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Heroic Dutch Professor

Smuggled children in laundry baskets

Johan van Hulst was a Dutch professor and director of a Protestant seminary who saved over 600 Jewish children from Nazi death camps.

Born in Amsterdam in 1911, Johan studied psychology at the VU University Amsterdam. He worked as a teacher, and then became director of a Protestant religious seminary in Amsterdam.

The seminary was across the street from a famous old theater, Hollandshe Schouwburg. After the Nazis occupied Holland in 1940, they declared the Hollandshe to be a Jewish theater and shut it down. Instead the historic playhouse became a busy, squalid clearing hub for the thousands of Dutch Jews who were being deported to concentration camps.

Entire families of Dutch Jews were arrested and sent to the former theater. Immediately upon arrival, the children were separated from their parents and sent to a nursery. Henriette Pimentel was a Jewish woman who was appointed by the Nazis to run the nursery. She reached out to Johan to ask if the children could play in the gardens of his seminary. Johan happily allowed the children to play in the gardens and sleep in the classrooms. It had to be done secretly, and the operation became much larger when Johan resolved to rescue the children and find homes for them.

Johan canvassed the city and was able to find adoptive homes for hundreds of Jewish children. Equally remarkable, he managed to whisk the children to safety right under the noses of the Nazi guards. Henriette and German-Jewish refugee Walter Suskind handed each child to Johan over the hedges separating the nursery and his seminary. Johan then smuggled them off campus in sacks and laundry baskets.

After about 600 children were saved this way, the Nazis got wind of the operation. They sent Henriette and 100 children to concentration camps. Yohan was able to save just a few more. Decades later, he described the horrific experience: “Try to imagine 80, 90, or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you. That was the most difficult day of my life. You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on I asked myself: ‘Why not 13?’” Yohan thought 12 was the right number, otherwise the Germans would notice.

Johan van Hulst was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Netherlands in 2012, and he said to Johan, “I want to thank you in the name of the Jewish people, but also in the name of humanity.”

Johan responded by addressing the children he could not save, “I can only hope the angels may conduct you into paradise.”

Johan van Hulst died on March 22, 2018, at the age of 107.

For rescuing hundreds of Jewish children from the Holocaust, we honor Johan van Hulst as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.

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