On International Holocaust Memorial day, January 27, Dutch news media reported the death at age 96 of Dutch TV playwright and journalist, Eli Asser. Asser was a household name growing up in The Netherlands in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of some of Dutch TV’s biggest comedies that everyone talked about. Although I may have been too young to get all the jokes, the shows, the songs and its writer with the big moustache are etched in my mind. Yet behind the happy image of all the comedies, there was an incredibly dark history.
As Jews, both Asser’s parents and siblings were deported and murdered and Eli himself barely escaped the same fate. He wisely decamped from Amsterdam – which was the center for deportations of Dutch Jews – to the ‘Apeldoornsche Bosch’ (translated as the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’), which was a Jewish psychiatric hospital with an attached children’s center in the Dutch countryside, far away from the escalating impact of the Nazi occupation. For a number of Jews the logic was that if one could get to work there, one would be relatively safe from the onslaught of the deportations and murder, which by 1942 were in full swing. So Asser and his future wife, Eva Croiset, moved to the facility where the twentyish Eli landed a job as a nurse in training. Unbeknownst to them, the clinic’s staff and all the other residents, the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ however had been shortlisted for evacuation, with all staff and patients slated for deportation and death. The German occupier had picked January 21, 1943 as the date for this and made the tactical mistake of sending an advance team to the facility a day before, to plan for the operation. Upon their departure it left most of the staff in the position to evaluate what would happen the next day, and more importantly the opportunity to make a run for it while they still could. This however posed a deep moral conundrum, which was this: do we escape and save ourselves from a certain death or, do we stick with the patients who need us now more than ever? Eli and Eva were torn but in the end rolled the dice and escaped that night, literally ran across the lands surrounding the facility and took cover for the rest of the war with farmers in the (then) remote province of Friesland. They survived the war.
The liquidation of the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ has gone down as one of the most cruel and violent chapters of Dutch war history. The Nazi’s low view of mentally retarded people, in this case all of them Jewish, was on full display as patients were dragged from their beds in the cold January night, often naked and disoriented. Together with staff they were kicked and beaten into awaiting trucks that took them to the Apeldoorn train station and put on a train that went straight to Auschwitz. The staff had made an incredible effort to prepare for the trip, with packed luggage, pre-packed food and meals, prescriptions and all medical supplies carefully organized, nothing of which the patients and staff were allowed to take on their ill-fated journey. Upon their departure the SS went in and destroyed everything they could see to pieces in a long orgy of hate and mindless destruction. Denying extremely vulnerable patients these very last dignities on the road to their deaths stands as a lasting testimony to the moral wasteland that Nazi ideology unleashed on Europe.
The 1200 patients and 50 staff arrived in Auschwitz and the patients were all killed upon arrival, none of the staff survived. There is very little historical evidence to be found on the latter part of this story, however there are a few accounts that described the unloading of the cattle trains with disoriented patients and their caregivers, some of whom were shot on the spot as they lacked the ability to comply with any of the instructions they were given. Those that were not shot were gassed. The one person to have witnessed this arrival was Rudolf Vrba, the well-known Auschwitz survivor who ended up living in Vancouver where he died in 2006.
Eli Asser’s daughter, Hella de Jonge, made a phenomenal documentary on her family’s wartime story and her parents daring escape from the Apeldoorn Forest, called ‘Don’t Lose Courage’ and it is in Dutch and available on YouTube here. What Hella captured was Asser’s dark side and the guilt he had carried with him for some seven decades for having survived something that none of his family members and people in his care at Apeldoorn Forest were able to.
Eli passed away in the very week that marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the gruesome evacuation of the Apeldoorn Forest and was announced by his daughter during a speech this Sunday, Holocaust Memorial Day. In a tweet to commemorate this day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed the six million victims by telling them that we “will never let you down”. It was a statement with a deep impact as it looked back and forward at the same time. Eli Asser did indeed believe that he had let some of them down and it tormented him for more than seventy years. May he rest in peace and may we never forget and never let down the patients and staff of the Apeldoorn Forest.
By contrasting nationalism with imperialism it becomes clear why the first is so much more preferable, says Yoram Hazony in a recent book
As we are bracing ourselves for the finale of Britain’s Brexit move, there is a plethora of opinions and articles telling us why this is a reckless move, yet there are very few cogent arguments as to why exiting the European Union (EU) makes total and logical sense. The Israeli writer and academic Yoram Hazony does not make the Brexit case per se, but he sets out a compelling argument that explains the evil that has befallen mankind from empires that have subdued nationalism in favour of all encompassing dogmatic visions of a better future. One does not have to look very far – Hitler, Stalin – to find some real life evidence and Hazony makes it clear that none of these men espoused nationalist instincts, in fact they sought to destroy these and therefore any comparison of present day nationalist tendencies are nowhere close to fascism or Nazism.
Hazony explains the continuum of the tribe that amalgamates with other tribes, in turn to form a nation, which in a possible next step could become subordinated by a larger empire. And while some may think it is rich to compare the former Soviet Union to the European Union, the dynamics are similar: a dominant nation leads the formation of a union, gives it an ideological foundation that is mostly unquestionable and the resulting combination will lead us to some sort of nirvana where the sovereignty of all constituent parts has been eroded, because in a perfect world you do not really need it. And where the Soviet Union was driven by Russia, in the new world Germany is more or less the force of empire: that which it was not able to do by force, it now has accomplished through ‘peaceful means’. I would add that the EU is not primarily driven by Germany; there is a Franco-German axis that has been moving this process forward. In that process in particular Belgium and Luxembourg act as the willing henchmen (think Juncker and Verhofstadt) executing the project and dragging along the naysayers.
The essence of the book is in how we need to understand ‘nationalism’ in positive terms as something that has helped build great nations and Hazony keeps going back to the examples of the British, French and Dutch ventures as they emerged and enabled phenomenal social, economic and cultural growth. He is right and it is also why we are seeing strong anti-EU movements in each of these very countries. As a born Dutchman, I fully subscribe to his positions, as the blood and toil of the 80-year war (1568-1648) that created its independence and unique culture (the consensus model that aligned Protestants and Catholics) has been signed away without much of a proper public consultation or vote. In the 1980s and 1990s we were taught and we all believed that ‘Europe’ was a good thing, a wealth and peace creator and no one in his or her right mind should question it. We consequently did not.
My arrival in Britain 1990 however provided me with a crash course in the downside of the European project, poignantly summarized by one of my erstwhile British colleagues who asked me “When did the European Economic Union as it was always known become the European Union?” I had no answer, it just happened.
Now that I am based in Canada and travel back to Europe regularly it has been bewildering for instance to see military on the streets of Athens to enforce the country’s debt restructuring. It has essentially turned Greece into some sort of indentured servant owned by the EU, mostly as it turns out by Germany. The omnipresent EU flag is now flown alongside the national flags and the question is when will it replace native colours entirely? At least the Dutch have recently decided to display their ‘red-white-blue’ in parliament to at least have a sense of national identity in the top-down avalanche of Euro-blue. Here in Canada I often wonder how all the liberals who speak so approvingly of the European project would settle in a world where their capital was in Dallas instead of Ottawa, their currency was the Americano and where, despite all well intentioned assurances, an American elite would drive most if not all of the decision making?
The point Hazony makes of course is that the more authority you let go and delegate upwards, the likelier it is you will never get it back. In the process national identities and decision making erode and at the local tribal level the average citizen will have a hard time to identify with the group and leadership that now apparently has come to represent them. The Brits consequently have taken an entirely logical step to try and release them from the imperial EU project. Maybe they can provide a way, much like Thatcher laid out, where independent European nations live and work together without such crushing tools as one currency or one political center. An eight percent blow to British GDP may in the end be a small price to pay for freedom and avoid the demise of their nation.
The book lays out a clear argument, but in the final chapters Hazony takes his reasoning one step further by explaining how this love of empire leads inevitably to deep criticism (and eventually hate) for countries that cling to and fight for their national identity and freedom. The USA, Hungary and Poland are getting the steady stream of abuse as we all know, but in no other case is this meted out as regularly and as harshly as against Israel. The Jewish nation has been so successful for close to 4,000 years precisely because it never sought empire, as instructed in the bible where good neighbourly relations where laid out as a guiding principle. Jews also learned that no nation would lift a finger to prevent their annihilation, their justifiable claim to security has forever been shaped by that one experience, the Holocaust. The contempt for Israel is – apart from the reflexive and deep rooted anti-Semitism – driven by looking down on the Jews’ outdated attachment to the concept of nation in a world where open borders and joint sovereignty is the way forward, according to the ‘European elites’. Hazony puts it succinctly when he argues that Auschwitz helped create Israel, but Israel’s critics argue that Jews by standing up for their nation’s borders and freedom have essentially become Auschwitz. Think that one through.
Hazony’s book is a thought provoking and refreshing read. So it is sobering to see how far the European empire has moved ahead and how deep the hate is against those nations that are swimming against the tide. Yet it may not be too late, but unwinding the EU will be an unpleasant and potentially violent (Brexit, the riots in Paris) process. Letting it go forward unchecked however will not be unpleasant, it will be dark.
Photo: the EU blue alongside the Bulgarian flag in Sofia, June 2018.