In 1997, musician Miriam Keesing came across photos of a boy she didn’t recognize while sorting through the attic of her late father’s home in Castricum, a seaside village just outside of Amsterdam.
When Keesing asked her aunt who the boy was, she replied, “Oh, that’s Uli. He was a refugee child. He lived with us for a while.” Intrigued, Keesing started looking into the child’s story, identifying him as Gerhard Ulrich Herzberg, a German Jew who escaped from the Nazis and arrived unaccompanied in the Netherlands shortly after Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on November 9 and 10, 1938. Keesing’s grandparents took him in at the start of World War II, but restrictive immigration laws barred him from joining the family when they fled to Cuba in 1942. Left behind in the German-occupied Netherlands, Uli was deported to the Sobibor extermination camp, where he was murdered in March 1943, a few days shy of his 16th birthday.
Discovering Uli’s fate made Keesing question what happened to the thousands of other Jewish children who sought refuge in the Netherlands during the Holocaust. Her research led her down a long, circuitous path that helped unearth the hidden history of a wartime hero: Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, also known as Truus Wijsmuller (pronounced WEISS-muller). Keesing believes the Dutch resistance fighter, who was not Jewish, never crossed paths with Uli. But Wijsmuller saved as many as 10,000 other children, mainly through the Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe to Great Britain and the lesser-known Dutch Kindertransport.
“I got to know her through the archives,” Keesing says of Wijsmuller. The theme of the materials she found, particularly letters, was clear: “Whenever something difficult had to be done with refugee children, people would say, ‘Well, you should ask Mrs. Wijsmuller.’”
The first Kindertransports
In the aftermath of Kristallnacht, a violent, two-day pogrom in which Nazis and their sympathizers destroyed thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and synagogues across Germany, the British government decided to allow Jewish children seeking refuge from the Nazis into the country. This program, known as the Kindertransport, brought nearly 10,000 children to the United Kingdom between December 1938 and May 1940. (With public opinion polls showing a lack of support, a similar campaign in the United States never even reached Congress.)
The first known Kindertransport arrived in England from Berlin on December 2. Wijsmuller was instrumental in organizing a second transport from Vienna, negotiating directly with Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi often called the “architect of the Holocaust,” to ensure the safe passage of 600 children. “What woman in 1938 has the guts to do a thing like that?” Keesing asks.
“A free spirit” is how Keesing describes Wijsmuller, whose parents took in Austrian refugee children during World War I. Born in 1896 in the Dutch town of Alkmaar to a pharmacist and a dressmaker, Wijsmuller moved to Amsterdam as an adult. In the early 1930s, as Adolf Hitler and his allies ramped up their persecution of German Jews, she decided to quit her job at a bank to volunteer with the Jewish Refugees Committee and the Committee for Special Jewish Interests. Later, she worked with the Netherlands Children’s Refugee Committee, helping to relocate Jewish children. Keesing says she doesn’t believe that Wijsmuller had fixed responsibilities at these organizations. Instead, “she would just walk in, look around, see what needed to be done and do just that, regardless of whether she thought she was able to do it.”
According to Keesing, Wijsmuller met with Eichmann at the request of Norman Bentwich, a barrister who’d received permission from the British government to bring refugee children to the U.K. Keesing believes Bentwich and his colleagues asked Wijsmuller because she was not Jewish and “already had the reputation that she could do anything.”
Details of Wijsmuller’s meeting with Eichmann came to light through the work of Dutch filmmakers Pamela Sturhoofd and Jessica van Tijn. Like Keesing, the pair stumbled onto Wijsmuller’s name while researching the Dutch Kindertransport. In 2017, they decided her story needed to be told to a broader audience. Drawing on a database of refugee children compiled by Keesing, the filmmakers started tracking down Holocaust survivors who’d been saved by Wijsmuller. Their documentary, titled Truus’ Children, premiered in the Netherlands in 2020 but is not yet available to stream in the U.S.
While researching Wijsmuller, Sturhoofd and van Tijn found a 1967 tape featuring the resistance fighter telling the story of how she saved so many children. The interview included a detailed account of her appeal to Eichmann.
“That man called me all sorts of names,” said Wijsmuller in the recording, which appears in the documentary. Speaking in her native Dutch, she described how Eichmann asked to see her hands and told her to take off her coat and shoes. When he instructed her to pull up her skirt and walk around, she responded, “Enough. Now let’s talk business.”
Wijsmuller suggested a plan to get Jewish children out of Austria. Eichmann started laughing, then said, “Let’s pull a nice prank.” If she could convince hundreds of Jewish parents to put their children on trains leaving the country that Saturday—the Sabbath, when observant Jews are prohibited from traveling—she could run her transport unchecked.
“I don’t think Mrs. Wijsmuller or anyone else needed to convince parents to let their children go,” says Keesing. She adds that Wijsmuller focused on “formalities and bureaucracies,” while Desider Friedmann, president of the Jewish Community of Vienna, handled preparations on the ground in the Austrian capital.
As Sturhoofd and van Tijn note on the documentary’s website, “The first promised transport was likely meant as a joke by Eichmann, but after Wijsmuller was able to fill a train with (Jewish) children within a couple of days, she was allowed to keep taking children out on a much more regular basis, with a maximum of a 150 children at the time.” Keesing says Wijsmuller never met Eichmann in person again, but for some unknown reason, he held true to his promise.
The children Wijsmuller saved
Through Wijsmuller’s leadership and the support of those who helped her, including her husband, Joop Wijsmuller, the Netherlands became a temporary haven for Jewish children, with nearly 2,000 seeking safety there on the eve of World War II. Some, like Uli, were housed with Dutch families, while others were sent to orphanages; still others lived in Wijsmuller’s own home.
One such houseguest was Ilse Bauer-Langsdorf, who calls Wijsmuller “a mother protector.” Born in Frankfurt in 1937, Bauer-Langsdorf was 2 years old when Wijsmuller arranged for her transportation to Aruba and adoption by a German Jewish couple who had fled to the Dutch territory. In 1939, German mines blew up the ship that was bringing the toddler to her new family, killing more than 100 passengers; Bauer-Langsdorf survived the explosion, and Wijsmuller took her in while she recovered. The following year, Wijsmuller secured the young girl passage on another ship to Aruba.
After the war, Bauer-Langsdorf, who now lives in the Washington, D.C. area, saw Wijsmuller twice: once when she was 8 years old and again in her 20s, when she was attending college in New York City. “Truus was never a good housekeeper, somebody once said,” Bauer-Langsdorf tells Smithsonian. “That was not her thing. Saving children was her thing.”
On May 10, 1940, the day Germany invaded the Netherlands, Wijsmuller was in Paris on a mission. But she returned to her home country and secured passage by ship for the remaining refugee children (between 66 and 74, according to different accounts) living at an Amsterdam orphanage. That rescue effort, which Wijsmuller scrambled to organize on May 14, the day the Dutch surrendered to the Nazis, marked her 74th transport.
Mirjam Baitalmi-Szpiro was on that last ship bound for England; it set sail the day after her birthday, and she wore a pink dress during the journey. “Somebody thought I was worth saving,” the octogenarian says. She had arrived at the orphanage as a toddler, shortly after Kristallnacht.
“When [the SS] took my father, I only saw their boots,” Baitalmi-Szpiro recalls. As she later learned from her older sister, their mother “had told us all to stay under the bed, and she had put her hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t cry.” To save her three children, their mother sent them to the Netherlands, where Baitalmi-Szpiro’s sister raised her. “There are three heroines in my story: my mother, my sister and Mrs. Wijsmuller,” she says.
Though she was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, Wijsmuller continued helping members of the Jewish community throughout the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. She brought food, much-needed medicine and forged documents to individuals held in camps and prisons across German-controlled territories, and she helped Eastern European Jews flee to Palestine via Marseilles, France. In 1944, Wijsmuller saved 50 Jewish children interned at Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands. Instead of being transported to Auschwitz, they were sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp and ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Wijsmuller reportedly greeted the children at a train station in the Netherlands after Theresienstadt’s liberation by Allied forces.
In 1945, after the war ended, Wijsmuller visited Baitalmi-Szpiro at the hostel where she was living with other refugee children whose parents had died during the Holocaust. The survivor says, “I was 10, and she took me and set me on her knee, and she said in German, ‘My children.’”
Wijsmuller’s postwar visits to Baitalmi-Szpiro and Bauer-Langsdorf, as well as her attendance at the weddings of other refugees she rescued, showed the filmmakers that for her, it was “really about saving one soul at a time. Those children mattered to her,” says Sturhoofd.
When contacted for interviews, many of the individuals saved by Wijsmuller responded enthusiastically. “Most of them immediately said, ‘Please come. When is your flight?’” van Tijn recalls. They asked, “Why did it take so long?” Sturhoofd suggests the survivors believed the documentary was their “last chance to say thank you to the woman who saved their lives.”
Why Wijsmuller has long been overlooked
Despite Wijsmuller’s impressive activism, her story is little known, especially outside of the Netherlands. Steph Vaessen, a friend interviewed for the documentary, says shame played a role in the erasure of her legacy. “She did what everybody should have done and nobody did,” he says in the film.
Laura Brade, a historian at Albion College, attributes Wijsmuller’s lack of recognition in part to gender norms. “[A] caring, nurturing role is seen as quite typical for women,” she says, “and so it’s somewhat expected.” Brade points out that British stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who was knighted for saving 669 Czech refugee children during the war—a rescue effort coordinated with Wijsmuller’s help—earned accolades for his righteous actions, while Wijsmuller was largely overlooked. A Hollywood movie starring Anthony Hopkins as Winton is slated for release this winter; Wijsmuller is not listed as a character in the film on the Internet Movie Database.
In the years immediately following World War II, neither survivors nor the public expressed much interest in discussing the Holocaust. “Quite frankly, very few people wanted to hear about stories of suffering,” says Jennifer L. Foray, a historian at Purdue University. It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust grew and survivors began sharing their stories more publicly.
Since most of the individuals Wijsmuller rescued were children, Sturhoofd and van Tijn suspect that many weren’t aware of the identity of the woman who saved them. Additionally, because Wijsmuller didn’t work with one specific organization and conducted many of her rescues in secret, few official records of her heroism exist.
Still, before her death in 1978 at age 82, Wijsmuller received a number of honors. In 1966, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, listed her as Righteous Among the Nations, a category created to honor non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. She was also awarded medals by the German and Dutch Red Cross, the French government, and the Order of St. George of Antioch, among others. Oral histories collected by the USC Shoah Foundation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum testify to Wijsmuller’s bravery, as do the stories shared by the 29 survivors featured in Truus’ Children.
Baitalmi-Szpiro says the lack of recognition of the enormity of Wijsmuller’s work motivates her to continue speaking out about her savior. “It’s taken me years and years of treatment … to get to be the person I am today,” she adds, “[but] I tell my story to schools and to anyone who asks me to, … although it’s very hard for me.”
Of conspiracy theorists who deny the brutal reality of the Holocaust, she says, “They can’t take Mrs. Wijsmuller away from me, and they can’t take my pink dress away from me, and they can’t take the memories that I have of [my] parents in Germany.”