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The Jewish Woman Who Was the Liaison Between the Nazis and American Rescue Groups

In 1941, Gertrude van Tijn traveled to Lisbon in a last-ditch effort to save Europe’s Jews from annihilation. She was already too late.

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Gertrude van Tijn in her office at the Jewish Council, Amsterdam, 1942. (Courtesy of the Collection of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam)
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One morning in May 1941 Gertrude van Tijn—a middle-aged Jewish woman bearing a Dutch passport—arrived at Lisbon airport after an adventurous journey from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

The Portuguese capital at that time was a place of strange incongruities and topsy-turvy values: an island of peace in a continent at war, the seat of government of an authoritarian police state that boasted of being Britain’s “oldest ally,” and a magnet for international intrigue. The city was also the main embarkation point for refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe seeking desperately to secure passages to the Western Hemisphere.

Who was Gertrude van Tijn, and why had she come to Lisbon? Hers was a mission of mercy. Though she did not yet fully realize it herself, the trip was an 11th-hour effort to avert mass murder. Her aim was to extricate thousands of Jews in the Netherlands from the clutches of the Nazis. She undertook her journey with the approval of the Nazi authorities, who, at that stage, were still ready to countenance, indeed keen to encourage, Jewish emigration.

In Lisbon she was to meet representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a wealthy charitable organization concerned with the fate of the Jews of Europe. She was to inquire whether the Joint, as it was known, would finance the exodus of Jews from occupied Europe across the Atlantic.

That the Nazis would permit a woman, a Jew, and a person of no apparent standing to carry out such an assignment seemed improbable. Yet Gertrude’s flight to Lisbon was the stuff not of fantasy but of bizarre reality.

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“Almost all the things I remember of my childhood are acts of rebellion,” Gertrude wrote in her unpublished memoirs. She called herself an “exasperating child,” and the independent-minded outlook with which she approached everything throughout her life was deeply rooted in her character and in the circumstances of her upbringing.

Gertrud Franzisca Cohn, as her name was rendered on her birth certificate, entered the world “during the worst hailstorm in history” on July 4, 1891, in Braunschweig (Brunswick), the historic “Lion City” in Saxony. Her father, Werner Cohn, a merchant, had been born in 1854 in the small town of Seehausen and moved to Braunschweig in 1879. Her mother, Thekla, née Levisohn, ten years younger than her husband, married him five years before Gertrude’s birth. Gertrude had two brothers, the elder, Ernst, and the youngest of the family, Walter, to whom Gertrude was particularly devoted.

The Cohns belonged to the respectable middle class, and Gertrude was imbued from an early age with the social and moral attitudes of the German bourgeoisie: scrupulous manners; tidiness; order; cleanliness; discipline; and respect for authority, education, and conventional morality. But Gertrude, like many German Jews of her generation, was barely aware in her childhood that she was Jewish. Together with her nanny and her brother Walter, she attended church every Sunday and “firmly believed in God and in Jesus.” She may even have been baptized.

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 raised a potential conflict of loyalties for Gertrude, who was by then working in London, first as a secretary and then as a factotum for a lawyer-author. As an enemy alien, she was required to report regularly to the police. While continuing her work and political activity in the suffragist movement, she joined some of her English relations in a relief effort on behalf of the tens of thousands of Belgians who had flooded into England in the wake of the German invasion of their country. This was her first involvement with refugees, a concern that was to become the leitmotif of her life.

In 1915, she was given 10 days to leave the country. If she had remained, she would have been interned with other German civilians until the end of the war. As she was “fiercely anti-German,” she decided to go to a neutral country rather than return to Germany. The choice was between Switzerland and Holland. The toss of a coin decided, fatefully, that for the next three decades the Netherlands would be her home base.

In Amsterdam, Gertrude discovered a new passion: Zionism. At a dinner party, she met “a very attractive young man” (Gertrude does not give his name) who, when she said she was Jewish, began to talk about Zionism. He persuaded her to read some Zionist literature, including Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. “Suddenly my interest was aroused. I read and read. The fact that Jews could be proud of their heritage and actually worked for a renaissance in a country of their own was like a revelation.” She felt she had to come to a decision: “Stop calling myself Jewish or go over to the Zionists with all my heart.”

Gertrude plunged headlong into the Jewish national cause. When her father heard that she had embraced Zionism, he disapproved. “He could not understand it,” she later wrote, “seeing how well I had been brought up.” This was the typical reaction of an assimilated, middle-class German Jew. But on this, as on so much else in her life, Gertrude, once she made up her mind, was not to be moved.

Why did she adopt this, at at the time, apparently quixotic, even eccentric creed? She certainly had no religious motive, since she had led a thoroughly secular life. She seems rather to have found in Zionism an ideal that she could embrace unconditionally, an outlet for her restless energy, and a circle of young fellow enthusiasts with whom she could engage.

Her earliest recorded formal contact with the Zionist Organization came in a letter in August 1916, addressed to the head office of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in The Hague. This was the movement’s financial arm, concerned with the purchase of land in Palestine for settlement by Jewish immigrant halutzim, or pioneers. Soon after the outbreak of war the fund’s headquarters had moved from Cologne to shelter under the umbrella of Dutch neutrality. In her letter Gertrude requested “one guilder worth of stamps of the JNF, preferably with the Herzl portrait.”

Gertrude’s knowledge of English, German, and Dutch led to her engagement as translator of correspondence and publications for the JNF. By February 1917, she was running the JNF’s commissariat in Amsterdam. From her office in the elegant Diamond Exchange building on the Weesperplein, she was soon busy organizing propaganda and fundraising. Zionist activity in the city was at a low ebb, but Gertrude breathed renewed life into the movement in the Dutch capital. Her Zionist ardor even led her to consider moving to Palestine to work for the JNF bureau there. But the country was the theater of military operations between its Turkish rulers and an Allied invading army headed by Gen. Edmund Allenby. Settling there was thus impracticable for the time being.

Her work brought Gertrude into the heart of Zionist affairs. She met many Zionist leaders, among them Chaim Weizmann. He was at the peak of his prestige as the man who, in November 1917, persuaded the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration, favoring the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Like many who encountered him, Gertrude was captivated by the majesty of Weizmann’s personality, the pathos of his oratory, and the visionary realism of his politics. She cherished his acquaintance for the rest of her life.

During this period, Gertrude also came into contact for the first time with the the Joint. She probably owed this connection to Pieter Vuyk, who acted during the war as an intermediary for communications between the Hamburg-based banker-philanthropist Max Warburg and the New York headquarters of the Joint, in which his brother Felix Warburg played a central role. With the support of the Joint, Gertrude organized the dispatch of kosher food parcels to Jewish prisoners of war in eastern Europe. Although the Joint offered her a full-time job at an increased salary, she preferred to remain in her position as private secretary to Carel Eliza Ter Meulen, one of the most senior and respected financiers in the Netherlands. The link she established with the Joint nevertheless later became central to her working life.

In February 1920, Gertrude married Jacques van Tijn, a mining engineer two years her junior. They had first met in 1917, when he admired a fiery speech she delivered at a Zionist meeting. Gertrude found him “ugly but with a great deal of charm.” His father was a factory owner and an Orthodox Jew; his mother came from a family of wealthy Jewish industrialists. Worldly and urbane, with an eye for the ladies, Jacques had spent some time in Russia, an experience from which he retained a penchant for Russian cigarettes. By dint of her marriage to Jacques, Gertrude acquired Dutch nationality. Her naturalization probably seemed like little more than a formality. Only later did it assume great significance.

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In May 1940, German troops marched into Amsterdam. Gertrude’s marriage to van Tijn was over, and she was then living alone in the city, serving as secretary of the Committee for Jewish Refugees, which had been formed in response to the Nazi boycott of Jewish business in 1933.

Over the next few months Gertrude strained every sinew to extricate Jews from Germany. Since the Dutch administration was still nominally charged with routine decision-making, she continued to meet Dutch officials. She wrote or cabled almost daily to New York and Lisbon, where the Joint had re-established its European head office in June 1940, just before the fall of Paris. By the autumn, she was no longer concerned solely with refugees from Germany. Many Dutch Jews were now clamoring to leave. As anxiety turned to panic, Gertrude’s office broadened the scope of its activity and sought to arrange emigration for as many Jews as might be able to procure tickets and visas.

But hardly was one obstruction surmounted than another loomed. A group of about 150 refugees who had been due to leave Holland for the United States on May 10, 1940, probably on the Veendam, found that the German invasion led to the cancellation of their departures. Their U.S. visas had lapsed, and they had to begin all over again the cumbersome application process. The German bombing of Rotterdam had destroyed the American consulate there, together with its archives, leaving many would-be emigrants without the needed documentation. The American consul in the city adopted an unhelpful, strict-constructionist approach to such problems. Gertrude appealed to the Joint for intervention at the State Department since the consul’s attitude was causing “grave injustice.” But there was little readiness in Washington for any flexibility on immigration issues.

In April 1941, Gertrude was suddenly summoned to appear before a senior SS officer in Amsterdam. The SS officer, she recalled, questioned her about possibilities for Jewish emigration. Soon after this interview, Gertrude received an exit permit to proceed to Lisbon.

Gertrude arrived in Portugal on May 2, 1941. The Joint’s chief European representative, Morris Troper, met her at the airport and escorted her to the Palácio Hotel. After resting from her journey, she quickly got down to business and exchanged information with Troper on the plight of the Jews in occupied Europe. She reported that conditions for Jews in Holland were “rapidly worsening.” Recently, “very disturbing articles” by Dutch Nazis had appeared in the press calling for the deportation of German Jews to the so-called Lublin reservation in Poland. The Westerbork refugee camp had been transformed into “a hermetically closed labor camp,” though it remained under the administrative control of a Dutch military commandant.

The main objective of Gertrude’s visit was to ask for help from the Joint in securing trans-Atlantic passages for refugees reaching Lisbon from Germany and the Netherlands. She confronted formidable hurdles. To Portuguese obstruction, severe competition for limited shipping space, and American quota restrictions were added growing American anxiety about spies and fifth-columnists. Even as Gertrude was in Lisbon, the Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long testified to Congress that tighter visa controls were essential “as a sieve or screen … excluding persons who might be sent into the United States by interested governments in the guise of refugees.”

Without making any specific dollar commitment or limitation, Troper undertook that the Joint would do whatever was feasible to obtain trans-Atlantic passages for refugees reaching Lisbon. Also there at the same time was Solomon Trone, who was working with the Joint on the Santo Domingo settlement scheme. Trone undertook to arrange for as many Dominican visas as possible to be dispatched to Amsterdam.

Gertrude and Troper coordinated another arrangement to facilitate emigration, at least for some Jews. Before leaving Holland, they would hand cash to Gertrude, who would help arrange their departure to a neutral country such as Switzerland. Once there, the money would be repaid from funds provided by the Joint. Although this would directly benefit only better-off Jews, it would provide a mechanism for illicitly moving Joint funds through the Allied blockade, to finance aid to Jews in Holland.

Immediately upon Gertrude’s return to Amsterdam in the second week of May 1941, she was again summoned to SS headquarters to report on her trip to the same official who had dispatched her. According to Gertrude’s account, he addressed her with crude discourtesy and made her stand throughout the interview. He seemed dissatisfied with the Joint’s failure to commit a specific sum for shipping passages, although Gertrude assured him that whatever was necessary would become available.

A few days later, Gertrude wrote to Lisbon that “the situation here is extremely trying and the nerves of all our friends, who are waiting for their exits, are very much on edge.” But Gertrude remained optimistic that a larger exodus might be feasible. “We still have no organized emigration,” she wrote to Saly Mayer in Switzerland on May 28, “but we suppose that it will soon begin.”

The Germans still remained interested in the departure of Jews from Europe, though they now prioritized getting rid of those closest to home. Hermann Göring, effectively the number two man in the Reich, issued a decree that month ordering Jewish emigration from Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to be “stepped up in spite of the war, in so far as this was humanly possible,” though, in order to facilitate the removal of Jews from the Reich, departure from France and Belgium were to be prohibited.

In the case of the Netherlands, Nazi policy seemed to be in flux. Over the previous few weeks, policy toward the Jews in Holland had become an object of infighting among competing elements in the Nazi machine. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reichskommissar, wishing to retain at least some degree of control over the Jewish issue, had no desire to empower the SS and so delayed approving guidelines for the Zentralstelle. The matter was not settled until the end of July, when an order from Göring placed full authority for the solution of the Jewish problem “in the form of emigration or evacuation” squarely in the hands of the SS.

From The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn, the Nazis, and the Jews, by Bernard Wasserstein. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Bernard Wasserstein. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The Jewish Woman Who Was the Liaison Between the Nazis and American Rescue Groups

In 1941, Gertrude van Tijn traveled to Lisbon in a last-ditch effort to save Europe’s Jews from annihilation. She was already too late.