Jacob Soetendorp, a rebuilder of Jewish communities after the Shoah, a pioneer of the interfaith encounter and a peace and human rights advocate, was born in one of the poor quarters of Amsterdam in 1914. Faced by the death of his father at 13, he helped his mother to take care of the family of four children. While studying at the rabbinic seminary his acute sensitivity for justice for human values was nourished.
He was a social democrat and an ardent Zionist and, when the war broke out, he carried the sign of the broken rifle as advocate of non violence. He became a vey sensitive pastoral worker in Amsterdam East, where many of the 80 000 Jews from the traditional centre of the city had moved. As the pastoral worker, he was summoned to the headquarters of the German occupying force dealing with the Jewish question and notified of the death of 400 young Jewish men who had been arrested and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. (This event triggered the massive February strike of Dutch citizens mainly in Amsterdam, which was unique in Europe.) He became the messenger of the dark news to the families. He later recalled “Every street in which I stopped, the people started to cry.”
By that time he had also become a headmaster of a Jewish secondary school “de Joodse Mulo” where the numbers of students in the classes was dwindling day by day. He actively tried to persuade Jews to go into hiding.
Soon, he and Miryam, his newly wedded bride, were blessed by a son whom they named Awraham Shalom. Jacob told the registry officer who tried to persuade him not to give this boy a Jewish name, not now, that the boy would be named Shalom for peace that will come. The couple delayed going into hiding themselves, not wanting to be separated from their child, since it was almost impossible to find a family prepared to house parents together with a baby.
In May 1943 the Gestapo also raided their home. The officer in charge, looking at the three month old baby, exclaimed “What a pity that this is a Jewish child.”
Jacob retorted, “How happy he should be to be a Jewish child because what ever will happen to him, he will never grow up to be a child of murderers.”
The Gestapo leader hit Jacob Soetendorp, shouted abuse at him and told his people to leave, saying “The are too dirty to handle now. We will return tomorrow morning.”
Jacob later told his son there were tears in the eyes of the Gestapo man and those tears saved our lives. That night they each escaped through different routes. Jacob and Myriam found refuge in a farm in the South. Shalom was entrusted to the family of Van der Kemp in Velp, near Arnhem and was renamed Bobby. They were reunited after World War II.
Two lessons drawn from this experience have for ever influenced the lives of father and son, both Rabbi Soetendorp.
When the gaze of a baby can still reach the heart even in the deepest depravity nothing is lost.
The knob of the door that was opened for children, providing them with safety despite the life threatening danger, is now in our hands. Children are in desperate need, famished, hunted, yearning for fresh water and peace. Look at us… Do we open or close the door?
Following the end of the World War II, Jacob Soetendorp became a leader of Poale Zion, a Zionist movement, chief editor of the Dutch Jewish Weekly N.I.W and a pastoral worker, reclaiming Jewish children who had remained in non-Jewish foster homes after the murder of their parents. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish community, a remnant 25 000 out of 140 000, who struggled to do the impossible, to walk the road from surviving to living a normal life.
To read more about Jacob Soetendorp, look at the following articles:
Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis: Soetendorp, Jacob (1914 – 1976)
History of the Liberal Jewish Community:
Judith van Praag: What am I if not Jewish? Growing up in an Interfaith Family: