Amsterdam, February 2014: Speech in commemoration of the February Strike of 1941

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Heroic. Purposeful. Merciful. Queen Wilhelmina added that motto to the Amsterdam coat of arms following the ‘Februaristaking’, the February Atrike of 1941. Heroic. Purposeful. Merciful.  Those were the strikers who in February 1941 opposed the persecution of Jews and resisted the occupying forces. Today we commemorate them.

Words are inadequate to describe the atrocities committed in the years from 1940 to 1945. The years of the Second World War with the Nazis in control form a dark page in our history. A history in which our Jewish fellow human beings were oppressed, humiliated, deported and gassed. Years in which in our country too crimes against humanity took place.

In May 1940 the German military defeated our soldiers. From May 1941 onwards changes occurred rapidly in our country. The German occupier settled in. Press and political parties went silent. Institutions grew accustomed to the German occupier. According to some, Germany could no longer be defeated. Many had no inkling of the atrocities to come.

From 1941 onwards the German occupation became increasingly brutal and aggressive. More and more Jews were arrested and imprisoned. Anti-Semitism increased. Anti-Jewish measures grew in number and in ferocity. During the weekend of 22nd and 23rd February hundreds of heavily armed German secret military policemen – the Grüne Feldpolizei – descended on the city centre and other districts.  In the Jewish Quarter the doors of the houses were kicked in. Bloodhounds were let loose on Jewish people. Young Jewish men were taken to one of the town’s squares, Jonas Daniël Meijerplein and whipped and 427 of them between the ages of 18 and 35 were taken and held as hostages, then deported to Buchenwald and Mauthausen where within a year they had died through mistreatment and terrible hardship.

The inhabitants of Amsterdam watched on in dismay. The then illegal Communist Party of the Netherlands called on the population to resist the persecution of the Jews. On the morning of 25th February a pamphlet was distributed with the text: ‘Protest against the appalling persecution of the Jews. Can you tolerate this? No, a thousand times no!  Have you the power and the strength to prevent this shocking terror? Yes, you do!’ With ‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’ they called on the people of Amsterdam to declare their solidarity and rise in resistance.

On 25th and 26th February government employees played an extremely important role, amongst them two men from the sanitation department, Dirk van Nimwegen and Piet Nak. Tram conductors, road-workers and more than 300.000 people rose up. Civil servants, workpeople, shopkeepers, students and school students in Amsterdam, Utrecht, the Zaanstreek, the Gooi and Kennemerland rose in resistance against the persecution of our Jewish compatriots. On 26th February martial law was proclaimed and the uprising violently suppressed by the occupiers. Many arrests followed. Three strikers were shot on 13th March, along with fifteen other resistance fighters.

The February Strike stands as a symbol of the fight against fascism, racism and oppression. A symbol of solidarity, unity, tolerance and equality. By standing here in reflection, we commemorate the strikers of that time. Our thoughts are with them now. And afterwards we will think of the future.

If only we do all remember. If only all of our thoughts are indeed with them. If only none of us forget. Then together we will make a fist against intolerance, racism, discrimination and xenophobia. Then together we will fight against oppression,   dehumanisation and division. Then together we will have given a thought to these brave workers, and the Dutch people will continue to look up to them.   Cherish them as our shared past and use this as a shield in the present and in the future against those who would divide us. I want with this to show the deepest respect for those who, seventy-three years ago, fought against the oppressor, cast off their fears, and allowed the human heart and human reason to speak. For those who rose up, resisted and taught us how to do it.

When I commemorate the February Strike I know instantly once again why Amsterdam has become my home. The spirit of the strikers, the spirit of the dock workers, haunts the place. The Dockworker sculpture which, early in the 1950s, Mari Andriessen made as a symbol of the acts of resistance of Dutch working people, and around which we commemorate annually the February Strike. Not only do I have the luck to have inherited the history of the February Strike through my immediate surroundings, the dockworker is the logo of the workers’ association, the DVA, an association which is committed to solidarity and friendship between people from different backgrounds. An association in which I became active when I settled in Amsterdam. Where I really came to know the dockworker. Where I made friends with such people as Roel Walraven (1) and Max van den Berg (2), who hold the commemoration of the February Strike dear, and the struggle in great esteem.  Through whom I was placed in the exceptional position of experiencing the spirit of the February Strike from very close up.

A spirit which is present elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey. Throughout the world, people battle against oppression and repression. People yearn for a democratic and constitutional state. Children yearn for peace and security. People struggle against poverty, exploitation and exclusion, in our present-day Europe too, a Europe where the other side of the crisis is becoming increasingly visibly ugly. An advancing right-wing extremism, racism, discrimination and growing division and inequality.

The changing climate in Europe, in our own country, scares me sometimes. Take the Golden Dawn and the physical attacks on immigrants in Greece.  This worries me.

Resistance and solidarity is more necessary than ever. We must insist that human dignity become the priority. The more successful we are in this, the less room there will be for the extreme right, growing intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and scapegoat policies aimed at Muslims and eastern Europeans.  Creating scapegoats in order to shift the blame for the gigantic crisis of capital on to various peoples is a dangerous form of politics which we must turn around.

By ‘we’ I really mean everyone. To be able to carry on looking yourself in the eye in the mirror demands courage. But it has to be done, because it can open the doors to change. How humane are we? How do we treat foreigners? How do we treat each other? Why do we allow children to be locked up? How do we handle differences? Do we see only others, or do we also look at ourselves? Is there still enough time for reflection and for getting closer to people? Or do we spend too long feeling ourselves to be ‘other’. Are we capable of closing the democratic deficit? Do we really want that? Are we still listening to each other? We must seek together the answers to all these questions.

How we will look back on this time in later years I do not know. I know that today we look back at our history. Anti-Semitism, growing racism, reciprocal discrimination. We will overcome this, whenever we think of the brave, courageous fighters of the February Strike, the dockworkers, council employees, factory workers. Let that inspiration remain, and let us share this history with others, share it with our children. Let them remember the workers’ courage. And experience this courage, today and in the future. Because together we are strong.

This is the text of a speech made by Dutch Socialist Party Member of Parliament Sadet Karabulut on 25th February, during the commemoration of the February Strike. The commemoration was organised by the public sector union Abvakabo prior to the memorial service at the Dockworker statue in Amsterdam.

Illustration: On Nieuwe Keizersgracht, also known as the Shadow Canal, plaques on doors, walls and pavements commemorate Jewish families who lived there and were transported to their deaths by the Nazis.

(1)          Longstanding Communist militant.

(2)          Former senior Labour Party politician.