I, Maurice Vanderpol, learned an
important lesson. Many times we have an idea, asking to make something happen, but it remains an
idea only and it never leads to action and is forgotten. I had an idea and struggled with it for a
long time; it became a reality because I was lucky enough to meet a few people who each in turn picked
up the idea and worked with me to make it happen. It was about a very special man, Walter Suskind, who
masterminded the saving of many children from extinction but was not able to save his own little girl
or himself or his family.
60 years ago during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands this Jewish hero lead a secret operation that
resulted in the saving of 800-1000 Jewish children from being killed in the death camps. He died a horrible
death in concentration camp Auschwitz. What he accomplished was no small miracle and yet, until recently,
the story had never been told except in a paragraph here or there in history books. My intention is to show
how finally in 1982 the story began to take on a life of its own, resulting a few weeks ago in a full size
documentary film about Walter Suskind and the ‘creche’ (childcare center). The premiere took place in the
presence of 400 guests. During the film you could here a pin drop; when the film ended a dead silence except
for sniffles and handkerchiefs.
This essay aims to honor the memory of Walter Suskind and the three special people who
took on the challenge to carry the story forward. Why did it take 60 years to bring this
inspiring story to a wide audience? What can we learn from the story that happened during such a
disastrous time and is still relevant so many years later?
1940: After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, they slowly but decidedly moved toward elimination
of the 140,000 Jews who had lived peacefully in that country for centuries. A Jewish Council was created that consisted
in part of prominent Jewish Citizens and also had a large number of workers. While supposedly this Council was created to
help Jewish Citizens, the covert and later overt purpose was to help the Nazis organize and then execute the so-called
“Final Solution”. A former theater, the Hollandse Schouwburg (Holland Theater), later redesignated the Jewish Theater,
became the first stop for Jewish families on their way to deportation to the concentration camps, mainly the death camps.
The seats had been removed and mattresses put on the floor where hundreds of people were supposed to stay for a week or
more. It functioned under the auspices of the Jewish Council and Walter Suskind was put in charge. Young children were
taken across the big street to a childcare center (creche) and taken care of by teenage Jewish girls until the family
was deported. It was a place of horror and when the occupation ended no one wanted to touch it.
1962: After many years of decay with the roof caving in, the City of Amsterdam took on the task of cleaning up the
Schouwburg, transforming it into a place for remembering. A memorial flame was installed in front of three tombstones:
a big black one, a smaller white one and a little one to portray a family. The only name shown on a small plaque was
‘Walter Suskind’. The front of the building was renovated to house educational displays and a wall of remembrance
with an eternal flame. (The crèche was taken down and replaced by a new, unrelated building.)
1982: My wife, Netty, and I received a solicitation from the ‘Metropolitan Theater’ in Boston, a very large movie
theater built in the nineteen twenties, for contributions toward renovation of this old building. When I was about
to throw out this request, I had an idea that at first seemed so far fetched that I was about to just forget about
it. I knew the basic facts of the deportations, the place in Amsterdam where families where taken and dispatched
from, the role of Walter Suskind as a rescuer and the crèche with the children. How could I connect these memories
and the theater in Amsterdam that was now a ruin with this theater in downtown Boston?
I made an appointment with Harry Lodge, then the CEO of the Metropolitan Theater and with great trepidation I went
to see him. As I told him my story he turned out to be a good listener, asking good questions so that he felt comfortable
presenting the idea of a memorial for Walter Suskind and the theater in Amsterdam to his Board of Trustees. It was created
with their approval and various friends and acquaintances contributed some funds. However, as nice as it was as a legal
entity, the goals were unclear. It turned out that the money was used to pay for the renovation.
In subsequent years, every time there was a new CEO or director of development they had their turn for a visit from
me to remind them of the existence of this fund. Nothing much happened and when contributors from before asked me how
the Suskind fund was doing I hid my face behind my hands signifying ‘don’t ask’.
1988: The new CEO arrived, named Josiah A. Spaulding Jr and it was his turn for a visit from me. I explained my and
my wife’s background during the Holocaust and about Walter Suskind and the fund, emphasizing the three issues: 1-the memorial
Hollandse Schouwburg (former theater), 2-memorializing Walter Suskind rescuing Jewish Children and 3- the children
themselves. He proposed that I give him a week to plan and that we would meet again to work it out. A week later
he explained that he had founded an outreach program with its own separate staff called ‘Young At Arts’ and that the
endowment fund for that program would be called the Walter Suskind Memorial Education Fund. He proposed to hold meetings
with groups during which I would tell the background story of the saving of children masterminded by Suskind and ask for
contributions, aiming for one million dollars the first year. Everything proposed became a reality - including the one
1989: The fund was officially launched at an unforgettable inauguration with a Dutch setting on the stage and VIPs
that included Massachusetts Senator John Kerry; the Honorable Ed van Thijn, Mayor of Amsterdam, who himself had been a
saved child; and Piet Meerburg, the founder of one of the resistance groups that worked with Suskind. It was an auspicious
start and continues to operate today as “Suskind Young at Arts”. A special space in what is now known as the Wang Center for
the Performing Arts was set aside as the ‘Walter Suskind Lobby’ with explanations about the history of the fund as well as
publicity for the Young at Arts programs. The US Senate, in a resolution on October 31, (legislative day September 18)
1989 recognized: “the courage and exemplary heroism of Walter Suskind”.
1990: The Boston Globe commissioned David Arnold, a staff writer, to travel to Amsterdam, Westerbork (transit camp in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation) and Auschwitz to find out everything he could about the activities of Walter Suskind and the saving of Jewish children. Although Suskind’s rescue effort was never discovered during the war and only known to a relatively small group of people, David was able to locate and interview a number of people who had played an active part in it. His extensive and detailed report was published in the Sunday Boston Globe Magazine in October 1990. This was the first comprehensive description of the complex rescue operation and Walter Suskind’s leading role in it.
1998: The Wang Center commissioned Tim Morse, photographer, to produce a short video about the Suskind story to be used in a kiosk in the Suskind Lobby. The purpose would be for theater-goers during intermission to be able to push a button and see and hear the story.
2002: Tim and Karen Morse decide to make the story into a documentary film by going to the Netherlands with a film crew to interview those people who were still alive and could bear witness with their own memories. The interviewees included saved children, rescuers, other survivors of the period and historians.
2005: The film crew goes back to conduct four more interviews and to collect historical film and photos from various sources. Upon return, the documentary goes through a thorough process of proofing, adding and subtracting and rearranging, using a variety of experts to advise the production team.
On September 26, 2005 the premiere takes place at the Sorenson Theater at Babson College, Wellesley MA in the presence of 400 invited guests, including eight of the people from the Netherlands and elsewhere who were shown in the interviews in the film. The film was warmly received as indicated by the total silence during and for a while afterward. Then a strong applause resounded through the hall.
THE IDEA HAS BECOME A REALITY AND, FINALLY, A STORY ABOUT CARING, COURAGE AND TRAGEDY IS TOLD.