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Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer (21 April 1896, Alkmaar – 30 August 1978, Amsterdam) was a Dutch resistance fighter who brought Jewish children and adults into safety before and during the Second World War. Together with other people involved in the pre-war Kindertransport, she saved the lives of more than 10,000 Jewish children, fleeing anti-Semitism. She was honored as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem. After the war she served on the Amsterdam city council.
Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as 'Truus' to her family, was born in the city of Alkmaar. She was the firstborn child of Jacob Meijer, who worked in a drug store, and Hendrika Boer, a self-employed dressmaker. For two years she attended the School of Commerce. Her teachers described her as a "desparate case", "even though she is diligent". But gradually things got better, In 1913, the family moved to Amsterdam. Her parents taught her to stand up for people and, after World War I, set an example of helping the needy by taking in a homeless Austrian boy.
A year later, she got her first job at a bank, where she met her future husband, the banker J. F. (Joop) Wijsmuller. They married in 1922 and went to live on the Nassaukade. Wijsmuller stopped working as was usual at the time. When it became clear that they were not having children, Wijsmuller became involved in social work. Her husband supported her in all her activities. From 1933 they could always count on their live-in assistant, Cietje Hackmann. She did her administration and took care of children, if they stayed with them, when Wijsmuller was away.
Social and political work
Wijsmuller took on several unpaid jobs as a social worker. For example, she was a coordinator for an association for homecare, and administrator for a daycare center for children of working women. From 1939 on she was a board member of "Beatrix- Oord", a sanatorium in Amsterdam. After the war she had it converted into a general hospital, where abortion was also possible. She joined the Vereeniging voor Vrouwenbelangen en Gelijk Staatsburgerschap ("Association for Women's Interests and for Equal Citizenship"). There she met chairman Mies Boissevain-van Lennep, who would later become a resistance fighter.
In addition to this work, Wijsmuller was nominated as number 6 on the list of Liberal candidates for the Amsterdam city council elections in 1935. Because of the threat of war she founded the Korps Vrouwelijke Vrijwilligers (KVV; "Corps for Female Volunteers") in 1938, which she managed from her home. Soon she had an extensive network of people.
From 1933 onward, Wijsmuller traveled to Germany to fetch family members of Jewish acquaintances and bring them safely to the Netherlands. She did so for many years to come. After the Kristallnacht in 1938, rumours reached her that Jewish children were wandering unattended in the woods, so she went to the Dutch–German border to see what was going on there. She smuggled a Yiddish-speaking Polish boy across the frontier under her skirts, and took him to Amsterdam.
From Hamburg she took after the 17th of November 1938 her first group of 6 children from the crowded waiting room of the Dutch consulate. Customs wanted get them out of the train. But Wijsmuller threatened to take the six of them to the Dutch Princess Juliana -Wijsmuller noted she was sitting in the coupe next to her- . "Children, wash your hands and comb your hair!" That was sufficient.
December 1938 A request from England
In November 1938 the British Government decided to let Jewish children under the age of 17 from Nazi countries enter the United Kingdom for a temporary stay. Various organisations started working together in the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM) to take care of these children.
On December 2, Wijsmuller received a request to come to the newly established Dutch Children's Committee in Amsterdam. During this visit Norman Bentwich was also present. He asked her to travel to Vienna to meet a certain Dr Eichner. Then they thought that was the name of Adolf Eichmann. She left the same day.
Eichmann then was the Nazi official handling the forced " emigration" of Jews. It was thought that Wijsmuller, as a non-Jewish woman, might be able to get permission from the Nazis for the children to travel to England. Eichmann snarled at her, but Wijsmuller was imperturbable and fearless. She told him why she came. "Unbelievable, "so rein-arisch und dann so verrückt"!" ("so purely Aryan and then so crazy"), Eichmann concluded. He responded by giving her permission to travel with 600 children, but it had to happen by the upcoming Saturday, on Shabbat, a deadline he seemed to assume she would not be able to make.
First, she reserved trains at he station. Then, the parents, the Jewish organisations and Wijsmuller succeeded in letting 600 children leave Vienna on 10 December. The journey from Vienna to Hoek van Holland took around 30 hours. One hundred of the children received shelter in the Netherlands, while 500 traveled on to England. Wijsmullers' vigour was fuelled by the degrading way she had seen Jewish inhabitants treated in Vienna. In the Netherlands, however, nobody believed what she had seen.
December 1938- september 1939 Kindertransport
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (January 2017)
From then until the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, Wijsmuller organised children's transports with children known as "Kindertransport" from Nazi Germany and the annexed territories, mainly to Great Britain, but also to the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The trains from the south-east arrived via Emmerich on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; the trains from the north-east passed Bentheim on Thursdays.
The children were allowed to take one suitcase, 10 German Marks and no photos or valuables. Mostly - but it was not always allowed- Jewish companions traveled with the children to the English border, provided they all returned. Otherwise the transports would have ended. Once a group of weakened women and children of Sudeten-Germans traveled with them.
It was an exceptional operation carried out under great pressure that required the cooperation of parents, guardians and various committees with volunteers in many cities and countries. It was mainly women who took care of the travel and accommodation of the children.
Wijsmuller was fully aware of the urgency of these transports and maintained contacts with all of the parties involved in several countries, including the main committees in Vienna, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Berlin (from March 1939 in Prague and Dantzig) and also the train and boat companies. It was thanks to these contacts, her resilience and her interventions that the evacuations went faster and saved more people.
She always carried in her handbag a toothbrush, a bar of soap and a towel, as she could be asked at any time to travel. She arranged, that the border police and customs controls were carried out as much as possible on the way before the border. And under her guidance (or under that of one of the other Dutch women). That prevented delays.
On August 24.1939, Wijsmuller was met at the border by a delegation from the Gestapo with a brass band. Wijsmuller is forced to celebrate with them that she has crossed the border at Bentheim for the 50th time.
She was later quoted saying that the success of the operation was mainly due to the Jewish committees in Vienna, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin and Breslau (and later in Prague, Dantzig and Riga). These committees prepared the Kindertransport with great care.
Other people organised transports too, for example Nicholas Winton and Recha Freier. Ultimately, 10,000 children up till 17 years were saved from a certain death by being transported on a route via the Netherlands into Great Britain. Approximately 1800 refugee children from nazi-countries remained in the Netherlands.
In England Wijsmuller had contact with Lola Hahn-Warburg (a chairwoman from the RCM, who asked in astonishment: "but you were only send to talk?" when Wijsmuller arrived with 600 children) and others. In the Netherlands she cooperated with the social worker Gertrude van Tijn from the ''Comité voor Bijzondere Joodsche Belangen'' (Committee for Special Jewish Interests, belonging to the Committee for Jewish Refugees), Mies Boissevain-van Lennep and many others.
March 1939 Children in the "Burgerweeshuis"
From March 1939 onwards Wijsmuller was on the board of the Amsterdam orphanage "Burgerweeshuis", (now the Amsterdam Museum), which started to accommodate the refugee children. Wijsmuller and her husband were very involved with the children. The children came in small groups to stay overnight at the Wijsmullers'. Joop Wijsmuller took them on outings, for example to Artis, the Amsterdam zoo. The children called Truus "Tante Truus" (Auntie Truus).
After the first large transport, the work involved became more structured and a maximum of 150 children per transport was agreed upon. Several times a week, Wijsmuller traveled to Germany and Nazi-occupied territories to pick up children and arrange things on site with the organisers involved. However, the outbreak of the war between England and Germany in September 1939 put a stop to these transports, as from then on the borders to the UK were closed.
June–July 1939: Refugee ships
In June 1939, international negotiations took place in Antwerp among European countries about the distribution of nearly one thousand Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis. Wijsmuller was part of the Dutch delegation, who boarded the ship and welcomed the 181 refugees on their arrival in the Netherlands. In July 1939 Wijsmuller was involved in the departure of children on the cargoship the "Dora", which eventually landed with 450 refugees in the English mandate area Palestine.
September 1939 – December 1939: Last journeys from the German border
The mobilisation disrupted train traffic and the border at Bentheim in Germany was closed. On 31 August Wijsmuller was told that a group of children from the Youth Aliyah was stuck in Kleve. She arranged travel documents, picked the children up in buses and took them to the boat in Hoek van Holland.
On 1 September she received a telephone call from Germany that Orthodox boys were stranded at the station of Kleve. The Dutch Railways put together a train for her, consisting of dining cars. At the station at Kleve she also found a group of 300 Orthodox men from Galicia. She told the Germans that "after all, these are also boys", and got permission for them to leave. It was the last group to leave Nazi territory via Vlissingen to England.
September 1939 – May 1940: Journeys to England and southern France
From September 1939 till May 1940 Wijsmuller helped many Jewish children and adults stranded in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. She traveled with them to England and the unoccupied parts of France and Spain. In Danmark she arranged an airplane and gasoline for the refugees. On these journeys by plane to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam by plane to England and by train to Marseille she accompanied the refugees. She arranged all the while the necessary but hard-to-get travel documents.
Wijsmuller was described as a born tour conductor, being able to reassure the refugees and to unearth all the talented children aboard for songs, recitations and performances during the long train journey. From Marseille people traveled on by boat to try to reach the English mandated area in Palestine.
In November 1939 Wijsmuller was arrested and molested by the French in Marseille, suspecting she was the much-wanted German spy "Erika". Due to a lack of evidence she had to be released.
May 1940: The children from the "Burgerweeshuis" to England
On 10 May 1940 Wijsmuller was in Paris to take a child away when she heard of the German invasion of the Netherlands. Within three days she traveled back to Amsterdam, where she immediately was arrested and questioned by the Dutch police, on suspicion of espionage. After her release she went to the orphanage "Burgerweeshuis" to see the children. The local garrison commander passed a request on to her from London to arrange for the Jewish children at the orphanage to travel as fast as possible to the coastal town of IJmuiden so they could catch a boat to England on time.
Wijsmuller brought along as many children as possible on the way, bringing a total of 74 children to the very last boat, the "SS Bodegraven", that left the harbor. Minutes later the Dutch government surrendered. The Bodegraven sailed for England, but due to the German nationality of the children, at first they were not allowed to disembark. Eventually the ship moored on 19 May at Liverpool.
The children spent the war with foster families and in various institutions in England. Wijsmuller decided to stay in the Netherlands. She wanted to be with her husband and besides she found there was more work for her to do.
May 1940-1943 Help for Jewish children during the occupation
After the capitulation of the Netherlands Wijsmuller traveled to Bruxelles. There she consulted with the Belgian Red Cross and the Belgian Children's Committee. In Paris she had also contact with the French Red Cross and with the OSE (Oeuvre Secours aux Enfants, a Jewish aid organisation for children) to work together. In Bruxelles she made contact with Benno M. Nijkerk, a Dutch-Belgian businessman. They agreed to bring as many children as possible to the south. Legal or illegal.
Nijkerk had false identity cards forged in Bruxelles. He was the treasurer of the " Comité de Defense des Juifs", a Belgian Jewish resistance group. Later he became a member of "Dutch-Paris" an underground network of the Dutch, Belgian and French resistance. Wijsmuller smuggled the false identity cards with information about the escape route to Holland. This work continued until at least 1943.
During this period Wijsmuller devoted herself to uniting families. She took children to their parents who had escaped to Belgium and France. On her way back she brought children with her whose parents remained in the Netherlands. Sometimes she brought children to their parents in Germany. She placed children of Jewish women with other, safe families shortly after birth. In June 1943 she traveled for the last time with Jewish children in the direction of the Spanish border.
1941 till June 1942 Help for French soldiers
From 1941 till June 1942 she arranged help for French soldiers who wanted to flee. At Nijkerks' request and for this purpose she made contact with a German just across the Dutch border. She provided with others civilian clothing, an escape route and a shelter in Nispen. There the soldiers had to say that they were from "Madame Odi": the alias of Wijsmuller.
Contacts with Nazis
With the Nazis, Wijsmuller had contacts from high to low. She used it when she wanted something done from them. For example, she received travel documents for Jewish children to leave the country from a Gestapo employee who believed that children belonged with their parents. Before that she had accepted his invitation to have a drink with him on an Amsterdam terrace. He saw her walking in the street and recognized her. Previously he was a border official during the "Kindertransport". Wijsmuller later has praised German officers for helping her in dire situations.
In May 1941 the SS-er Rajakowitsch called her to The Hague. She had to write down what she was doing and stop her help. Otherwise it would be her end. Wijsmuller pretended ignorance and not understanding how serious the situation was. She was known to the Germans as "die verrückte Frau Wijsmuller". ("that crazy woman Wijsmuller ") . Because she helped Jews, for nothing.
Until March 1941: Work for the Amsterdam Red Cross
For the Amsterdam Red Cross she traveled with food and medicine to the Gurs and St. Cyprien internment camps in the south of France. The financing was partly organised by Wijsmuller. She obtained the required German travel and passage permits via the Amsterdam and Belgian Red Cross. Whenever possible she took along Jewish children and smuggled them to Vichy France or Spain. This help came to an end in February 1941, when the Dutch Red Cross terminated her travel permits after Wijsmuller made her criticism known about their representative in Paris.
1941 – till June 1942: Journeys to Spain
From May 1941 till June 1942, Wijsmuller was involved in refugees on behalf of the Hoymans & Schuurman's agency and other stakeholders . At the SS' s request, Wijsmuller functioned as the liaison between the SS, the Jewish Dutch and the agency. She accompanied groups who still had permission from the Nazis – having to pay them a lot of money – to leave Europe through Spain and Portugal.
On these train journeys from Amsterdam to the Spanish border, Wijsmuller brought along children who traveled for free at her own insistence; with these journeys she accompanied some 150 people to safety. Thanks to several other stakeholders the journeys continued, allowing 191 more people to escape the nazis.
May 1942: Arrest
In May 1942 Wijsmuller was arrested and put in custody in the prison on the Amstelveenseweg in Amsterdam. The Gestapo suspected she was helping Jewish refugees to flee the Netherlands to France and Switzerland. A group of Jews and their hiding people were arrested at their hiding place in Nispen. Wijsmuller had provided them with false identity papers and escape routes, which she smuggled from Brussels to the Netherlands. To accomplish this she cooperated with Benno M. Nijkerk, from the “Comité de Défense des Juifs". But as the refugees only knew her pseudonym, "Madame Odi", Wijsmuller was released after a few days due to a lack of evidence. She kept in touch with Nijkerk. Travel abroad became impossible at the end of 1943.
1942-1944 Food aid
Since 1942 Mrs Wijsmuller was also a member of Groep 2000, a resistance group led by Jacoba van Tongeren. Her position was head of the Red Cross Services. She focused on sending food parcels. All children in Westerbork received a package at Christmas 1943. After that Mrs Wijsmuller worked three days a week with others in the Nieuwe Kerk to prepare and send food parcels. First to people in Westerbork, and from February till September 1944 to people in the Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt concentration camps. A total of 7000 parcels were sent by name. ".....but it is thanks to Mrs Wijsmuller that this work has taken such a flight". People also brought food to her house to distribute. An egg merchant from Landsmeer brought her about 1000 duck eggs every week. Mrs Wijsmuller then delivered them to elderly homes and hospitals in the city. She called this work the "foodbusiness".
September 1944: Orphans from Westerbork
In September 1944 Wijsmuller discovered that 50 "orphans" from Westerbork would be deported. She regularly had brought food to a number of these children in the Amsterdam "Huis van Bewaring" (house of detention). Alarmed by this news, she convinced the Nazis that the children were not Jewish, but born out of Dutch mothers and German fathers. To prove her point she showed a Dutch bill which she had manufactured herself. She insisted on "special treatment" for the children. The children traveled on to Theresienstadt, stayed together as a group and returned after the war.
1944–1945: Hunger in the Netherlands
Hunger became a serious issue in the Dutch cities. When it was no longer possible to send food parcels to the camps, Wijsmuller, as a member of an interconfessional group, organized the evacuation of 6,649 famished children from Amsterdam across the IJsselmeer to the countryside. The children were able to recuperate there.
On 7 April 1945 the Amsterdam police informed Wijsmuller that 120 Allied soldiers were being held in a monastery in Aalsmeer. They were in a bad way. Wanting to help, Wijsmuller cycled to Aalsmeer, the first time with medication, and managed to get in. She threatened the Germans that they could be charged after the war. Immediately after the capitulation of Germany Wijsmuller sought contact with the Germans in Utrecht, who knew her by her nickname "die verrückte Frau Wijsmuller" ("that crazy woman Wijsmuller"). They referred her to the Canadians in Hilversum. The latter sent cars and Wijsmuller delivered the soldiers to them.
After World War II
After the war Wijsmuller traced displaced children in Germany, as member number 1 from the KVV and as a UNRRA (a precursor of the UN) employee. This was followed by the organisation of trips to England, Switzerland and Denmark of malnourished children from the Netherlands. From 1945 until 1966, she was a member of the Amsterdam city council for the liberal party (VVD). She was involved in social work and many social projects in the Netherlands and abroad.
Soon she was on about 12 boards and committees. For example, she was involved in the creation of workplaces for the disabled in Amsterdam and the founding of a hospital in Suriname. She was one of the founders and a board member of the Anne Frank House. Most of the Jewish children found that their parents did not survive the Shoah, but some were reunited with their families. Until her death Wijsmuller kept in touch with several of the children she saved, from Enkhuizen to England and Israël
Joop Wijsmuller died on December 31, 1964. Cietje Hackman lived together with Wijsmuller until her death on August 30, 1978. She left her body for scientific research.
In an advertisement after her death she was described as the " Mother of 1001 children, who made her job of saving Jewish children ".
Memories of Wijsmuller
Wijsmuller has been described and remembered as an impressive personality, a lady with a powerful voice, and someone who radiated warmth and energy. She was a resolute, practical woman with a big heart for children. Very cheeky but never rude. She was able to convince people, even overwhelm them with her boldness. She could improvise in challenging situations and negotiate and bribe whenever necessary. She had a talent for networking and organising. It was her preference to work on her own, as she considered that safer. Wijsmuller never accepted money for her work. In the months and years following the outbreak of the war she never ceased to go wherever work needs to be done.
In the postwar years she was also characterized as a headstrong and dominant woman, and, looking back, like an adventurer. In Amsterdam she was nicknamed both "tante Truus/Auntie Truus" and "stoomwals/steamroller".
- A sculpture of her, made by Herman Diederik Janzen, was unveiled in 1965 in the sanatorium "Beatrixoord" in Amsterdam. Into the plinth was carved: "G. Wijsmuller-Meijer, member of the Amsterdam City Council 1945-1966. Bellatrix, Vigilans, Beatrix". When "Beatrixoord" was closed, Wijsmuller took the statue home. After her death in 1978 it was reinstated on the Bachplein in Amsterdam. A plaque at the foot mentioned: "Mother of 1001 children, who made rescuing Jewish children her life's work". In 2019 a new plaque was placed with information about her rescuing work before and during the war and the medals she received.
- In November 2011, a monument in Hook of Holland was unveiled by Mayor Aboutaleb, commemorating the 10,000 Jewish children that left for England from there. The monument was designed by Frank Meisler, one of the children on the transports. He made three other monuments that are located in Gdańsk, Berlin and London.
- Streets have been named after her in Amsterdam, Gouda, Leiden, Pijnacker, Coevorden and Alkmaar. In Leiden a tunnel bears her name.
- In Amsterdam bridge number 793 is named after her.
- Asteroid number 15296 is named "Tante Truus" ("Auntie Truus") after her.
- On March 8, 2020 "Truus' Children" was released, a documentary by Pamela Sturhoofd and Jessica van Tijn from "Special Eyes". It is an ode to Wijsmuller, with interviews with more than 20 "children" she saved 80 years ago.
- A statue of Truus Wijsmuller and the "1001 children" she helped saving was unveiled on 1 July in her hometown of Alkmaar. The tribute was an initiative of the Historical Society of Alkmaar. The statue was made by Annet Terberg-Pompe and Lea Wijnhoven.
- Righteous among the Nations in 1966
- Medailles from the Dutch and German Red Cross
- Visser-Neerlandia Prijs in 1962, for assistance for Jewish children
- Truus Wijsmuller tree in Yad Vashem in 1966
- Knight in the order of Orange Nassau, 21-04-1955 for Social work in Amsterdam, Officer in the order of Orange Nassau 19-04-1971 as treasurer of the Koningin Wilhelmina Fonds
- Honorary Citizen of Amsterdam (Silver Medal) April 1971
- Medal of French Gratitude (Reconnaissance Francaise), silver medal for help to French soldiers
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- Kanselarij der Nederandse Orden