Risk and Resistance

Review of "The Secret Diary of Arnold Douwes, Rescuer of Jews" (Het Geheime Dagboek Van Arnold Douwes, Jodenredder)

In 1983 Yad Vashiem, The Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Centre, honoured the village of Nieuwlande in the Dutch province of Drenthe with the designation ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, the first community to be thus singled out, for having saved the lives of around 350 Jews during World War II of whom approximately 100 were children. Two individuals in particular were responsible for mobilizing the village in its efforts to save Jews: Johannes Post, a leading resistance figure who was arrested and executed in 1944, and Arnold Douwes who survived the war. Douwes kept a day by day account of his work to save Jews. In the diary he included the names of those he worked with and of those he helped to save thereby breaking the first rule of the resistance movement. However, throughout his entire life Douwes marched to his own drummer. According to historians of the Holocaust, it is the only diary of its kind to come out of German-occupied Europe. Last year the diary was published in its entirety for the first time and an English translation has been prepared by Professor Robert Moore of the University of Sheffield, England.

Books have been written about Post, but until the publication of the diary little was known publicly about Douwes. The son of a Reformed pastor, he was essentially a drifter which has been attributed to the fact that his mother abandoned the family of eight when he was ten. In 1926 he arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, and during the next ten years he roamed throughout Canada and the United States, living the life of a hobo. After that he returned to Holland and by 1942 was living in Nieuwlande, the home of Johannes Post, who put him to work finding hiding places for Jews and young Dutch men evading being sent to Germany. When Post began to play a leading role in the larger Dutch resistance movement, he turned the job of finding hiding places in Nieuwlande and environs over to Douwes. According to the introduction of the diary it was their hatred of Nazism, compassion for the hunted and a thirst for adventure that drew the two men together.

Safe haven
There being no other place in Holland that, per capita, saved so many Jews, the question arises how Nieuwlande managed to do what it did. To begin with, Drenthe had, per capita, more people that took part in the resistance movement than any other Dutch province. That has been attributed, in part, to the strong Calvinistic (especially Gereformeerd) mentality in Drenthe which was particularly critical of and opposed to Nazism. However, it can only be concluded that Douwes was the single most important figure responsible for Nieuwlande being recognized and honoured by Yad Vashem, a distinction he himself had received in 1965.

Douwes’ first principle was never to refuse someone a safe haven, and when he needed hiding places he simply knocked on the doors of people of whom he knew that they had the facilities to harbour Jews, or others, and were reliable. And he did not take no for an answer, using persuasion and even intimidation and shaming to get his way. At times his rather violent temper appears to have worked as well. People would also offer him money for the resistance movement, which was always short of cash, instead of taking someone in but to Douwes that was a cop-out. Because many hosts and their ‘guests’ proved to be incompatible for one reason or another, Douwes spent a great deal of time moving people about from one address to the next. Douwes received a great deal of help from Max Léons, a young Jewish man who had spent some time in hiding but couldn’t take it any longer and decided that he would rather risk his life helping Douwes. He also survived the war.

War-time decisions
Here’s a glimpse at a few entries: The first entry in the diary is dated July 3, 1943. It is preceded by an introduction in which Douwes describes how he ended up in Nieuwlande and got involved in the resistance movement and the rescue of Jews in particular. On November 23, 1943, Douwes reports that efforts are being made to present all the children in hiding with a special treat on St. Nicholas Eve. The entry for March 4, 1944, is perhaps the most disturbing and saddest of the entire diary. A boy had called a German a mof (Kraut). The boy’s father was called in and was given two choices: either he had to go to Vught, a notorious SS concentration in Holland, or he had to bring the boy in for a spanking. He chose the latter and the boy was promptly beaten to death before his very eyes. On June 12, 1944, Douwes mentions a discussion about whether or not to eliminate a man who had always been thought to be reliable but was now suspected of passing on information to the Germans. He does not say what happened in the end. On June 14, 1944, he writes that they have received word that on June 6 a resistance group in Rotterdam freed sixteen men who were on death row from a jail in that city. One of those set free was Henk Gerrits, a cousin of my father.

Captures and Arrests
D-Day brought high hopes, but the failure of Operation Market Garden to push beyond the Waal River appears to have led to a collective sense of doom and gloom in Holland north of the Waal. Douwes reports that it is becoming impossible to find new hiding places, for Jews in particular, and that a fair number of those with Jews in their homes now want to get rid of them. After Market Garden, the German Ordnungspolizei (known as the ‘Green Police’ because of its green uniform) became ever more aggressive and brutal in its efforts to hunt down members of the resistance, Jews and with them their ‘hosts’. Time and again Douwes reports that so and so has been picked up. The last entry in the diary is dated October 18, 1944, for Douwes himself was arrested the next day.

We saw earlier that he survived the war, and hence he was able to write a conclusion to the diary. The arrest, he writes, came  almost as a relief because he had reached the end of his tether, emotionally, mentally and physically. Although subjected to torture, he did not break. He does not really say anything about the torture as such but makes it crystal-clear that it was carried out by Dutch collaborators, and the Germans would let them carry out the dirty work if at all possible.

On December 11, 1944, Douwes was liberated from the prison in Assen together with thirty other members of the resistance. The operation was carried out by six young men, ages 20 to 24, some of whom spoke fluent German with little or no accent (due to living near the German border). They had managed to put their hands on German uniforms and two German armoured cars which they used to take the freed prisoners to their hiding places. Douwes had to be helped into the armoured car because, as he explains, he had been interrogated the day before. The whole operation took fourteen minutes. In the epilogue to the diary the editors give a brief account of the rest of Douwes’ life which was not a particularly happy one. He died in 1999, at the age of 93. Years before he had rejected Christianity, but not long before he died he became a born-again Christian and was re-baptized.


  • Gerry Gerrits

    Gerry is a retired professor of history and lives in Port Williams, NS.

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