"You Do Not Have to Answer All the Questions"

Nederland, Utrecht, 1 april 2014. Hebe Kohlbrugge. Foto: Jorgen Caris
Nederland, Utrecht, 1 april 2014. Hebe Kohlbrugge. Foto: Jorgen Caris

an interview with a member of the Dutch Resistance of World War II

by Jim Forest

Hebe Kohlbrugge was one of the few Dutch people who had a clear idea of the nature of Nazism before the invasion of Holland in 1940. Working in Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, she was arrested for her opposition to Nazism, imprisoned, and eventually deported to her native country, the Netherlands. There, following the Occupation, she became one of the organizers of the resistance, especially to Nazi anti-Jewish policies. Caught in 1944, she was sent first to a Dutch prison camp and later to Ravensbrück, Germany. There she developed friendships with Eastern European prisoners which, in the post-war years, drew her to work with human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries. She also plunged into material and spiritual aid for Germany on behalf of the Netherlands Reformed Church. Later, on the staff of the Department for Interchurch Aid with her work expanded to many other countries, including Vietnam, she was one of the first church leaders to offer support to the social service programs of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church.

For her work on behalf of victims of war and racism, Hebe Kohlbrugge has received various awards. There is, however, no evidence of the awards in her home or on her person. She draws attention to them only when to do so might further her efforts for those persons in trouble today. Once, during the Vietnam War, while trying to arrange a meeting between a Vietnamese Buddhist representative and a Minister of the Dutch Cabinet, an assistant assured her the Minister was too busy. Hebe put on the desk the Bronze Lion Award she had received from the Dutch government for courage and gallantry in the resistance. The meeting with the Minister followed immediately.

Jim Forest: What were you doing when the war began? What drew you ln the direction of resistance?

Hebe Kohlbrugge: I was 25. I had been working in the “Bekennende Kirche” — the anti-Nazi Confessing Church — in Germany, and I had seen what was going on. I worked there until l was imprisoned in Berlin in 1939. Thanks to the Dutch ambassador, I was released. I was ordered out of Germany “für Ewig” — for eternity — and I came home. So in 1939 when the war started, I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t have to have it explained to me who Hitler was. I had seen him, and I had made up my mind when I went to the Confessing Church.

What was it that brought you to the Confessing Church in Germany to begin with?

I had originally gone to Berlin to study. I was very interested in what was going on politically. In Berlin I happened to live in the parish of Martin Niemöller, so I saw and heard Hitler, and Niemöller as well. Arriving in Berlin as someone very interested in what was going on — not at all against Hitler, just interested — I discovered from Niemöller and from what l saw myself that Hitler was quite the wrong man. So I decided that I had to take the side of Niemöller. When I finished my course, I wrote my parents, “I want to help where help is needed.” And they wrote, “Okay.” So I went and helped until I was thrown out.

Did you have any sense at all of what was coming for the Jews?

I was in Germany on Kristallnacht in 1938… Of course, in the Confessing Church we often talked of “the great sin of anti-Semitism.” I can remember Bonhöffer coming and talking about such things as: What does it mean to help Jews? It couldn’t be spoken of so openly, but it was talked about.

One of the reasons I was put into prison in 1939 was that I had told the groups of children I worked within the church that Jews were nice people. Of course, the kids had told their parents, and some of the parents were Nazis. “How do you know?” they would ask. “Well, Hebe said . . .”

What other reasons did they give for imprisoning you?

Not saying “Heil Hitler,” but saying “Good morning!” Ringing the bells for Niemöller together with the children.

Why the bells?

When Niemöller was imprisoned, all the churches of the Confessing Church began ringing the bells at six o’clock to think of Niemöller and pray for him. It was for Niemöller at first, but later for all the others in prison. I went with all the kids to the bell tower of our church and said, “Now you ring, and now I ring, and now you ring.” I wanted them, by doing it themselves, to understand what we were doing. We wanted to remind people that it was time to pray. And the kids loved it. Kids love ringing church bells. Of course they went home and said, “We did this for Niemöller.” So, it was Niemöller, it was the Jews, and it was “Guten Tag,” instead of “Heil Hitler.”

Tell me more about the Confessing Church.

As always in church life, what a church did depended a great deal on the individual pastor, the church members, and so on. But if I were to generalize, I would say there were regular meetings — sometimes a whole Saturday or Sunday, sometimes several evenings over a few weeks. There were many gatherings, many chances for people to get to know each other and become each other’s friends. Church life was far more intensive than I had ever known it at home.

In the Confessing Church, all questions of interest were taken seriously. Things like this are normal now, but at that time it was all new. What happened with the church offerings gives one illustration of how it was. All of a sudden the state began to confiscate them. So it became a question for us: What shall we do with our offerings? I had never before thought about that! This was new. Finally it was agreed the offering should be taken and put on the altar. The SS didn’t dare take it from the altar. They were afraid. Then the next day the pastor took the offering and put it where it had to go.

But before this decision was reached, there was much discussion. One pastor came saying, “I don’t want to be a member of the Confessing Church any longer, because I don’t think it is worthwhile to fight with the state over some money.” He brought biblical texts showing money is not so important in the church. It was a big question: “Have we to fight for money in the church?” In the end we saw that we were not to fight for our own money, but that we had to fight for the money people gave us, to use it in the right way — and that the state must not be allowed to steal it. Therefore we had to hide it from the stealer.

We talked about everything concerning life, including church and politics. This was a very new thing to think about. Far more openness came. In the Confessing Church for the first time it became clear that Reformed and Lutheran had to take Holy Communion together. This was new.

All these conversations seemed to be frightfully important. And they were.

In 1939 you were sent out of Germany. What next?

First, in April, I went to Basel and studied with Karl Barth — but only one semester, because then the war came. I was home on holiday in September 1939 when the war started and then I couldn’t go back. I had to earn some money, and the Council of Churches in Amsterdam hired me as secretary. It was a half-time job for very little money, but it was enough. Eight months later, in May 1940, the German army invaded Holland

Did you anticipate the invasion?

No. No one did.

What happened then?

I talked with friends about what we could do. I couldn’t say, “We must do this.” But to very good friends, I said, “We must do something. We can’t wait. What can we do?” These friends decided to come together as a group and talk things over. That was in July 1940. Such a meeting was still possible then — very openly writing letters: “Will you come to a conference?” So we came together, a group of 35 people, and talked over what we might possibly do. Practically nothing was agreed upon immediately. But all of those who came together could be relied upon later on.

What was the first action you took part in?

In October 1940 the Germans asked all those who were in official jobs to put down if they were Jews or not. Just a question: “Are you a Jew, or not?”

In our group of 35 there had earlier been discussions of secretly publishing samizdat papers and pamphlets. Now one person from the group came to me and said, “We have talked about samizdat publishing, and now we have to do it.” I agreed. So we wrote the first pamphlet. Together with my sister — we lived together at the time — we decided 30,000 copies would be the right number. We found a little printer and in a very short time he had printed them.

What was the first pamphlet called?

“Bijna te laat” — “It’s nearly too late.” Our group of 35 was able to distribute them all over Holland.

The main statement was: You are not allowed to answer nasty questions. Remember, we lived in a time when people were polite to one another. If you asked me, “Are you a Jew?” I answered, “No, I’m not,” or “Yes, I am.” So one of the main issues was that if a non-trustworthy person asks you a question like that; you answer: “That has nothing to do with you.”

That was new. Even today some people wonder about this sentence. When I received the Münster Prize, I had in my speech the sentence: “You do not have to answer all the questions.” The speech was sent to several friends in Rumania, and five different friends in Rumania wrote that this was the most important sentence. This was new to them, still.

Isn’t this still an issue for people everywhere? To dare to be silent before certain questions, certain orders?

And to say quite clearly, “This I will not answer. This is not your business.” You not only kept your mouth shut if they asked you with whom you worked. That was clear; you could not betray people. But even a Dutchman who resisted the Nazis said to me about the pamphlet: “You can’t send this! If someone asks you a question, you have to answer. Otherwise you are wrong, because then you are nasty.” He said you must answer; I said you can’t. He said, “No, if something happens to the Jews, then we will do something.” But then it was too late. And so it happened. “Nearly too late” became too late.

What effect did the first publication have?

It’s hard to say. This was not the very first action, though it was the first large one. I know the Nazis were furious that they couldn’t find where it came from and who had run the whole thing. We had done a thing that was rather clever at that time — we took the available lists of names from all the schools, and the addresses were done in many different handwritings and on many typewriters.

Then we posted the envelopes on the same night, between six and eight, from all the various places. So they tried to find out: “Does it come from Utrecht?” “No, it comes from Groningen.” “No, it comes from Zeeland.” “Oh no, it’s coming from Alkmaar! ”

Were you personally suspected by the Nazis at first?

No, not at all.

You continued with your job at the Council of Churches?

Yes. That was lovely. I had the whole church to hide my things — the Nieuwe Kerk, the biggest church in Amsterdam. No one could find anything. There was just myself there, and the custodian — and he didn’t know what I was doing.

What did you do after the first booklet?

We continued publishing. We had a series of subjects we had decided on.

How quickly did the German removal of Jews begin?

Almost immediately. In October they asked the question, and then the arrests began. They didn’t take them all together. If they had, they would have had a big fight in Holland. They took them one by one.

How did you feel when you first heard a Jew had been taken away?

To answer that, I have to remind you that we knew nothing about Auschwitz then. What we knew was that children were being taken, women were being taken, and whole families. We were afraid for their lives. Jews were taken to Westerbork in Holland, which was not nice but it was heaven compared to the death camps. We knew transports were taken from there to Germany — we did not know where. We did not know about gas.

What did your group do at that point?

The only thing we could do — we began to hide the Jews.


It was all very easy — and very difficult! You started with your parents, and after your parents you went to uncles and nieces and friends of parents and friends of nieces — and friends and friends of friends. We didn’t make big organizations. We went from one to the other. We just followed our own track.

How did Jews find you?

It happened. Holland is a small country. It happened like it happens today. A call comes: “Can you help . . . ?” As soon as you started, the connections were made.

Have you any idea how many, ultimately, were sheltered in this way? In the thousands?

Yes. But many were found halfway down — in hiding, like Anne Frank’s family. And there were others hiding who couldn’t stand it any longer and went out into the street.

Were there times when the Nazis were close to breaking your ring?

Very often. Practically all of my friends were shot.

How many were shot?

I never counted.


Yes. Some had a trial, some were just shot.

It was just a matter of fortune that you weren’t shot?

Some groups, of course, had a spy in them, and then the whole group was taken. Our group never had a spy. Some groups had the bad luck that one was taken and tortured so badly that he gave all the names. But we decided that, if one was taken, we would all leave our addresses, immediately.

We wouldn’t come back until we had a message from the person, or we heard what had happened. This arrangement was also a help for those who were arrested. If you finally gave in, you knew no one would be in danger — they would have left.

Did the Gestapo ever come for you?

Yes. In February 1942, the Gestapo found me at my office in the Nieuwe Kerk. I had with me a package of samizdat papers. Normally I never had anything with me, but I wanted to give these papers half an hour later to a boy who was to deliver them somewhere.

I walked into my office, and there sat three gentlemen from the Gestapo. I thought of my bag, and I thought, “This is the end.” They said, “We want to look through your office!” I said, “My office is upstairs.” This wasn’t true. At the time I was working downstairs because the upstairs was so cold. “Then we’ll go upstairs,” they said. “Take everything with you. Bring your bag.” (I had tried to leave it behind.) To go upstairs we had to climb an old spiral staircase. They wanted me to go first, but I said, “No, if you are gentlemen, you go first.” And they did! They wanted to be gentlemen. So on the way upstairs, while walking as loudly as I could, I threw the package of papers downstairs — hoping it wouldn’t bump too hard. It was the only chance I had. When we got upstairs, they said, “Open your bag.” Well, I opened it — and there was nothing but a dirty handkerchief!

Then they looked through my “office” — and there was nothing there, of course. When we came back downstairs, I dreaded that the package would still be where it fell, but the wife of the custodian had been so kind as to remove it. So the Gestapo found nothing at the church. But they insisted on going to the room where I lived. I said, “I must first call my boss, because he is due any moment and I can’t just go away like this.” They agreed, but of course they listened. I called my boss and said, “I am here with the German police. They want to go with me to my house, so I’m sorry, if you come I will not be in.” “Okay,” he said, and he immediately rang the house where I was staying to warn them I was coming with the police, and they were able to take certain things out of the house.

I was staying with a pastor and his wife. They had no children, and they were willing to take in young people who didn’t earn much money. Another girl and myself were staying there. I knew the other girl did nothing illegal — so I took the Gestapo into her room and said, “This is my room! ”

They searched her room up and down. The only thing they found was a picture of the Queen [who was with the government-in-exile in London]. They were furious, but that was not a thing for which they could take me to prison. They searched for three hours and finally left. The girl was furious with me! Ridiculous girl . . . She was angry because they made such a mess.

Then I knew it was dangerous for me and that it was now better for me to hide. I went to another address.

And there were no more encounters with the Gestapo?

After I had left, I remembered that I had left something at the house which I needed very badly. So I thought, “Well, it’s Friday evening — I will go and get it.” I went to the house, got to my former room, and at that moment the Gestapo arrived at the house and rang. I thought, “There they are! “You just feel it, you know?

I went out of the room up to the attic. It was the only thing I could do. I heard the very nice pastor’s wife say, “Yes, she must be in the house, because her bicycle is here.” She had the idea, like most people at that time, that no matter what, you had to be honest. They went up to my room. It was clean and in order. Then they began a search. For five hours they searched that house, and they didn’t find me. They were terrible hours. But I was lucky, I had found a small cupboard — just a crawl space under the eaves. I got in and put something in front of me and laid there and didn’t move. They went over the whole attic, but they did not open the door. I think they didn’t realize a door was there. It was all in the same color, and by the time they got to the attic they were tired.

By this time it was clear that they wanted to arrest you?

Yes, absolutely. As it was, they took the pastor’s wife. Three hours later I came out of the attic — after eight hours. I couldn’t stay there any longer. By then the pastor was frantic. “My wife! My wife! You have to go and turn yourself in.” But I said, “No. Nothing will happen to her, but for me there is great danger.” He was furious! She was released the next morning, as I expected.

For another day I had to stay there in the attic. There was at all times a Gestapo man posted in front of the house — we saw him walking up and down. Finally on Saturday evening at 5 o’clock, they had free time, and they left. So I was able to go. It was very dangerous, of course, and very frightening, but I went. From that time on, I lived underground.

What was your work then?

The same. Finding homes for Jews, helping with ration cards, helping with other things. First it was the Jews, then there were students, then laborers who didn’t want to go to forced labor in Germany, and then other underground people. We also went on with the samizdat papers, which came out regularly every four to six weeks.

What was in them?

News. Warnings. Information. Articles explaining in a popular way why we were fighting against Nazism. Then in July 1942, someone had to go to Switzerland, so I went.

How did you do that?

Walking, mostly — Holland to Belgium, then the train into northern France, and then walking into Switzerland.

What was the purpose of that trip?

To get information to London — to the Dutch Queen and the government in exile.

At that time they had several radio stations, like “Voice of Holland,” broadcasting to us. And sometimes they were sending absurd information. It was vital that the government should have clearer reports about what was happening, so they wouldn’t risk people’s lives. We also wanted to give them information about where troops were and what they were doing, and to remind them of the dangers.

What kind of dangers?

Well, you can drown a country like Holland if you blow up the electrical generators — because these run the pumps, and most of the country is below sea level. The Germans placed dynamite near all the power stations. We were always fighting this. We would steal the dynamite. We expected that all Holland would be drowned.

interviewer’s note: In 1944 Hebe Kohlbrugge was finally arrested, though she managed to give a false name and to convince her captors she was a German citizen. After a period in a Dutch prison camp, she was transferred to Ravensbrück, 80 kilometers north of Berlin — the concentration camp known as “the women’s hell.”

At least 50,000 persons died here, and many others were sent on to death camps. I once talked with a girl in Ravensbrück, and she was very down, and I said to her, “Keep your head up!” And she said, “You can. You know why you’re here. I’m here only because of my nose.” I think that’s very important. We knew why we were there; we had been fighting. This poor girl hadn’t. She was there only, as she said, because of her nose.

When were you at Ravensbrück?

From September 4, 1944, until February 1945.

What did you do there?

I worked in the hospital, as I had in the Dutch prison camp. I had to look after the babies. Their mothers were mainly from Poland. The Germans had taken whole villages, and some of the women, of course, were pregnant. Every day, one or two babies were born. I never had more than 35, so you can count how many died. Most were born beautifully. The births were like anywhere — the mothers rejoicing about their nice new babies, so beautiful. But the mothers did not have enough food. They couldn’t nurse. After three days the babies would begin to shrink. They died, generally very quietly. It was hard, especially for those mothers who had lost their husbands. The baby was all they had left.

But the ones who had perhaps the worst situation at Ravensbrück were the gypsies. They were even more crowded than the rest of us, more pressed together. The Nazis had decided that these people, like the Jews, should be wiped out. The mothers would be told that if they allowed their daughters to be sterilized, the daughters could be let free. The mothers would say, “Okay. Then my little girl gets out.” Then there were these girls — eight, nine, ten, twelve years old — who were sterilized with electric shock. It was too terrible for words. Their screams were unbearable. It was the most awful thing I experienced at Ravensbrück. It was torture of children.

But I don’t think one should stay too long with these old memories. Torturing is still going on. All the countries are doing it. In 1980 we can’t talk too much about the torturing by the Nazis. We cannot say they were the most evil. Black is black.

What was important in helping you survive the experience?

There were various things. One was that I wanted to overcome. I wanted to survive, not only because I was afraid of dying, but because I didn’t want to give the Germans the chance to rejoice! Secondly, I had come through the experiences of prison, of not giving names, of pretending to be a German, of being one of the many in the camps, and I had the feeling, “I have come through so far — I will come through to the end.” I didn’t want to die as Christina Dormann [her false name] — I wanted to go home as Hebe Kohlbrugge.

I was very busy with the mothers and babies, and trying to do something for them. I first heard from the Polish mothers about life in Poland in the war. I hadn’t known Poland had been so much worse than Holland. Much worse. So I started to realize that my experiences were not so important — in fact they were unimportant in light of what these Polish girls had to tell me. We had been busy only with ourselves; now we started to get busy with more important things.

Working for the babies, I really had to work from roll call in the morning until midnight. I hardly had any sleep. So I really hadn’t much time to think of what would keep me alive. I hadn’t even much time for religious life or praying. Probably not enough. I knew that I was a Christian, I knew that as a Christian I fought against the lie of Nazism, I knew that I tried to help these mothers, and I did what I could.

How do the sorts of experiences you had affect your religious faith?

There is a book which has recently been published here, How Can I Believe After Auschwitz? I think the question is ridiculous. Evil didn’t begin or end with the Nazis. There is all we know about Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Gulag Archipelago, Cambodia, Argentina, Chile, many countries in Africa . . . And there are events like these all through human history. How can we just talk about believing after Auschwitz? If we read the Revelation of St. John, we are told that history will go this way. And it does go this way. So if I believe, I believe. If I don’t, I don’t. We push away our present difficulties by thinking only of 1944-45.

What about the guards — people who kill and torture? Does this require a certain kind of person, or can it be anyone?

I remember at Ravensbrück one day there came new guards — ten or twenty. They were girls sent from a factory that had been closed. They came and were told what they had to do. And they said, “We don’t want to do that.” All of them. Then they were told, “Either you are a guard, or you are a prisoner.” Now what shall the normal factory girl do? Can you expect her to choose to be a prisoner? So she becomes a guard. And then what happens? She tries not to be too nasty. But they tell her she must be more nasty. “If you are not, we will send you to be a guard some place even worse.” So she starts shouting. But it wasn’t true for everyone. Not everyone became cruel. We knew some who would never tell what they had seen. But many just went along step by step. A few were real sadists, and they tried to push the rest.

What happened when you were released?

I went home — which took me a good week — and I had to go to bed immediately, because I had very bad tuberculosis. I had known in Ravensbrück that I had it; in fact I had already been sick in bed in the camp. It was not allowed to release sick people, but the doctor did. He liked me — I don’t know why. At home they looked after me and I had a good doctor. The war ended in May.

In the years since then, you have spent a great deal of time working for refugees and for people in trouble because of war. Was it inevitable that you should go on to do these kinds of things?

Immediately after I came back from Switzerland where I had been recuperating for two years, the churches of Holland asked me to take up contact with Germany. The churches were very much aware of the hatred Holland had for Germany, and aware that for the churches the hatred couldn’t go on. They wanted someone to build bridges, and they asked me. I did this work from 1948 to 1957.

How did you get involved in work in Eastern Europe?

I had so many friends, especially in Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most of the Polish friends I never found again after the war, but the Czech friends I did find. I was very interested in life in their countries, very interested in what Communism did when it was in the chair. They had convinced me everything would be fine in Czechoslovakia, so I wasn’t against it. I wanted to see what it would be like. Then I found out that it was not what they had promised it would be. Most of my friends were in charge of very important jobs in Czechoslovakia, and then they all went with Dubcek, and they were thrown out — out of their jobs, out of the party, and all of that. I have no personal contact anymore, because I am not allowed to go in.

What are appropriate ways for people in the West to gain an understanding of what is happening in Eastern Europe and do something to help?

People must read one or two books about the problems of Eastern Europe. Otherwise we are just like the Germans who said after the war, “We didn’t know it, and we didn’t want it.” I think of the book To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter by [Vladimir] Bukovsky. He gives a clear account of how he came to be one of the dissidents, what happened to him, how he lived through prison. It’s not difficult to read, and there’s lots of humor in it, so you needn’t be afraid of reading it.

People are obliged to read books like that. You can’t live in one world and not know anything about it. You can’t know everything about everywhere, but people should have at least some basic information about what it’s like. What does it mean if you have lived through the lie of Nazism — which is not to compare that with Communism, for they are quite different — and if you know Communism, the “real existing socialism” as it is now, is also a lie and is forcing people into a lie? If you once have fought against a lie, for the truth, it is impossible to come home and say, “Now I will sit in my chair and not fight anymore.”

I am struck by the lack of bitterness in the way you speak about things which could, for other people perhaps, be rather embittering.

It is much easier for those who have been in it to be without rancor and bitterness than for those who have stood aside. Those who didn’t do anything — mainly out of fear — still have hatred, because they feel in some way that they themselves have not done the right thing. They hate those who hindered them from being as they know they ought to have been.

And of course if you have lost a husband or someone dear to you, it is different. You can’t make an absolute line. I had no husband, no children. My sisters did not die. My father and mother did not die. They all survived. My father was once driven around for half an hour with a pistol in his back, but at the last moment they did not shoot him. If he had been shot, I don’t know what I would feel now, what I would say.

We can only account for what has happened to us. Nothing very bad happened to me. I was not once beaten in prison, because they believed I was German. I went through no torment at all — except in the concentration camp, like everybody. I must state that very clearly, because otherwise I would give an impression that is not true.

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