For his latest film, Occupied City, the British artist Steve McQueen has turned his sights on the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, his home town.
McQueen’s documentary is informed by the 2019 book, Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945, by Dutch author and film director – and McQueen’s wife – Bianca Stigter. Film critic Peter Bradshaw has described it as a “monumental survey-meditation” on daily life under German rule.
For just over four hours, the camera tracks through modern-day Amsterdam; the voiceover describing the horrors the Nazis perpetrated in its streets, squares and buildings. A prison yard where captured Jews were held is now an open space overlooked by the Hard Rock Cafe. The secret police headquarters is now a school.
I have spent four decades researching how Jews responded to Nazi oppression. As detailed in my book Individuals and Small Groups in Jewish Resistance to the Holocaust, Amsterdam was the site of a unique act of defiance on February 9 1941, the day Dutch Nazis attacked the city’s Jewish neighbourhood.
A campaign of terror
On May 15 1940, five days after the Germans invaded the Netherlands, the Dutch army capitulated and an occupation regime was instituted.
The Dutch adopted an uncertain but overall passive attitude, because, following five days of warfare, the German occupiers appeared to act with restraint. However, during the autumn of 1940, Jews were increasingly struck by discriminatory measures aimed at their segregation from non-Jews. This separation was enforced by a campaign of terror. From the end of 1940, Dutch Nazis participated in that campaign.
About 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands, just over 1% of the population of the small, flat country on the North Sea. Jews had been integrating into Dutch society, but economic crises and the rise of Nazism hampered this process.
Jews mostly resided in towns, foremost in Amsterdam. The capital counted 65,000 Jewish inhabitants, concentrated in several neighbourhoods, including the old Jewish quarter near the city centre.
On Sunday, February 9 1941, a group of black-uniformed Dutch Nazis accompanied by German soldiers briefly entered Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, kicking in doors, destroying possessions and beating up people.
The next morning, rumours abounded that the Nazis would return. There was distress in the neighbourhood, but also resilience. The idea of defence groups was mooted. Those who had fought before or were used to street fighting took charge. A trainer from a neighbourhood boxing school assembled about 50 boxers and wrestlers in his gym. Other groups were based in pubs.
Lard Zilverberg was one of the defenders. He had been born in 1916 into a large Jewish family. When employed, Zilverberg worked as a sign painter. He wasn’t tall, but you couldn’t help noticing him – a hothead with fierce eyes and a fiery voice, a boxer who was fleet of foot and packed a punch.
On Tuesday evening, just after half past six, 40 Nazis left their headquarters. The unit marched into the Jodenbuurt, the old Jewish neighbourhood, continuing until Waterlooplein.
There they turned left, along the tram tracks. One Nazi was on a bike. Coming on to the square, he took a sharp left and got separated from his group at the playground in the middle of the open space. A piece of metal was thrown at the cyclist. Stones followed. His comrades started running towards him.
At that moment Jewish defenders emerged from doorways and unlit alleys. Knives were drawn. Men fought with rubber hoses enforced with lead. A Nazi named Hendrik Koot fell under the blows. Koot, born in 1898, was a shopkeeper and father of eight. He stood up and tried to get away, but was grabbed again. The battle was decided in minutes. The Nazis withdrew.
At quarter past seven, wounded men started to arrive at a first-aid post just off the square. Koot had head injuries; the base of his skull was fractured. He was taken to hospital, where he died three days later.
There were Jewish casualties too. One of them had been stabbed in the chest. Another had a head wound. At quarter past nine, the last injury was treated.
Meanwhile, the German police cordoned off the neighbourhood. They made 20 arrests among Jews who had remained on the streets, including Zilverberg. The detainees were beaten. Zilverberg, flanked by his brother Philip and another fighter, was forced to pose for a photo.
German reprisals were merciless. On February 22 and 23, another 400 Jewish men were rounded up. However, two days later, the Dutch population responded with a general protest strike, which started in Amsterdam, lasting two days, then spread to other cities.
All but one of the captured men were killed. Eventually, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews were deported and murdered during the Holocaust – over 70% of the country’s Jewish population, a very high percentage compared to other western European countries. But that does not imply that Dutch Jews were “led like lambs to the slaughter”, an often-repeated misconception.
My research has found that Jews refused to be terrorised. They fought back. They maintained their religion and culture. They protested publicly. They wrote for clandestine papers and helped distribute them, often endangering their own safety.
Jews disobeyed deportation orders that arrived in 1942. Despite the German might, collaboration and indifference among non-Jews, almost 30,000 Jews went into hiding (half of them were caught, showing how difficult hiding was).
They formed organisations to support each other. They helped people escape from deportation centres, trains and concentration camps, saving hundreds of children.
They tried to sabotage the deportation with firebombs. They formed or joined non-Jewish resistance groups and were among the pioneers of armed resistance.
The events of February 1941 ended the general uncertainty and contributed to wider resistance, which fully developed later. The battle of Waterlooplein also signified that Jewish resistance meant a fight to the death. Lard Zilverberg’s death was registered in the Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria, on February 5 1942.