Johan (Joop) Westerweel-Teachers Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust
Johan (Joop) Westerweel began his teaching career in the Dutch East Indies, but was expelled for refusing to be drafted into the army because of his pacifist convictions. His strict Christian background – his parents belonged to the Derbists, a non-consensual sect of Protestantism – instilled in him a sense of justice for all and a belief in the basic goodness of mankind. Upon his return to Holland, Westerweel began teaching in a school at the Werkplaats in Bilthoven, where the progressive and innovative educational methods of its founder, Kees Boeke, were applied. In Bilthoven, the Westerweels came into contact with Jewish refugee children who had arrived in Holland during the 1930s, mostly from Germany. In 1940, Joop and his wife Wilhelmina (Wil), moved to Rotterdam, where Joop was offered a position as principal of one of the Montessori schools.
By 1942, the couple had four children. Nevertheless they dedicated their lives to helping others, and had been taking Jewish refugees into their home. Joop’s colleague and friend from the Werkplaats, Mirjam Waterman (later Pinkhof), introduced him to a group of young halutzim (Zionist pioneers) in Loosdrecht, near Amsterdam. Joop recognized a sense of idealism and strong principles in this group and felt a great affinity with them. When the Loosdrecht group received a tip-off from the Jewish Council on August 15, 1943 that they were about to be deported, Joop and his friends, who became known as the Westerweel group, were on hand to provide hiding places for each of the 50 members. 33 out of this group survived the war; the others were deported after betrayal.
Realizing that hiding was not sufficient to save the Jews, the Westerweel group began devising ways to help them escape from Dutch territory. In December 1943, Joop led a group of halutzim to France. At the foot of the Pyrenees, in a dramatic address to the young halutzim he was about to leave, Joop urged them to remember the suffering in the world at large. He implored them to accord freedom and dignity to all inhabitants of a future Jewish State. “No more war,” were his final words as they parted company.
Later that month, Wil was arrested during an attempt to free Lettie Rudelsheim (later Ben Heled), one of the most active halutz members, from the Scheveningen prison. Following his wife’s arrest, Joop placed his four children with friends of the family, quit his post at the Montessori school, and went underground. On March 11, 1944, Joop and his co-worker Bouke Koning were caught at the Belgian border with two Jewish women whom they were escorting. Joop was imprisoned in the Vught camp and tortured. He soon became a spiritual leader for many of the prisoners – his unfailing high spirits in the face of the brutality of camp life gave those around him hope and strength. His last communication with the outside world was a poem, entitled “Avond in de Cel” (Evening in the Cell), written in July 1944. The poem was full of optimism, speaking of the beauty of nature and a life of fulfillment and inner conviction. On August 11, 1944, Joop Westerweel was executed in the Vught concentration camp. His wife, who was in the same camp, had to witness her husband’s execution. She survived the camps and returned to her family after the war.
One of the Westerweel children, Marta, settled in Israel, where she met many of her father’s survivors. “I was three-and-a-half years old when my father was arrested and five years old when he was executed. I never really knew him. In the Netherlands I was a fatherless child; here in Israel I became my father’s daughter”, she says. It was from the survivors that she heard stories about her father. “I know the survivors endured terrible tragedies”, she says, “but in a way I envy them, because they knew my father.”
On June 16, 1964, Yad Vashem recognized Johan Gerard Westerweel and his wife, Wilhelmina Dora Westerweel-Bosdriesz, as Righteous Among the Nations.