News - April 21, 2011

Students steal population register

Do the students in Walstraat street realize that there used to be a synagogue where they now eat, drink and hang out with their boyfriend/girlfriend.

That the artwork on the other side of the street, on the banks of the town canal, commemorates the period before the war when Wageningen still had a sizeable Jewish community? 'Arch of life' is the title of the bronze sculpture by the artist Etty Elzas, showing a group of people passing through an arch optimistically on the way to a better life.
If you want to know what that synagogue looked like, you will have to go to De Casteelse Poort museum in Bowlespark. It has a maquette, while a few photos and a painting keep the memory alive. These items are part of an exhibition about synagogues in the Netherlands, with photographs of surviving buildings taken by the film-maker Willy Lindwer. The synagogue in Wageningen, which was built in 1902, was destroyed by bombs when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940 - although ironically it was Dutch fire from the Grebbeberg hill that was responsible. Incidentally, the place of worship was no longer in use by that time.
The museum also focuses on Jewish life in Wageningen, giving particular attention to students and staff at the Agricultural College. It looks at the lives of lecturer Martin Polak, chemist G├ęza Berger and lecturer Adolf (!) Schweizer. These three Jewish members of staff were told in November 1940 they were losing their jobs. Only a handful of colleagues and about twenty students put up any kind of protest. Nearly all the professors had already signed the Arian declaration. The exhibition notes in reasonably neutral wording that 'the management of the Agricultural College was pretty cooperative in 1940-45'.
The student societies did take a more principled stand. The Agricultural College had six Jewish students in 1940. The societies had to expel their Jewish members in the autumn of 1941. Four of the five societies closed in protest, only Unitas remained open. It had a number of students belonging to the NSB (Dutch fascist party) among its members. Half the members resigned after this decision.The actions of the students Henk Sijnja and Yga van der Wal were particularly heroic. They joined the Dutch resistance and together with two others they stole the Population Register from Wageningen Town Hall in early 1943. Sijnja gives an expressive account of this on video. And what is even more blood-tingling: a proper execution. De Casteelse Poort, highly recommended for a visit in the run-up to 4 and 5 May. (Dutch only)
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