Meet the Dutch Christians Who Saved Their Jewish Neighbors from the Nazis
Diet Eman lay awake in her bed. Who could be beating their rugs at this hour? It was early morning on May 10, 1940. Hours before, Hitler had announced that he would respect the neutrality that the Netherlands had maintained during World War I.
As the popping continued, Eman and her parents scrambled to the front lawn. Planes buzzed through the night sky and fire shot upward, shattering Hitler’s assurances. Stumbling back inside, the Emans turned the radio on: “We are at war. German paratroopers have landed.” Diet’s blood boiled; Hitler had lied.
Then a new question rattled around in her mind as she sat in her nightclothes: What of my Hein?
A few days later, she found out. A card from Hein Sietsma, smudged by fire, arrived at the house, saying he had survived fiery blasts in Rotterdam, South Holland. She also discovered something else. As Eman later said, “I did not know until the danger of war that I was in love with him.”
She also did not know how war would shape their relationship, how many sacrifices it would require of each of them. Together and then separated, sometimes imprisoned, scheming hideaways and stealing ration cards, and transporting Jews. Always hoping that the Allies, and victory and justice, might be near.
When daylight came, whole regions of the Netherlands lay in ruin. In the two years prior, the Dutch had watched passively as Hitler seized Austria and Poland. Now it was their turn. But with an anemic military and a compliant population, the Dutch were hardly prepared to resist Nazi rule. Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled the country, and the Netherlands officially surrendered to Germany in five days.
But the invasion didn’t change things immediately. Hitler considered the Dutch almost 100 percent Aryan. Many Dutch believed the Nazis would not commit atrocities in their homeland and decided to obey their occupiers until the war ended.
Many Dutch Reformed believers saw things differently. They debated intensely whether German authorities should be obeyed in light of Romans 13:1–7. The debate divided family members and friends. Some, including one of Hein’s brothers, would later declare fidelity to Hitler.
Historians estimate that between 50,000 and 60,000 (many motivated by Christian faith) were active in the Dutch Underground.
Others resisted, in part because of Hitler’s attitudes toward Jews. Many German Jews had fled to the Netherlands in the late 1930s to avoid persecution. Now they found themselves trapped in a country about the size of Rhode Island, with no neutral surrounding countries to which they could escape. Dutch Reformed Christians (who made up an estimated 8 percent of the population) had long seen the Jews as God’s chosen people and thus worthy of protection in such an environment.
Escalating Nazi anti-Semitism convinced many Dutch that Hitler planned to annihilate the Jews. At the beginning of the war, 140,000 Jews resided in the Netherlands. By its end, 107,000 (76 percent) had been deported to concentration camps or otherwise killed. Only about 5,000 survived in the general population, while another 30,000 survived by hiding or other means.
As Hitler’s henchmen turned up the heat against Jewish men, women, and children, the Dutch Resistance movement was born and grew. Historians estimate that between 50,000 and 60,000 (many, like Eman and Sietsma, motivated by their Christian faith) were active in the Underground, and more than 10,000 sacrificed their lives in the cause.
Berendina “Diet” Eman was born on April 30, 1920, the third of four children, growing up in The Hague, a southwest province of the Netherlands and the seat of the Dutch government. She was sent to a Christian school, where she learned “so many things by heart,” she said later.
Hein Sietsma grew up 197 kilometers northeast, in Friesland, the first of many children. The Sietsmas raised their family on the father’s modest school principal salary. When Hein moved to The Hague to take a job at age 19, the family was looking for a safe place to board their son when they made contact with the Emans through a family friend. Diet’s mother felt great sympathy for the boy. “I can’t take a boarder right now—my life is too busy,” she told the family friend. “But I can take another son.”
Diet was furious. “When my parents told me that he was coming to live with us, I threw a fit,” Diet recalled in her autobiography (Things We Couldn’t Say). Diet resented the loss of her privacy and time with her friends. She certainly didn’t warm up to him, writing that her first bike ride with Hein was “low on adventure.” But when Hein moved out a year later, Diet found she missed him, though she wouldn’t admit it.
It wasn’t long before he was drafted into Dutch military service, during which his feelings for Diet grew more and more clear. In a November 1939 journal entry, he wrote,
Diet has . . . her childlike, simple faith and the inborn quality to see the good in everything. Conscious or unconscious for her it is: “God is with me and therefore I am happy and try to look for the good in everybody, without pushing myself into the foreground.” . . . Does she not know that I am aching for a letter, for a word from her?
Diet remained reluctant, until Hein visited the Eman home with the express purpose of seeing her. “When he came to see just me, I kissed him,” she wrote. “At that moment, I somehow knew that what I felt for him was something that was not going to simply pass away.”
Divinely Led Robbery
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Nazi troops invade the Netherlands
Diet and Hein smuggle more than 60 Jews to farmers in Friesland
Group HEIN begins stealing ration cards
Hein is arrested and imprisoned
Diet is arrested and jailed in Scheveningen
Normandy invasion; Diet travels with ten Booms to Vught Concentration Camp
Allies liberate the Dutch
In the months following the Netherlands’ surrender to the Nazis, Diet and Hein started meeting regularly with other believers at the home of one of Diet’s bank coworkers. While some continued to wonder whether they should be loyal to the Dutch or the Germans, Hein knew where he stood. He had read Mein Kampf years before, and he told Diet, “He’s so full of hate, he’s going to do something terrible!”
Meanwhile, Diet was contacted by a Jewish man named Herman seeking help. It was the end of 1941, and Jews were already forced to wear yellow stars and were banned from travel. More and more were receiving deportation orders. Herman had learned that his family was to be sent to Germany within the week.
After pondering Herman’s options, Hein had an idea, and insisted that Herman not go to Germany. Instead, he said, he would arrange for him to travel to Friesland to live with a farmer until the war was over. The dangers involved in such an operation were many, and if caught during any part of the process, it could mean death for anyone involved. But it seemed well worth the risk for both the Jews and at least these Dutch.
The idea spread among other Jews, and in a few weeks, Hein and Diet had a list of more than 60 Jews who sought refuge. The couple’s mission became clear: Find safe places for Jews wherever they could.
Diet and Hein conscripted other friends to join the budding resistance. They called themselves Group HEIN—Help Elkander in Nood, “Help each other in need.” As Hein had journaled months before the invasion, “True love for God reveals itself in love for your neighbor.”
Many farmers were conscripted into service, while others went into hiding, so food became scarce. Group HEIN worried that the Jews in hiding, who depended on them for food, would soon starve. They had no idea what to do, so, “We went on our knees,” remembered Diet. “And we said, ‘Lord, we don’t know what to do anymore, but you know they need food.’ ”
After the prayer, a solution presented itself: They would steal ration cards to procure food to take to the Jews in hiding.
The risks were now ratcheted higher, but they went forward, praying for God’s protection before each robbery. Aided by drawings of the buildings, insider tips, and British arms smuggled into the country, three men from Group HEIN joined other resisters to steal hundreds of ration cards each month.
It felt to Group HEIN that miracles were happening regularly. People were safe while switching trains in front of the Gestapo or walking through occupied areas. While the men received new ID cards, which listed them as “pastors” and thus protected them from German conscription, Diet was especially helpful in the operation, since she was relatively inconspicuous as a woman. She traveled to deliver ration cards, find hiding places, and gather falsified IDs and documents.
Caught in a Chess Game
The resistance operation required Diet and Hein to spend increasing time apart, just as their love for one another was growing deeper. In January 1944, Hein wrote to Diet:
Dearest, yesterday I screamed for you in a place where nobody could hear it—except me. I needed you so much, Diet . . . tell me you will always keep on pointing to our spiritual strength.
“It was like a chess game,” said Eman. The stakes grew higher as the work became more dangerous—something Diet became forcefully aware of one day when the now-engaged couple stole away for a bike ride in the town of Barneveld. Hein talked over contingencies with Diet: what to do if he was ever arrested, and how to run the resistance efforts should he die or disappear. At that moment, an internal voice unsettled Diet: You’d better have a good look at him. She heard the voice so clearly that it seemed like someone had said the words aloud.
On April 26, 1944, three days after the bike ride, Hein was caught with incriminating documents, arrested, and carted off to prison.
Diet immediately changed her appearance and falsified her name in honor of Queen Wilhelmina: New papers identified her as "Willie Laarman." On one mission for the Underground, she boarded a train with money and resistance documents hidden in her bra when an officer asked for her ID. The resistance forger had accidentally listed her nationality in black ink rather than the standard purple. Suspicions roused, the guards escorted her off the train for questioning.
“I was pleading with God,” remembered Diet. “You are almighty. Can you give me a moment that all people don’t look at me and then I can get rid of this envelope?”
Then, one of the guards began showing off a shiny new raincoat, one of the first made of plastic. “You think that is handy,” he said as he opened it—“this coat has pockets on the inside!”
Diet took a bobby pin and scratched the words of Jesus into the prison wall: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.’
As everyone marveled at the raincoat, Diet grabbed the packet from her blouse and threw it out of sight. Diet then decided that by acting as stupid as possible, the Gestapo would see her as a mere nuisance rather than a threat.
Despite her plan, Diet was thrown into prison for possessing a false ID. At Scheveningen Prison, sanitation was horrible and food in short supply, driving Diet to her knees and her mind to the Scriptures that she had memorized as a girl. One day Diet took a bobby pin and scratched the words of Jesus into the prison’s brick wall: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end.”
The Long Road of Resistance
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Diet and 1,600 other Scheveningen prisoners were transferred to a tiny railway station, where they were forced to stand together on a platform. Diet noticed two middle-aged women “worming their way” toward each other in the crowd. Their names, she was told by those standing near her, were Betsy and Corrie ten Boom, who had sheltered Jews in their home in Haarlem, and whose father had recently died in prison.
As the train barreled toward Vught Concentration Camp, eight women managed to jump off. But any hope Diet had grew slim as she was crowded into Barrack 4, with 175 other women, with few rations and no soap, towels, or toilet paper. After being forced to wash bloody clothes that belonged to Nazi “traitors,” Diet sank into despair, unable to leave her bed for three days. At times, she wondered if she was losing her mind.
When Diet was finally called for her hearing before Nazi officers, she once more rehearsed the story she had practiced for months. On her way to the hearing, she clung to two promises in Scripture: Not a hair on her head would be touched (Luke 21:18), and she needn’t fear when she appeared before authorities and kings (Matt. 10:19).
After being grilled about the details of her story, one officer said, “I can’t put a needle in your story. It fits—all the way through. But my sixth sense tells me that it’s all baloney.” For the moment, though, he let her return to the barracks. As she walked back, she heard Allied planes in the distance. Two weeks later, Diet Eman walked out Vught’s front gates a free woman.
The war raged on in the rest of the country, but Diet was able to return home, where she continued to spy for the Resistance, caring for Jews still in hiding. With the Allied invasion in March 1945, the German army was expelled from the Netherlands, and her work for the resistance was over. Diet rejoiced that not one Jew whom Group HEIN had sheltered was lost.
Now she had but one thought: Hein, where are you?
Tell the Story
Five months earlier, Hein Sietsma sat in a prisoner transport train holding a note to his fiancée on a piece of toilet paper. He had carefully wrapped it in brown paper, addressed it, and flung it from a window. Quite improbably, someone picked it up and mailed it to the Emans:
Darling, don’t count on our seeing each other again soon. . . . Here we see again that we do not decide our own lives. Dieneke, even if we won’t see each other again on earth, we will never be sorry for what we did, that we took this stand. And know, Diet, that of every last human being in this world, I loved you most.
With both dread and hope, Diet waited and watched for more news from him as the war came to an end.
One day she answered a knock on the door. A family friend held in his hand a letter from Hein’s father. Diet opened it, read it, and began to grieve: Hein’s father said he had learned of Hein’s death in March as the war was coming to a close.
“I wanted to die, too,” Diet later said. “I thought, It is much easier to die than to have to go on living without him.”
Over the next few years, Diet learned about Hein’s final days. He was so weak at the end in the Dachau camp, he could no longer work. He was removed from the barracks in January 1945 and not seen again. One fellow prisoner would later tell her that Hein was the most beautiful camp prisoner he had met, one who loved life and loved Christ. “I could then accept his death,” wrote Diet. “Because I knew that Hein, even in his greatest misery, had been a light in their darkness.”
The toll on the group had been heavy. Including Hein, of the 15 who joined Group HEIN, 8 had been killed in the course of resistance. Diet’s anger and sorrow were magnified when she pondered the senseless losses sustained across Europe, with estimates of six million Jews and another five million other marginalized peoples killed by the Nazis.
While visiting Hein’s grave in the Netherlands decades later, Diet cried as she remembered the sacrifices many made. “So many didn’t come back. I was spared three times when I thought it was the end. And I thought God had something for me to do, and now I see it.”
Today, Diet, 95, is a US citizen living in Grand Rapids, Michigan (see “The King and Diet,” adjacent page). After hearing her friend Corrie ten Boom share her story in 1978, she sensed that she, too, should begin to tell of the great things God had done amid the evil that had overshadowed her homeland during those years.
“I have a purpose,” Diet has said. “They say, ‘tell, tell, tell [the story],’ and I do.”