"Jews in the Netherlands had far and away the lowest survival rate of Jews in Europe...only 27 percent of Dutch Jews survived," the author of "Amsterdam" told Washington's National Press Club April 19.
Russell Shorto, author of "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" (Doubleday), gave the very timely talk during Passover; a few days after Jews in Donetsk, Ukraine were handed leaflets demanding that Jews register and pay a fine or be deported; less than a week after a known anti-Semite killed three people at two Jewish centers outside Kansas City; and a week before the annual National Days of (Holocaust) Remembrance Apr. 27-May 4.
Shorto's book notes that Holland's Holocaust history is a tragic exception to that nation's history of liberalism and tolerance.
"Of approximately 80,000 Jews in Amsterdam at the start of the war, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time it was over, most of them in concentration camps," he wrote. "The Dutch themselves aided, inadvertently but with great efficiency, in a systematic effort at eradicating their country's liberal heritage."
"That's the most difficult thing for me to grasp -- how did that happen there," Shorto commented at the National Press Club (NPC) book talk.
One factor, he explained, was that the Germans and the local Nazi party NSB "treated the Dutch very differently than they treated people in Poland. The Dutch were Aryan, so they were 'okay'. So that allowed the Dutch to not completely comprehend what was going on."
When they did realize the situation, the Dutch resistance aided Jews. The most daring and wide-ranging resistance operation was run by two brothers, Walraven and Gijs van Hall, from a patrician family of bankers. The brothers even orchestrated robbing the Dutch National Bank in Amsterdam. They stole 50 million guilders (equivalent of about half a billion dollars today) by substituting false treasury bonds for real ones, cashing them at other banks, and using a network of 2,000 couriers to distribute envelopes of cash to Jews in hiding and others most in need.
Still, only 27 percent of the Jews living in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust, compared to 75 percent of Jews living in France during the Nazi period.
"The Dutch have a hard time contending with that history," he noted. "...It led them to being the most flamboyant country in celebrating the '60s."
He added modestly, "It's easy for me to pontificate about that but I need to ask myself how I would have reacted" during the Holocaust.
Shorto spent much time with Holocaust survivor Frieda Brommet Menco, a friend of Anne Frank's from childhood and throughout Auschwitz. Telling history through individuals' stories, such as Frieda, the van Hall brothers, and the great philosopher Spinoza, is just one of many ways that the author brings centuries of history to life.
"Life is absurd. It has no meaning. But it has beauty, and wonder, and we have to enjoy that," Frieda told the author, who ended "Amsterdam" on that note.
For more info: "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" (Doubleday), by Russell Shorto. Another of his award-winning best-sellers is "The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America" (Doubleday). After living in Amsterdam for six years, Shorto and his family moved recently to Cumberland, Maryland. A contributing writer for "The New York Times Magazine", he's also working on two books. One is about the history of his family in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where "they ran the Mafia."