Posted on November 10, 2023
In 1997, musician Miriam Keesing came across photos of a boy she didn’t recognize while sorting through the attic of her late father’s home in Castricum, a seaside village just outside of Amsterdam.
When Keesing asked her aunt who the boy was, she replied, “Oh, that’s Uli. He was a refugee child. He lived with us for a while.” Intrigued, Keesing started looking into the child’s story, identifying him as Gerhard Ulrich Herzberg, a German Jew who escaped from the Nazis and arrived unaccompanied in the Netherlands shortly after Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” on November 9 and 10, 1938. Keesing’s grandparents took him in at the start of World War II, but restrictive immigration laws barred him from joining the family when they fled to Cuba in 1942. Left behind in the German-occupied Netherlands, Uli was deported to the Sobibor extermination camp, where he was murdered in March 1943, a few days shy of his 16th birthday.
Discovering Uli’s fate made Keesing question what happened to the thousands of other Jewish children who sought refuge in the Netherlands during the Holocaust. Her research led her down a long, circuitous path that helped unearth the hidden history of a wartime hero: Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, also known as Truus Wijsmuller (pronounced WEISS-muller). Keesing believes the Dutch resistance fighter, who was not Jewish, never crossed paths with Uli. But Wijsmuller saved as many as 10,000 other children, mainly through the Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe to Great Britain and the lesser-known Dutch Kindertransport.
“I got to know her through the archives,” Keesing says of Wijsmuller. The theme of the materials she found, particularly letters, was clear: “Whenever something difficult had to be done with refugee children, people would say, ‘Well, you should ask Mrs. Wijsmuller.’”