The traitors who sent Dutch Jews to the Nazi slaughterhouse

Members of the Dutch Resistance in Veghel in September 1944
Members of the Dutch Resistance in Veghel in September 1944 - Martin Sixsmith

Once, as I was looking through files from Yad Vashem – the Holocaust memorial and archive in west Jerusalem – I found a postcard. On it, a mother from Amsterdam wrote to ask that her children be taken care of. They were far away, somewhere safer; she had hurriedly scrawled this last note before being hustled onto a train. She later slipped the postcard through the slats in the side of a cattle truck heading east through Nazi-occupied Europe – a final plea that fell to earth, undelivered, by the tracks.

“Each cattle truck had a barrel of drinking water and an empty barrel for use as a toilet,” writes Martin Sixsmith, journalist and historian, of the Dutch Jews’ journeys to the concentration camps. “There were no seats or mattresses, no straw on the floor, and people were packed so tightly that it was impossible to sit or lie down.”

In the Holocaust, 75 per cent of the over-100,000 Jews in the Netherlands were murdered. “The Dutch turned more Jews over to the Nazis than any other nation. There were traitors in every Resistance cell,” explains Anna-Maria van der Vaart, a 99-year-old former member of the Dutch resistance. Her formidable exploits in resisting Nazi rule and rescuing Jews form the core of Sixsmith’s My Sins Go With Me, which, in the now-large category of books broadly centred around hope and heroism in the Holocaust, constitutes a highly engaging – albeit flawed – candidate for the shelf.

Van der Vaart and her husband, Pim Roest, joined the Dutch Resistance after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940. With colleagues, they offered shelter for Jews, sabotaged German infrastructure, supported downed Allied airmen and assassinated Nazi officers. Drawing out both sides of the underground war, both Dutch fighters and the Nazi occupiers – alongside collaborators, bystanders and victims – Sixsmith takes us through the chronology of growing threat, using interviews with surviving participants to evoke the tenebrous atmosphere inside communities and homes. The creeping escalation of oppression and rebellion is often thrillingly told, reminiscent at points of The Wall, John Hersey’s masterful 1950 novel about the Warsaw Ghetto and the 1943 uprising.

My Sins Go With Me also features 372 photos through the text, depicting figures, places and incidents mentioned; these are interspersed between short paragraphs and long quotations. Unfortunately, the pictures can disrupt the narrative flow, sacrificing atmosphere to a staccato rhythm. Nor do text and image always complement each other sufficiently to justify the parallel tracks: one resistance fighter is described as having “a battered, outdoor complexion”, and the sentence is immediately followed by an image of him outdoors, being pelted by the wind.

The former Dutch resister Anna-Maria van der Vaart, aged 97
The former Dutch resister Anna-Maria van der Vaart, aged 97 - Martin Sixsmith

My Sins Go With Me, furthermore, is a divided book. Uncertain of its identity as a work of history, it seems to yearn for the qualities of a novel too. “I have adhered to the facts where the facts are known,” Sixsmith writes. “Where they are not, I have filled in the gaps with a probable narrative of what happened in the shadows.” Yet even when he uses long quotations and reconstructs conversations seemingly verbatim, he offers no footnotes or references. Memory can be an asset and a curse in writing history, but the answer cannot be to bypass the norms of scholarship.

The Dutch National Holocaust Museum only opened in March 2024. And that same month, a new controversy erupted, after it was discovered that GVB, Amsterdam’s transport operator, had invoiced the West German government after the war for the transportation of 48,000 people to the concentration camps. My Sins Go With Me, then, is a powerful story of a history that remains far from settled. It’s a shame that it’s too mired in the muddy territory between fact and fiction to deliver on its potential.

My Sins Go With Me is published by Simon & Schuster at £22. To order your copy for £18.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books