Television series The Jewish Council shows: both obedience and resistance led to diabolical dilemmas during the war

Which Jewish Dutch survived the Shoah? Was there a difference in status? “For one orange seller there were ten professors,” says Hans Knoop grimly. The journalist provided the introduction to the premiere of last Tuesday The Jewish Council. This historical drama series can be seen from Sunday on EO on NPO1. In his talk, Hans Knoop expressed the general assessment of the Jewish Council: self-righteous regents who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War to save their own skin and who resumed their old positions of power after the war. Knoop wrote a scathing book about the Jewish Council in 1983 and was the initiator of the new TV series.

Yet Knoop’s story is exactly what the historical series not wants to tell, say screenwriter Roos Ouwehand (Eyeballs) and historian Bart van der Boom after the premiere. They tried to empathize as best as possible with the council members and their impossible choices. Ouwehand: “While writing I had a problem: they are all committed people who are extremely committed to the Jewish community. So how do they get to the point where they think: I’m going to have people taken away to die? That is not correct from a scenario-technical and psychological point of view.”

The Jewish Council functioned as a mini-government for the isolated Jewish population during the German occupation (1940-1945) and was used by the Nazis to facilitate the deportation of 107,000 Jews to the extermination camps. Ouwehand: “I was almost done when I heard that someone in Leiden was writing a book about the Jewish Council.” That was historian Bart van der Boom. His book The politics of the lesser evil (2022) gave Ouwehand the key she was looking for: “That the Jewish Council did not know at all what happened at the end of the deportation line. We knew that the labor camps were horrible places, where reading was difficult, but not that almost everyone was killed immediately.” The council members acted in tragic ignorance, which makes the dilemma of the Jewish Council palpable to the viewers.

Obey or resist

Van der Boom: “When Roos told me about her struggle with Cohen’s character, I laughed and said: ‘that is exactly what historians struggle with’. We also work with empathy, trying to put ourselves in the shoes of historical figures. Do these actions and motives fit this figure? What did people think at that time? In this way, historians also try to turn it into a plausible story that today’s readers can follow.”

In the series, Ouwehand focuses on chairman David Cohen (Pierre Bokma) and his daughter Virrie (Claire Bender). The father cooperates with the Nazis to prevent worse. The daughter helps children into hiding who are about to be deported. The father stands for obedience, the daughter for resistance. That choice tears the family apart. “I focused on the father and the daughter and was thus able to bring that enormous, complicated, charged story closer. Two people make different choices and therefore drift apart. That is understandable and tangible for everyone.”

Ouwehand received his memoirs from chairman David Cohen, much of his text comes from those documents. “But I knew almost nothing about Virrie. It took a long time before I had an image of her. I think: you are young and then it will be war. For a long time you don’t understand what is happening, your father says that the war will be over soon. And slowly it gets worse, you see that your community is being pushed more and more into a corner. And then you join the resistance through a friend.” Virrie goes to work in the daycare center opposite the Hollandse Schouwburg in Amsterdam and takes over the management there from Henriëtte Pimentel, who has already been deported. She will participate in children’s work: taking Jewish children into hiding whose parents are waiting for deportation across the street in the theater.

HistorianBart van der Boom Because the Jewish Council did not know that almost all of the deported Jews were murdered, deportation seemed the lesser evil.

Ouwehand wanted to stay as close to the truth as possible. “I felt a great responsibility to make it right. I had too much rather than too little material – I could have written thirty-eight series. That was difficult at times. To keep it clear, I opted for a classic, linear narrative form.” She mainly tried to imagine what it had been like. “It had to be about the people, not about the mechanism or the action, as in many war series. I hope you will see that these are people who lived in a different time, but who are quite similar to us, and who also experience similar things: failed marriages, going out with friends, falling in love – that’s all possible too. also during wartime. In the memoirs of Gertrude van Tijn – one of the characters in the series – she describes that she always had many friends over, with the idea: for God’s sake, let’s find warmth in each other.”

Why did the Jewish Council cooperate with the occupier? Van der Boom: “The Jewish Council did not know that almost all of the deported Jews were murdered, so deportation seemed to be the lesser evil. They did know that resistance to the Nazis – such as around the February strike – was punished by the deportation of random Jewish citizens. So Cohen opted for obedience and cooperation, and against going into hiding, in the hope of alleviating the suffering.” This was not invented by Cohen, this was the old tactic of Jews to survive under a hostile regime. Cohen’s approach was widely shared during the war. Almost the entire government cooperated with the Nazis.

Van der Boom points to the effective specter of the Mauthausen concentration camp: “If you went into hiding and you were caught and sent there, you certainly would not survive.” The Dutch Jews therefore lived in fear of Mauthausen and had no idea what Auschwitz meant. “If you read diaries from that time you see that people actually had no idea what was happening there. They couldn’t imagine that hardly anyone would come back. Then you understand that people thought, which is intensely tragic: maybe I should just take an extra pair of warm socks with me because then I might survive that camp.” Chairman Cohen said after the war: we thought it was less bad that 4,000 people went to Auschwitz than 700 people went to Mauthausen. Van der Boom: “Many people made that consideration. Then it is not surprising that the Jewish Council thought: perhaps obedience is the lesser evil.”

After the war, Cohen was accused of selecting for the Nazis who would be deported and who would be exempt. His own family and employees of the Jewish Council were exempt. Ultimately, everyone was deported, including the Jewish Council. What does Van der Boom think about what Hans Knoop pointed out in his speech: that the Jewish council favored the elite and therefore itself over the Jewish proletariat in its selection? Van der Boom: “That is a difficult and painful point. Cohen’s belief was: when people return from the camps after the war, there must be leadership here in the Netherlands to rebuild the community. So you have to keep those leaders here. From his position as director, that was logical. At the same time, he also protected himself and his family, so there was self-interest involved. Again: he did not know that it was a choice between life and death.”

Virrie Cohen, played by Claire Bender
Photo EO/NPO.

With today’s knowledge, you still think while watching: Cohen was wrong and Virrie was the heroine. Ouwehand: “I have come to understand the motivations of both David and Virrie. And I hope that viewers will also sympathize with both characters.” At the end of the series we see Virrie struggling with the same problem as her father: she has to choose which children to let escape through the back door of the daycare, and which to bring to the other side through the front door. The series is therefore a series of devilish dilemmas. Ouwehand: “Of course that was the case all the time. Who does and who doesn’t? That is perhaps even more important than how her father has to choose.”