Johan van Hulst Helped Save 600 Children From the Nazis, Dies at 107
Johan van Hulst
Johan van Hulst and Netanyahu in 2012. He headed a teachers’ college in Amsterdam when he came up with a plan to save hundreds of children from being sent to Nazi death
Johan van Hulst
In the spring and summer of 1943 in Amsterdam, Johan van Hulst was at the center of a daring scheme to save Jewish children from being sent to a concentration camp.
The children — from infants to 12-year-olds — had been taken from their parents at a deportation center and brought by nursery workers to a nursery next to the teachers’ college where Mr. van Hulst was the principal.
The rescue plan was simple but risky: the children were surreptitiously handed over a hedge between the nursery and the college and hidden in a classroom until they could be smuggled to the countryside by Dutch Resistance groups.
Mr. van Hulst is credited with helping to rescue as many as 600 children, yet he was haunted by what he could not do. With up to 100 children still in the nursery as it was about to be shut down that September, Mr. van Hulst was asked how many more he could smuggle out.
“That was the most difficult day of my life,” he told Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, which in 1972 named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a designation for non-Jews who rescued Jews. He is one of 5,595 Dutch people given the honor.
“You realize that you cannot possibly take all the children with you,” he said. “You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on, I asked myself, ‘Why not 13?’ ”
Nearly 70 years later, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel visited the Netherlands in 2012, he met Mr. van Hulst and told him: “We say those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds of universes.”
Mr. van Hulst died on March 22 in Amsterdam, the Dutch Senate announced. He was 107.
Mr. van Hulst started teaching at the Reformed Teachers’ Training College in 1938. Two years later, he was named deputy principal. But after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began in May 1940, the school came under great financial pressure. The Dutch government eliminated a subsidy for teachers’ salaries, seemingly dooming the school to closing.
But Mr. van Hulst came up with a plan to ask the students’ parents to fund the school, and it succeeded, saving the school and helping him rise to principal.
When Germany invaded the Netherlands, there were about 140,000 Jews, and by September 1944, more than 100,000 of them had been sent to concentration camps, according to Yad Vashem. Jews from Amsterdam were taken to the transit camp in Westerbork, in the Netherlands, before being transported to Nazi extermination centers in Poland like Auschwitz.
The teachers’ college represented one side of the children’s rescue triangle. The deportation center — a former theater — was managed by Walter Süskind, a German refugee. The nursery was run by Henriëtte Pimentel, who asked Mr. van Hulst to let the children play in the college’s garden and take naps in a classroom. Then, as the plan took hold, the children were whisked to safety.
The plan necessitated deception — and led to difficult conversations with parents whose children had been wrested from them.
“Süskind’s role was to let the children disappear from the lists,” Bart Wallet, a historian at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, wrote in an email, referring to the administrative records he altered to help save the children.
Ms. Pimentel, he added, “convinced the parents to let their children be smuggled out. Van Hulst was the one who did the actual smuggling — of course, together with his team of students and fellow resistance workers.”
To avoid suspicion, Mr. van Hulst sent only a few children at a time to safety; not all of them at any given time in the nursery could be saved.
“We had to make a choice,” he told the Dutch broadcaster NOS last year, “and one of the most horrible things was to make a choice.”
Emile Schrijver, general director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam, said in an email that Mr. van Hulst had demonstrated that “we all have a choice to do the right thing at any time; even in times of enormous trouble; he used the power of disruption; disruption of an evil system and of the arrogance it entailed.”
The teachers’ college where Mr. van Hulst was the principal is now the National Holocaust Museum.
Johan Wilhelm van Hulst was born on Jan. 28, 1911, in Amsterdam, to Gerrit van Hulst, a furniture upholsterer, and the former Geertruida C. Hofman. His education included master’s degrees in psychology and pedagogy from Vrije Universiteit and a Ph.D. in humanities there.
After the war, he continued to teach but also entered politics, serving in the Dutch Senate and the European Parliament.
He was also an accomplished chess player and the chairman of a chess club in Amsterdam. When Jewish members faced restrictions from the Germans, he told the website Chess Vibes in 2010, “we decided to secretly play at their houses instead of at the club.”
“Later this had to stop as well,” he said.
He is survived by his daughters, Diane Schoonemann-van Hulst and Catherine Koot-van Hulst; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Anna Janette Donker, died in 2006.
Mr. van Hulst was interviewed frequently about his wartime activities but was modest in assessing them.
“I was at the center of a particular activity,” he told the Dutch newspaper Het Parool two years ago. “It’s not about me. I don’t want to put myself in the foreground or play Resistance hero. All I really think about is the things I couldn’t do — the few thousand children I wasn’t able to save.”
Johan van Hulst
Johan van Hulst