Only 75 years ago, on February 25, 1941, the city of Amsterdam went on strike against the Nazis – en masse – to protest the first roundup of their Jewish comrades. More than 300,000 people took to the streets. It never happened anywhere else, and it never happened in Amsterdam again.
Once the word of the roundup of 425 men spread, communist street sweepers instigated the strike almost immediately. They brought people together at the Noorderkerk, and overnight produced a mimeographed leaflet saying “Strike! Strike! Strike!” against the persecution of Jews.
On the morning of February 25, 1941, the dockworkers stopped. Then the trams shut down. Many others followed, and soon the city was at a standstill except for the people in the streets singing and marching. (For a little more information and a nice photo of the memorial statue of the Dockworker, look here).
The Germans were taken completely by surprise. They had viewed the Dutch as brother Aryans who would come around eventually, and of course they did not regard the Dutch Jewish citizens whose history went back to the 17th century as Dutch. As the strike spread from Amsterdam to the provinces, the Nazis acted fast. By the third day, they had imprisoned most of the organizers, shot some of the protesters dead, and threatened the direst consequences to anyone who didn’t get right back to work. They made sure that no one would ever try anything on that scale again.
No one did. The resistance from that point forward was much more in bits and pieces, sometimes effective and often not. In the end, the Netherlands lost almost three-quarters of its Jewish population, a devastating loss for Amsterdam in particular, once called “The Jerusalem of the West.”
Only 75 years, less than many human lifetimes, separates us from the moment the street sweepers and other workers organized the February Strike. The essence of the Nazi philosophy they were protesting is to divide people up by the false and ever more elusive idea of “race,” and to consider some less than human. As soon as we begin to think of any group only as a mass, not as individuals, we are treading dangerously close to the Nazi path. If we take the next step and feel that some people are less human than we are, we are on the path Hitler laid out for us.
Naturally, we consider that “nice” people we know or know of are just as human as we are. But what about batterers, thugs and vandals, sex offenders, or parents who abandon their children or sell them into slavery? What about Hitler himself? This is where several great religions tell us we must stretch – but not to condone their egregious behavior. An effort at accountability is a must, even if it’s almost impossible to conceive of what might be adequate. Yet we need to recognize that we belong to the same species as these “others.” Each of us still has human rights, and human needs.
Although the US is a nation of immigrants and the native people who survived our invasion, we hear calls to build walls along our border – only the one between us and the brown people to the south, not between us and Canada. We are doing the barest minimum to assist Syrian refugees: welcoming 10,000 in our country of 319 million, versus Germany’s one million in a population of 80 million – in other words, we are doing one percent of what the world’s most generous country has done, even though our population is almost four times bigger. A Presidential candidate says we should keep Muslims from entering our country – be they college professors, grandparents who want to visit their kids, bankers or merchants or ne’er do wells – solely on the basis of their religion.
Does this sound familiar to anybody else?
Can we be as brave as the streetsweepers of Amsterdam and stand against it?