It was the summer of 1943 in Amsterdam, falling under the Nazi-occupied territory. Several Jewish children, between infancy to 12 years of age, were found to be smuggled secretly from a nursery to a day-care centre.
The centre was adjacent to the Reformed Teacher Training College where 32-year-old Johan van Hulst was the principal at that time. He was rumoured to be supervising the entire operations of smuggling these children to the countryside and cautiously removing some of their names from the list – the dreaded list of Jewish children to be deported to concentration camps.
Putting his own life at risk, van Hulst rescued over 600 Jewish children who would otherwise have been brutally choked to death in the poisonous gas chambers, under the regime of Hitler.
Johan van Hulst, who passed away last year at 107, was recognised as a hero by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Efforts For Good takes a walk down the tainted memory lanes of Nazi Germany to celebrate a true braveheart.
Jewish children were forcibly separated from their mothers
The Netherlands came under German occupation in 1940, and by 1942, the Nazi authorities started deporting the Jewish people to the death camps in Poland. The next two years saw over 1,07,000 Jews being sent to the death camps, of whom merely 5,200 survivors were left in the end, as per the records of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
At that time, Jewish children younger than 12 years of age were forcibly taken away from their parents at the transit camps. Babies were snatched from the breasts of nursing mothers, and the muffled cries of separated young toddlers soon died down within the nurseries where they were temporarily kept before being sent to death camps.
How van Hulst decided to save the children
A detention centre for the Dutch Jews was set up in a theatre hall across the street from van Hulst’s college. From there, the separated Jewish toddlers were sent to the crèche next to the college, managed by Henriëtte Pimentel.
When the number of children in the crèche became too large, the Nazis demanded some of the children be shifted to parts of van Hulst’s college. That was when a dangerous idea crossed Hulst’s mind that ended up saving the lives of hundreds of innocent kids.
An ingenious yet dangerous plan
He coordinated with the crèche owner Pimentel and Walter Süskind, a German Jew leading the unfortunate lot at the Amsterdam transit camp. Together, they secretly started smuggling the children, one by one, over the hedge that demarcated the boundary between the college and the crèche.
Evading the stringent eyes of the Nazis, van Hulst hid these children inside a classroom for days, providing them with optimum care and comfort, until they were handed over to Dutch Resistance Groups to be transferred to safety in the countryside.
A few seconds to save hundreds
Süskind and van Hulst ensured to surreptitiously remove names of children from the official Nazi list. Thus, they could be transferred to safety without any hindrance. He devised an ingenious and quite foolproof plan for the same.
Every day at a specific time, a tram used to stop on the street between van Hulst’s college and the detention centre, blocking the college entrance from the view of the Nazi guards. In that flash of a moment, van Hulst would transfer the children away, hidden in baskets and sacks, and take them to safer places underground. Over the course of a few months, he managed to save more than 600 Jewish children this way.
The regret that stayed with him
Afterwards, in the September of 1943, the crèche was shut down, with around 100 children still inside it, who, unfortunately, were a few of the millions of victims of history’s most horrifying genocide. Though van Hulst managed to escape with 12 children, he always regretted the fact that he failed to safeguard the others.
Years later, after the war, as the world showered van Hulst with honours and awards, the aged man quietly rued the death of the children whom he could not save. Throughout his lifetime, he never liked the portrayal of him as a hero, as he always reiterated his wish to have saved more.
Efforts For Good will continue to bring you more unheard stories of the world’s unsung heroes, in an attempt to preserve their names in bright letters in the pages of history.