The Hidden Story at the Noordermarkt: Strike!

In the 1940s, the Noordermarkt was still the workers’ neighborhood the burghers laid out in the seventeenth century. After the Nazis rounded up the first 425 Jewish men, no wonder the church at the heart of the Jordaan was the logical place for the illegal communist party to call a meeting on February 24, 1941.  Almost everybody was shocked. Up to that time, the occupying Germans had been remarkably well behaved in the Netherlands, because they saw the non-Jewish Dutch as brother Aryans. However, they had encouraged the Dutch Nazi hooligans to harass the Jewish population with impunity. Only after nine months of occupation did the Germans crack down.

Street scene during Feb strike image

Imagine the boisterous meeting of unionists and others on that cold day in the Noordermarkt. Although the communists had organized strikes before, those actions had been against Dutch employers, not Nazi officials. The issues were standard labor grievances, not protesting the persecution of fellow workers simply because they were Jewish. It was an enormous act of courage for the communists and their colleagues to call for a general strike, but that’s what they did. Everybody left the meeting with a handful of mimeographed flyers to distribute, coauthored and produced by a courageous young woman, Jacoba Veltman.

On the south side of the church, you’ll find a plaque with a typical Dutch understatement:  Monday February 24, 1941, at 6 o’clock at night, members of the then-forbidden Communist Party of the Netherlands spoke to 250 fellow citizens. They called out for a protest against the deportation of 400 Amsterdam Jews by the occupying Germans. The next morning the February Strike broke out.   (Thanks to Toviya M. Slager for this translation. Her paper “At Least They Tried” is interesting.  Read it here.)

The next day, the strike began with the dockworkers and the trams, then spread throughout the city and ultimately to some other parts of the country as well. People from all walks of life poured into the streets. The Germans were caught completely by surprise, but reacted harshly once they realized what was happening. According to Jacob Presser’s Ashes in the Wind, the great and detailed chronicle of this period, “The February strike was for many Jews the greatest experience of the whole war. . . Behind them there now stood openly a group of their fellow citizens, with whom they had lived at peace for centuries. This group dared to brave a ruthless enemy, and was ready to sacrifice life and property – for them.”

Sadly, it was a brief moment, and gave the Germans another excuse to intensify the persecution of the Jews. They were shocked that other Dutch people had actually stood by their fellow citizens. After the Strike, the Nazis took off their gloves.  (You can go to see the magnificent statue of The Dockworker who is the symbolic figure of the Strike in the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, between the side of the Portuguese Synagoge and what used to be the front doors of the Ashkenazi synagogues which now make up the Jewish History Museum. Believe me, this description will get you there better than maps.)

Here, where the organic market runs happily today, hundreds of people gathered to organize the only general strike in Europe to protest the first roundup of Jews. Remember that they did this while under occupation, with Nazi soldiers and police (both German and Dutch) throughout the city. Moreover, a strike didn’t come naturally to them. Unlike the Belgians or the French, the Dutch did not have a strong protest tradition. They are a law-abiding people not given to raising a ruckus. Some historians feel this reluctance was later a factor in the level of passive collaboration with the Holocaust.

The February Strike is a proud moment in Dutch history, but by 1945 the Netherlands lost more than 100,000 of its population of 140,000 Jewish people. Many were descended from Jewish citizens in the Netherlands since the early seventeenth century. Shamefully, this is the highest percentage of loss in Western Europe. It was particularly felt in Amsterdam, where about 75,000 Jewish people lived in 1939, around ten percent of its population.

Here’s a poem of mine about the strike, with thanks to Main Street Rag which published it.

The February Strike, Amsterdam 1941     

The First Raid:  February 22, 1941

Behind the drawbridges
lifted to cut off the Quarter,
only the Jews saw it: their men
and boys knocked off
the graceful, spinning bicycles,
beaten up, loaded onto trucks
like so many potatoes.

The Raid in the Marketplace:  February 23, 1941

The next day,
drawbridges down,
among the turnips,
among the new laid eggs,
there, in the square
between the great synagogues,
everybody saw it happen again.
Women screamed only until
the guns were pointed, then
stopped their children’s shrieks
with their hands.

Protest: February 24, 1941

It wasn’t the intellectuals
but two men who swept the roads,
Willem Kraan and Piet Nak,
who dared to gather the comrades
at the Noordermarkt.
They agreed, several hundred of them: start
the strike at the center
and the others would follow.

Mientje Meijer in the Sewing Shop:  February 25, 1941

First the docks struck, then the trams,
then everyone, even the civil servants.
Her man, as he’d promised, came to the window
and gave a sign.
She could hear the racket outside: laughter
again, people surging into the streets,
singing the old, loud songs.

Her voice faltered, but these words came:
“Ladies, all of Amsterdam has come to a halt
because they have deported Jews.
We should go on the streets, too.”
The squeaking treadles stopped,
and there was only the swish
of their skirts as they rose.

Reprisals

Of the 22 leaders jailed
four were suicides,
leaping hand in hand
into the prison quarry
rather than work for the enemy.
The other eighteen were dead
by autumn anyway, and it was only
the beginning.

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