Righteous Dutchman: Frits Philips

Protected his workers.

Frits Philips was a Dutch businessman who saved thousands of Jewish employees during the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Frits was born to a prosperous family in the Netherlands in 1905. His father and uncle owned the Philips electronics company, founded as one of the earliest successful lightbulb manufacturers in 1891and over the next few decades branching out into other products, such as vacuum tubes and radio technology. 

A friendly, intelligent boy with a deep Christian faith, Frits attended Delft University of Technology, where he received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1929. That same year, he married Sylvia van Lennep, with whom he would have seven children.

Frits and Sylvia were introduced to the Oxford Group, a Christian organization founded by Frank Buchman, an American Lutheran minister. Buchman believed that all human problems stem from fear and selfishness, and the only way to overcome these destructive influences is to “surrender one’s life to God’s plan.” Buchman’s teachings were a strong influence on Alcoholics Anonymous and the twelve-step method for achieving freedom from addiction. 

In 1935, Frits was appointed to the board of Philips and began serving as vice-director. Meanwhile, in nearby Germany the Nazi party rose to power. Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and by early 1940 it became apparent that he would soon invade the Netherlands. At this point, most of the Philips family left the Netherlands and moved to the United States. Frits was unwilling to abandon the Philips company and workers, and he alone stayed behind to “mind the store,” successfully leading the company through the turbulent war years. 

As the boss of Philips, Frits was both liked and respected by his thousands of employees. He truly cared for them and made sure they were well paid and enjoyed good working conditions. As the Nazi occupiers began arresting, deporting, and murdering Jews, Frits immediately pledged to do whatever necessary to support his many Jewish employees. 

He separated the Jews from the rest of the workers, making sure they worked in a protected location. He gave them food rations, which became known as “Philips-prak” named after a popular Dutch meal of soup, mashed potatoes, carrots and meat. The Philips company was forced by the Nazi occupiers to contribute to the war effort, and Frits used this to protect the Jewish workers. He convinced the Germans that the Jewish workers at Philips were absolutely indispensable, and that factory productivity would plummet without them at the company. For this reason, 382 Jews were saved from deportation and continued working for Frits until the occupation ended.

In 1943, Philips factory employees went on strike to protest the Nazi occupation, and as their boss, Frits bore the brunt of the punishment: he was incarcerated in Camp Vught, the only SS concentration camp outside of Germany. After spending three months in brutal conditions at Vught, Frits was released. Now that he and his workers were being watched, Frits worried that he wouldn’t be able to protect his Jewish employees from deportation. At this point, he opened a Philips lightbulb factory in Norrkoeping, Sweden, and began transferring the Jews there, knowing they’d be safe in Sweden, a neutral country. After the war ended, Frits kept the factory open to employ Jews who’d been liberated from the camps and had nowhere to go.

Frits’ heroic activities extended far beyond Holland. In their book “Blood from a Stone” (2003), Richard Hammer and Yaron Svoray described how the Philips company, under Frits’ leadership, helped Jews throughout Europe. “Philips… did not buy into the Nazi philosophy regarding Jews. The safety, and rescue, of Philips’ Jewish employees became a major concern as the Nazi tide rolled over Europe. At its Austrian subsidiary, all the Jewish workers were sheltered, declared essential to the war effort, and all survived under Philips’ protection. At its subsidiary in Lithuania, Philips’ executives provided visas to Curacao for Polish and Baltic Jews in its employ. This despite regulations promulgated by the Nazi regime in Holland forbidding Dutch-based companies from aiding Jews in any manner, Philips managed to rescue nearly five thousand.”

As CEO of one of the Netherlands’ most successful companies, Frits received many awards and honors, including “Dutch entrepreneur of the century,” and “Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion.” However the most meaningful award this heroic businessman received was “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in 1996.

Frits Philips died in 2005, a few years after his beloved wife Sylvia. He was survived by his seven children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For using his position and resources to save thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps, we honor Frits Philips as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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