Wednesday, 27 January, 2010

Civilians found the sick and weak prisoners in the streets. The district nurse and doctor came to help them. The men had been thrown out of the prison at Vught and straight into the cold of January 1943. They had been made to sign a declaration swearing that they would not tell the outside world about life behind the barbed wire but some of them felt they had to speak. They told of cold, illness and hunger within the camp.

Mrs Timmenga, a resident of the town, together with her friends, ordinary members of the community decided that something practical had to be done. This group of remarkable people faced huge challenges because they lived in the shadow of a concentration camp. Some prisoners had been released but many more remained behind the barbed wire fences.

It was obvious that the prisoners’ most urgent need was food but how could they get provisions into the camp? Mrs Van Beuningen, a well known person in the town, realized that persuasion would work and reminded the camp Commander that his own son, fighting on the eastern front, was probably “in need of something extra” and she cajoled him into sanctioning the delivery of parcels of bread.

Mrs Timmenga and other civilians began to make hundreds of bread parcels each day and delivered them to the camp. The Commander then allowed each prisoner to receive a food parcel from their family. Upon discovering that not all prisoners had families who could send them food Mrs Timmenga encouraged her husband, children and friends to join her in preparing up to fifty food parcels a day. News of her work began to spread by word of mouth. She received food and food coupons from all over the Netherlands, sent not only by prisoners’ families but also from members of local communities, churches and associations. These were ordinary people who wanted to do something to help. Resistance organizations also sent food coupons which they acquired by raiding distribution offices.

Food aid made the prisoners’ lives a little easier but Mrs Timmenga felt this wasn’t enough. She noticed the station coffee house was always busy and thought that it would be a good place to set up an action base, a meeting place which would not be too obvious to the police. After all stations were busy places and people often met in coffee houses. It wasn’t illegal to drink coffee and talk to friends. From the coffee house she began to act as a mediator between prisoners and civilians. She was helped in this work by employees of the Philips electronics company who came into contact with prisoners who were set to work for Philips. This group of prisoners was called the Philips-kommando. Many prisoners in this group escaped deportation and survived because the Director of the company claimed that they were essential workers. They also received extra food rations whilst they were working for the company. Regular company employees passed messages between Mrs Timmenga and the prisoners. They also smuggled letters to Mrs Timmenga which she sent to the prisoners’ families.

When people were taken to the station to be deported, Mrs Timmenga and her team of helpers bribed the guards to let them hand out bread to the deportees. However, whilst the bread was being handed out members of the team were learning the names and addresses of prisoners so that they could let family members know who was being deported. The Station Master helped too and did his best to delay the departure of trains so that the team had time to complete its work. The Nazi police thought that Mrs Timmenga behaved suspiciously. They raided her home three times. However, as she had permission from the camp Commander to provide food parcels and conducted her meetings openly in the coffee house they could find no sign of illegal activity and they left with no evidence to prosecute her.

Mrs Timmenga, her family, friends and the employees the Philips company stood up to hatred every day through simple acts of kindness. Such acts must have left the Nazi authorities totally exasperated!

You can download a printable version of the case study here.


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The Holocaust