By Anav Silverman/TPS
Each year, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Yerushalayim and KKL-JNF hold a unique commemoration ceremony at the B’nai B’rith Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year’s ceremony was dedicated to the rescue efforts of Walter Suskind, a German Jew who initiated the rescue efforts that saved the lives of more than 600 Jewish children in Holland.
“Suskind put himself at great risk to save Jewish lives,” said Alan Schneider, the B’nai B’rith World Center Director to Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
Suskind escaped to Holland from Germany after the Nazis rose to power. He was hired as a manager at Unilever in Amsterdam but lost his job in May 1940 following the Nazi occupation of Holland. Soon after, the Jewish Council of Amsterdam (Judenrat) appointed Suskind to manage the Schouwburg Theater in the Jewish center of the city. The gutted theater served as a detention camp for Jews in Amsterdam before deportation via the Westerbork transit camp to extermination in Sobibor and Auschwitz.
Suskind, a husband and father, oversaw both the detention center at the theater and the nearby day care center where the children of the Jewish detainees were kept.
“The conditions were inhumane in the theater so Suskind proposed moving the children to the building across the street, which had been a Jewish nursery before the war,” explained Schneider. “He [then] established contact with four Dutch underground organizations who smuggled the children out of Amsterdam and placed them with Christian families in the north and south of Holland where they were kept safe until the end of the war.”
The care center’s administrator, Henriette Henriques Pimentel, and a number of Jewish caregivers, Betty Oudkerk, 18, Siney Kattenburg, 19, Ines Cohn, 18, and nurse Virgenia Cohen and Harry Cohen, all played instrumental roles in the daring subterfuge to smuggle the children right under the noses of the German guards to the Dutch underground.
“Children were hidden in backpacks and milk cans, and were taken from the day care center into the tram that passed between the center and theater onto the central train station,” Schneider told TPS.
“Had the Germans realized that Suskind was in touch with the Dutch underground and was altering the lists of names of the Jewish children, he would have been deported immediately,” said Schneider.
Suskind was able to run the rescue operation for two and a half years as manager of the theater.
However, in September 1943, the Germans emptied the day care center, and the remainder of Dutch Jewry were transported to Westerbork. Suskind himself, along with his wife and young daughter, were murdered in Auschwitz.
Around 80 percent of Holland’s Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust.
Schneider told TPS that this year’s posthumous “Jewish Rescuers Citation” will be presented to a cousin of Walter Suskind in New York in the coming months.
Additionally, one of the caretakers at the day care center, Ines Fellner (Cohn), 93, was presented with a Jewish Rescuers Citation by Schneider in her home in Netanya on Wednesday, April 26. Also present, was Dr. Bert Jan Flim, a Dutch historian of the rescue episode, whose own father and paternal grandparents were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for hiding some of those Jewish children from the day care center.
Last year, three other caretakers living in Amsterdam had been recognized with a Jewish Rescuers Citation.
“The story of Walter Suskind and the caregivers at the nursery is a very inspiring story in what were very dark times,” concluded Schneider. “It’s important to remember those heroic acts and honor what these people did.”