Martinus Letterie, Henk Robeer, Gerrit Meerbeek… if the word was not so cliched – they could be called heroes. They did something that was not only very courageous, but quite literally unique in Europe: they encouraged their colleagues and the workforces of other factories to go on strike.
But not to strike for more pay or better working conditions, but to protest against the persecution of Jewish citizens in their country, the Netherlands. And that was the really unique thing about this strike, because nowhere else in Europe other than in the Netherlands has there been such an initiative against the persecution of the Jewish citizens.
With the words “Staakt! Staakt!” (“Strike! Strike!”) they walked through the factory halls of a radio and electronics factory – and many followed them. The call for a strike had spread from Amsterdam to many cities in the Netherlands, including Hilversum, and aimed for nothing less than a general strike.
The fact that this strike call was ultimately unsuccessful (not surprising given the superiority of the police and German occupation forces) is not of interest here: what is interesting and important is rather why so many of us (myself included) know nothing about it. At least I didn’t know about it before November 2021 – until Martine Letterie, our friend from the “Amicale International KZ Neuengamme“, told me about it during the “Future of Remembrance” forum at the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial.
I knew nothing about it – and it suddenly occurred to me how little I know about the commemorative days in the Netherlands or Belgium or about the occasions on which these commemorative days are based. The (shameful) realisation was followed by the decision to attend the commemoration in Hilversum on 26 February 2022.
Since 2017, this event has taken place at the site where the radio and electronics factory stood in the 1930s and 1940s. Every year, more and more people take part in this commemoration – over 100 followed the committee’s call this time, in 2022.
I was impressed by the speech of a student from a school in Hilversum. She described the protest action by students from her school that took place a few months after the strike (in August 1941). These young people were just as courageous as the adults – they protested against the persecution of their Jewish classmates: At the beginning of the new school year, they had learned that the Jewish pupils were no longer allowed to attend school.
Martine Letterie also spoke at the 2022 commemoration. She provided us with the manuscript of her speech – here is the full text:
We are standing here on the spot where the porter’s lodge of the NSF, the Dutch signal factory, was located. My grandfather Martinus Letterie worked there as a warehouse manager. He lived with his wife and three children practically around the corner: at Siemensstraat, number 17. My father Frank was the oldest, he was ten years old in October 1941. His sister Tineke was two years younger, and in April 1941 they had a little brother, Jan.
Frank remembers well picking up his father here after work. He stood opposite the gate and waited for Martinus to come out. He had got the job at the NSF after a long period of unemployment.
During the crisis years, his former employer had gone bankrupt and Martinus found himself on the street. This drastically changed his family’s situation. In a short time they moved three times, each time to a smaller, cheaper house, and finally ended up in Siemensstraat. Martinus received support, but eleven gulden a week was not enough to live on. The rent alone, for example, was five gulden. He did everything he could to get a job and tried every possible way to earn some extra money. It wasn’t easy, because the unemployed had to get a stamp every day to prove that they had no other work.
Through all this and the new friends he made during this time, Martinus’ political views changed. Whereas he used to vote for the SDAP (the predecessor of the PvdA), he now probably votes for an extreme left party. He joined the VVSU, the Union of Friends of the Soviet Union, and for a time was even chairman of its Hilversum section. When he got the NSF job in 38/39, he resigned from the party and his wild political years were over.
Officially, the VVSU was an association that disseminated information about culture in the Soviet Union, but in reality it was communist. It was a big association that organised national days to which tens of thousands of people from all over the country came. I read the speeches from one such event. What is remarkable is that they dealt with fascism in Germany and warned about it.
Meanwhile, most other Dutch people remained unaware of the developments in Germany for a long time. In order not to upset its friendly neighbouring country, the Dutch government refused to allow the press to report on the matter for a long time.
In the social circles in which my grandparents lived, the full extent of the terror of fascism was known very early on. Immediately after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, their political opponents, Social Democrats and Communists, were persecuted, arrested and locked up in concentration camps. Thus, possible resistance was simply suppressed in the early stages. The father of Bruno Neurath, who is present here, was arrested in 1935. Some of the prisoners managed to escape in time or flee to other countries. Some of them came to the Netherlands – the father of Inge Kroll, who is present here today as well, was one of them – but even here in the Netherlands they were not safe. The Dutch police tried to catch them and hand them over to their German colleagues.
But the German refugees received help from their political friends here in the Netherlands. They were affiliated with the International Red Aid and offered accommodation to the refugees. From them they learned the stories about the Nazi terror first hand.
The stay of the refugees was always short, they moved from one town and house to another to avoid being arrested. In this way, Inge’s father stayed here in Hilversum for a short time. My grandparents also had one or more of these refugees in their house.
When the German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 and remained there after the Dutch capitulation, Martinus, his wife and his friends were very concerned.
For many Dutch people, the first year of occupation did not seem too bad. So in general there was little resistance. Here in Hilversum, SDAP councillor David Lopes Diaz wrote articles against fascism until 1940, and 18-year-old student Bill Minco was arrested for resistance activities in January 1941, but these were exceptions.
In February 1941, clashes between NSB fighting groups and militant Jewish boys in Amsterdam reached a peak. When an NSB member was killed and a German policeman got ammonia in his face, the occupiers had 425 young Jewish men arrested in broad daylight in retaliation.
The outrage of the Amsterdam population was great and the KPN, the Dutch communist party, took advantage of this and called for a general strike against anti-Semitism. On 25 February, leaflets were distributed with the call: Staakt! Staakt! With these leaflets people jumped on the trains in the direction of Bussum, Haarlem, Utrecht, Velzen, Zaandam and Hilversum. Gerrit Meerbeek, an employee of the Fokker factory in Amsterdam, cycled to the NSF and managed to pass the message on to the NSF through a co-worker. According to Bertrams, my grandfather Martinus’ supervisor, he was one of those who ran through the factory to call for a strike. He helped to shut down the machines.
The two thousand workers rushed out shouting “strike, strike”. The strikers went from factory to factory, one company after another was closed down. The next day, ten thousand people gathered in the centre of Hilversum. They were confronted by German soldiers at the town hall. The NSB mayor had requested the help of an army unit stationed in Amersfoort. The strikers returned home, but they had made their point.
The strike leaders were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Gerrit Meerbeek was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
Hilversum resistance fighter Henk Robeer said in an interview: “SDAP members and communists were registered by the police. After the strike in February it was time for our small group to hide. After all, we were already registered with the police before the war.”
And that is what happened. Since 1925, the Dutch Central Intelligence Agency kept a list of potentially dangerous persons. On the list of 6400 people there were only three right-wing extremists, the rest were left-wing extremists. Both my grandparents were on that list.
When Hitler broke the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, this was the moment for the security service to launch the so-called KPN operation. Within a week, 600 suspected communists were arrested, based on the list of the Dutch Central Intelligence Service. Simultaneously, the same thing happened in France and Belgium.
My grandfather Martinus, his friends Max and Bram Roodveldt, Jan Achterbos and the couple Jan and Rie Nodde-Odinot were taken from their beds on 25 June 1941 and taken to the Schoorl camp. There Achterbos was released. My grandfather, the Roodveldts and Jan Nodde were sent to the Neuengamme concentration camp via the Amersfoort camp. Martinus died of typhus there after five weeks, Max and Bram were gassed in Bernburg in June 1941 and Jan Nodde was killed in Dachau in September of the same year. Rie Odinot took a different path. Via a series of prisons, she finally arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, which she survived. After four years she returned to Hilversum. She became a member of the CPN, a councillor in Hilversum and eventually even a member of parliament.
The February strike was unique in Europe. In none of the occupied countries had there been such a large strike against the anti-Semitism of the occupiers. From the words of Henk Robeer we can conclude that the strikers were aware of the risk they were taking and that they nevertheless stood up for the terrible treatment of their fellow human beings. They were courageous and I can only hope that we all have that courage at the right time.
Further information about the February strike and upcoming commemorations can be found here.