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Auntie Truus, the Forgotten Rescuer

The childless woman who was mother to thousands.

Truus Wijsmuller was a Dutch woman who devoted her life to rescuing Jewish children from the Nazi death machine. Her Herculean efforts over seven years saved 10,000 young Jewish lives.

Truus was born to a middle class family in northern Holland in 1896. When she was young, her parents were actively involved in a variety of charitable efforts to help those in need, including fostering Austrian orphans during WW1.

After graduating from high school, Truus got a job at a bank, where she met banker Joop Wijsmuller. Truus and Joop were married in 1923. Truus was a cheerful extrovert who delighted in caring for others. She wanted desperately to be a mother, yet she and Joop were never blessed with children.

Truus threw herself into volunteer work with multiple social service organizations. She worked for free at a center providing day care for single working mothers. In the early 1930’s, she started working with the Jewish Refugee Committee to organize a female volunteer corps. As the threat of war grew, she built a huge network of Dutch women who were able and willing to help out.

As the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930’s, it became very dangerous to be a German Jew. Starting in 1933, Truus traveled back and forth between Germany and Holland, bringing family members of her Jewish acquaintances to safety. After the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, Truus heard that Jewish children were wandering in the woods unattended. She went to the Dutch-German border and found a small Polish boy who spoke only Yiddish. She hid him under her voluminous skirts and smuggled him to Amsterdam!

Amidst the growing Jewish refugee crisis, the British government announced that Jewish children from Nazi countries could stay in the UK temporarily. Truus, along with other organizations and individuals, decided that they would bring as many Jewish children to safety in England as they could.

In December 1938, Truus went to Vienna to meet with top Nazi Adolf Eichmann. Fearlessly, she pleaded with him to let her take children to England. She somehow got his permission to take 600 Jewish children to the UK – but he gave her a hard deadline just a couple of days away. It seemed impossible for her to gather that many children – to convince their parents that their beloved children would be safer away from them, and to organize everything to get them ready to leave. On December 10, 1938, a train left Vienna with 600 Jewish children on board. One hundred of them were placed in homes in Holland, while the other 500 went to England.

When Truus returned from Vienna, she was deeply shaken by the open humiliation of Jewish residents, who were frequently insulted, beaten, and made to do degrading things in public. She told people about it but nobody believed her.

Truus continued organizing the large scale transportation of Jewish children to Great Britain as well as Holland, Belgium and France. Known as the Kindertransport, this massive rescue operation saved 10,000 Jewish children from certain death in Nazi-occupied lands. Truus played an essential role in getting permissions, organizing logistics, and leading transports. Jewish parents living under Nazi occupation knew they were in grave and imminent danger, so they bravely kissed their children goodbye, not knowing when or if they’d ever see them again. The children went off alone, siblings looking after each other, sometimes with a baby in tow.

Truus was known as the “woman carrying an umbrella.” That was the way to identify her as she waited for “her” children at the border of Germany and Holland.

One hundred of the Jewish children were housed in Amsterdam, where Truus lived. She remained an active part of their lives, hosting them for overnights and taking them to the zoo. The children called her “Tante Truus” (Auntie Truus.)

She traveled several times a week to Nazi occupied territories and picked up 150 children per transport. After war broke out between England and Germany in September 1939, the Kindertransport officially ended, but Truus continued saving Jews on her own. As the German border closed, she heard that a group of Orthodox boys were stuck in Kleve, Germany. She worked with Dutch Railways to get a train ready for them. When she got to Kleve, she found that 300 Orthodox men from Galicia were also stuck there. She had authorization to take Jewish children, but not Jewish adults. But she somehow convinced the Germans that “after all, these are also boys,” and got permission for them to leave.

After Netherlands surrendered to Germany in May 1940, Truus continued rescue activities. She helped Jews from Baltic states and Poland escape to Palestine via Marseilles, and accompanied other refugees on their dangerous journeys to ports of exit.  She delivered food, medicine, and forged papers to inmates at work camps in France.  During this period Truus also worked to reunite families. Many of the Kindertransport parents had managed to escape Germany and were looking for their children.

Truus was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and imprisoned in Amsterdam. She was suspected of providing Jewish refugees with false papers but was released for lack of evidence.

In 1944, she found out that a group of 50 Jewish “orphans” she’d been bringing food to at Westerbork transit camp were about to be transported to Auschwitz and certain death. Truus managed to convince the Nazi guards that the children were not Jewish, and they were sent to Theresienstadt, where they stayed together and safely survived until liberation.

After the war, Truus served on the Amsterdam City Council and spent the rest of her life fighting for civil rights for disabled people. A sculpture of her was erected in 1965 in Amsterdam with a placard that states, “Mother of 1001 children, who made rescuing Jewish children her life’s work.”

In 1966, Truus was one of the first rescuers who be honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. She died in Amsterdam in 1978.

Sadly, Truus Wijsmuller is largely forgotten today. Perhaps because she left no family to keep her story alive, she is much less well known than other heroic rescuers like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. But people in Holland are starting to hear about Truus, and several streets there are named for this remarkable woman who saved so many lives.

For fearlessly defying the Nazis to save thousands of Jewish children, we honor Truus Wijsmuller as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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