Maastricht, the Netherlands — (JTA) — In her nightmares, Tilly Walvis pictured German soldiers storming the house where she was hiding and deporting her children and the Christian couple sheltering them.
Walvis had good reason to fear. At the time, her family was living in the home of Albert and Frederika Santing in Hoensbroek, a Dutch town in the southeastern province of Limburg. Next door lived a family of Dutch Nazis, and delivering the hidden Jews to the German occupation forces would have meant praises and a handsome reward.
Fortunately for Walvis, the soldier who entered the house in 1944 was American, and he was looking for Nazis, not Jews. According to an account from the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem, Walvis sought to assure him they were not hostile, so she told him in English that she was Jewish.
“Me too,” he replied, bringing tears of joy to Walvis’ eyes and wild cries of excitement from the other family members. Walvis was among 2,200 Dutch and German Jews who survived the Holocaust in Limburg, a narrow sliver of a province near the Belgian and German borders that recent research has revealed to have been the safest place for Jews in the Netherlands during the Holocaust. Approximately 10 percent of Jews who went into hiding in Limburg were caught, roughly one-third the rate of Amsterdam.
Not only did Jews in Limburg survive the war in higher proportions than the rest of the Netherlands, but the region actually had more Jewish residents after the Holocaust than before, according to Herman van Rens, an amateur Dutch historian whose recent book, “Persecuted in Limburg,” was published last year ahead of the 70th anniversary of the region’s liberation.
Yet the story of the Holocaust in Limburg had remained unrecorded until van Rens and his wife, Annelies, began painstakingly collecting lists of Jews from dozens of municipal archives across the province. Through their work, the van Rens were able to show Limburg had twice as many Jews in hiding than previously thought.
In 1933, the Jewish population in Limburg stood at 800. Two waves of refugees — Germans before the war and Dutch following the German invasion — brought the Jewish population to 2,200 by 1945, according to van Rens. The 46 percent growth stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Netherlands, which lost 75 percent of its Jews in the Holocaust — a death rate matched in Western Europe only by Germany itself, with 88 percent, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Limburg residents speak a unique dialect and share a proud tradition of tight-knit communities with little anonymity — characteristics that van Rens believes contributed to their willingness to take risks to save Jews.