In January 2012, a day after a diplomatic hug with then Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen, Bibi Netanyahu sat down with Johan van Hulst, a man who helped to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish children during World War II. At the time, Van Hulst ran a Protestant seminary whose yard bordered on the nursery (or “crèche”) of the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a theater across the road that was annexed by the Nazis and being used as a deportation center to the concentration camps. Van Hulst and his helpers, including students from the Universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht, would sneak the Jewish children into the seminary—at times shielding them as one of their own—then run them to safe houses.
“There was only one way to escape,” van Hulst, then 100, told Netanyahu. “We saved more than 500 children but no more than 1,000.” In 1972 he was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among The Nations—one of more than 5,000 from the Netherlands.
In January van Hulst spoke with the Dutch Broadcast Foundation and recalled his life-saving efforts; the article includes an interview with Lies Caransa, who was four years old when she was smuggled from the crèche in a bag and saved. His heroism during the war is featured in the Dutch film Süskind (2012), which is based on the life of Walter Süskind, a member of the Dutch Judenrat who served as manager of the Hollandsche Schouwburg and worked with van Hulst to save Jewish lives.
From 1956 through 1981, Van Hulst worked in Dutch politics, and was a professor of pedagogy at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, as well as a prolific author, publishing his final work at the age of 95. He died on March 22 at the age of 107.
I initially learned about his passing via my chess network, within which he was remembered for his love of the game, especially in the Netherlands. In fact, van Hulst remained an active competitor until late in life, winning a special tournament for former Dutch parliamentarians at the Corus Chess Tournament (now known as the Tata Steel Chess Tournament) in Wijk ann Zee at the age of 99. In a 2010 interview with Peter Doggers, founder of ChessVibes.com, van Hulst discusses what it was like to watch Max Euwe play in 1935, the year the Dutchman defeated Alexander Alekhine to become the fifth World Chess Champion. He also shares an anecdote about how he, as chairman of a chess club in Amsterdam, protected the club’s Jewish members towards the latter half of the 1930s:
[T]he situation for our Jewish members became more and more difficult. At some point they weren’t allowed to play anymore, so we decided to secretly play at their houses instead of at the club. Later this had to stop as well. One night an SS officer walked into our club. “I want to become a club member and play here,” he told me. I had to think deeply, and then I responded: “Are you a Christian? You have to be a member of our Christian community too, you know.” This way I managed to get rid of him.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.