Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, but far fewer are aware of the February Strike, the only general strike in Western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people. Seventy-six years ago this week, an incredible 300,000 Dutch citizens poured into the streets of Amsterdam. Many remained there even after the Germans deployed the SS and the police. The Strike is commemorated every year with a few eloquent words and thousands of flowers at the foot of the Dockworker, the symbolic statue of the Strike. He stands right where the first roundup of 425 Jewish men took place. Because of my long stays in Amsterdam researching the Holocaust and resistance, I always write my friends on this date to remind them of the Strike anniversary.
This year, my gesture of remembrance feels different. The inspiring aspects of the story are still there: masses of largely non-Jewish people responded with outrage to the roundup of their fellow citizens. Organized by the communists, the Strike began at the docks and spread to the trams. Soon, all kinds of people were marching and singing. The Germans were astonished: they never expected their Aryan brothers to stand up for the Jews. Even when the Nazis threatened municipal workers with firing, many stayed on the streets. In Dutch fashion, the strikers did obey a newly imposed curfew, but were back the next day.
Here’s the catch: the February Strike was only a great moment. Just 20% of Amsterdam’s Jewish people survived the war – even though many had been there for centuries, and were fully assimilated into Dutch society, or so they thought. Some survivors look back at the Strike as the one time they felt fully supported. But the German reaction was so severe with the police and the SS that it warned the general population never to try anything like the Strike again. A handful of people began underground activities to resist the Nazis anyway, like the woman pictured in the Resistance Museum below, or the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam. However, with hindsight we see how tiny that group was compared to those who minded their own business, or who actively collaborated.
Despite the differences between our times and Amsterdam in 1941, the parallels are disheartening. Refugees and minorities (religious and otherwise) are being targeted for both state-sponsored persecution and for individual bullying and worse. Permission is in the air, justified because “they” are a threat to “us.” The press is under attack as an enemy of the people. Obvious lies spurt daily from the White House. The most obvious parallel between 1941 and now is the quandary of people who disagree with the government: do we keep our heads down and thus collude? Do we collaborate and profit as we can? Or do we resist – and what exactly does that mean?
Like the February strikers, many gathered strength from Women’s Marches around the country – from the sheer numbers, the witty pink hats, the creative signs and the cheerful determination. Now, fortunately, we are in a very different position than the 1941 strikers. No one has invaded our country. The Marches were peaceful, and no one is in jail or deported as a result. Only 22% of eligible voters elected our current President. A plurality went for Clinton. Mid-term elections are coming up in only two years. If the people who let Trump be elected the first time work to get out the vote, we can get the balance of power between Congress and the President working again.
In the meantime, we can organize locally for causes we believe in. Those who are able can donate to organizations fighting the Administration in the courts and elsewhere. We can take to the streets at the right moments, to bolster our spirits and remind ourselves how numerous and persistent we are. Perhaps most importantly, we can meet hatred with peace, beginning with our own speech and actions. As tempting as it is to demonize people with whom we disagree profoundly, it is the path of Hitler, of Stalin, of slave owners and tyrants since time immemorial.
We can gum up the works, calling and writing and making outrageous art and being visible. We can spread factual facts through social and other media. We can align ourselves with vulnerable people, asking how we can walk beside them. Most of all, we have to keep our spirits up. Some of us have given decades of our lives to certain causes, and it’s depressing to see them undermined or worse. The erosion of the most fundamental American values and political practices is disheartening at best. But our years of struggle taught us how to fight, and we haven’t forgotten.
This year, the February Strike reminds us that it’s always possible to be just as brave as the strikers were. We can resist for more than a moment. To return to the story everyone knows, Anne Frank has the last word: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Now it’s our turn.