought he had to do right by everyone in the city of Amsterdam,” Piersma says. “That was his focus.” And the individual was completely subservient to his idea of the common good.
“Don’t forget: Amsterdam, at that time was dead poor,” said Piersma. De Graaff represented what was, she says, the epitome of bureaucracy as described by German sociologist Max Weber in the late 19th century.
According to Weber a bureaucracy was more reliable than any other form of organization, because it was devoid of subjective, unreliable emotions.
“A civil servant is neutral, not swept away by emotions.” Piersma says. “You can see in him an evil genius, but De Graaff, and others like him, felt they couldn’t make exceptions because that would be an almost lethal sin.”
The fining of Holocaust survivors may not have been orchestrated as an evil ploy, but just the same it touches on the organizational evil so often seen in the Nazi regime.
And today, as Europe and the Netherlands face the challenge of a massive migrant influx, among other social problems, one has to ask: Have things changed fundamentally since 1947? Has the bureaucratic mentality in the Netherlands become more humane, more empathetic?
Our awareness of the devastation of the Dutch Jewish community in the Second World War may have grown, and with it our horror at the rigidity of the post-war regulation. But are we really more understanding about human suffering and its consequences?
Piersma hesitates. “I wonder how much has changed since then— if it is any easier to tread outside the rules for us now,” she says. “It is often said that with what we know today, we look differently at the past, but that suggests an evolution in empathy. Personally, I have my doubts. Maybe, possibly, we are a little better equipped to deal with exceptions.”