The Resistance Banker: Walraven van Hall

A $250 million heist

Walraven van Hall was a Dutch banker whose brains, bravery, and unwavering moral compass saved thousands of Jews and anti-Nazi resistance fighters during the German occupation of the Netherlands.

Walraven was born to a prominent Dutch family in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1906. The dream of his youth was to join the merchant marine and see the world, but because of poor eyesight his application was rejected. Instead Walraven moved to New York City, and with the help of his brother Gijs, a banker (and future mayor of Amsterdam), Walraven got a job on Wall Street. After learning the ropes of the banking industry, Walraven returned to the Netherlands and worked as a banker and stockbroker.

In 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Among those affected by this calamitous event were families of merchant sailors who were unable to return home. Walraven and his brother Gijs created a fund to help these families pay their bills. The fund was guaranteed by the Dutch government-in-exile in London. 

It didn’t take long after occupying Holland for the Nazis to start enacting anti-Jewish regulations, taking away Dutch Jews’ most basic liberties and conscripting them into forced labor camps and later, death camps. (Ultimately, 75% of Dutch Jews were murdered by the Nazis.) As the persecution intensified, so did the anti-Nazi resistance movement. Walraven expanded his fund to support a wide range of resistance activities, with a particular emphasis on helping Dutch Jews. He tapped into his network of wealthy Dutch citizens to fundraise and quickly became known as the “banker to the resistance.”

For three years, Walraven funded the Dutch resistance, providing about $500 million (!) to save Jews and other victims of the Nazis. How did Walraven, with his brother’s help, raise such a massive amount of money? Incredibly, they obtained $250 million by robbing De Nederlandsche Bank (Dutch National Bank), the biggest bank heist in European history. The details of how they achieved this are complicated, involving multiple shell companies, fake documents, bureaucrats who were friendly to the cause, and cooperation between a wide network of resistance organizations. Walraven was known as the Olieman (Oilman) because his warmth and charisma lubricated the friction between various resistance groups and fighters. The rest of the money was supplied by donations and loans from generous Dutch people who were outraged by the Nazi atrocities taking place in their country.

The complete story of how Walraven raised so much money may never be known, but one of his tricks was falsifying bank bonds and exchanging them for real bonds, and then paper money. He did this right under the nose of bank president Rost van Tonningen, a prominent Nazi who collaborated with the German occupiers. The money Walraven collected was used to secretly house and support over 8000 Jews in hiding, conduct acts of sabotage against Nazi targets in Holland, and rescue captured Allied pilots.

In January 1945, Walraven was arrested by the Germans, along with seven other resistance fighters, in revenge for the death of a police commander. All eight were quickly executed without trial. Ironically, the Germans had no idea who Walraven was; they assumed he was just another resistance fighter rather than the banker and leader who made so much resistance activity possible.

Posthumously, Walraven received several honors including the Dutch Cross of Resistance and the U.S. Medal of Freedom. He was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in 1978. However, Walraven’s brave deeds were not widely known until recently, possibly because powerful banks didn’t want people to know the secrets of how they were robbed.

In 2018, Dutch director Joram Lursen released “The Resistance Banker,” a feature film about Walraven van Hall that became one of the highest-grossing Dutch films of all time. Joram said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), “When people think of the resistance.. they rarely think of the enormous amounts of money that it cost to keep this organization – the resistance – running.” He likened his film to a Hollywood action film, characterizing it as “easy to follow and full of suspense as a casino heist.” The film is available on Netflix.

For saving thousands of lives by funding the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation, we honor Walraven van Hall as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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