Diet Eman: A rescuer of Jews during Nazi occupation of Netherlands
On May 9, 1940, Hitler launched his invasion of the Netherlands. Of a Jewish population of 140,000, 105,000 perished in the Holocaust. The first German round-up of Jews in February 1941 led to the first general strike against the Germans in Europe, indeed, one of only two in occupied Europe. Both the Catholic and Dutch Reformed churches denounced anti-Semitism in all its forms. The clergy paid a high price. Forty-three Reformed clergy and 46 Catholic priests were killed. Slowly, all over Holland, Resistance groups formed. They hid over 300,000 people from the Nazis, including Jews, political dissidents, and downed allied pilots. One of these Resistance activists was Diet Eman who died in 2019 at the age of 99.
Diet Eman become an American citizen and lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She tells her story in the book “Things We Couldn’t Say” (with James Schaap). Her motivation was a result of her deep Christian faith. The Jews, she writes, are the “chosen people” of God. Saving them from the Nazis was simply doing what God expected of us.
Eman was born in 1920 in The Hague and grew up in a deeply religious Dutch Reformed family. Together with her fiancé Hein Sietsma, she joined a Resistance group and risked her life to rescue Dutch Jews. There were 13 members of her group, and eight were killed, including Sietsma, who died at Dachau.
“When we formed ourselves into a Resistance group,” she writes, “we called ourselves ‘Group HEIN”; but the name had nothing to do with my fiancé’s name. It was an acronym formed from the first letters of “Help Elkander in Nod,’. Which means ‘helping each other in need.’”
The Nazis declared that the Dutch were fellow “Aryans,” but could not understand why the Dutch were not impressed and, except for a minority of collaborators, resisted. The Dutch were deeply religious but believed in religious freedom and diversity. Eman writes:
“I don’t believe the Germans ever really understood the Dutch people. As small as the Netherlands is, it has many small religious denominations. For centuries the Dutch have said, ‘If we don’t agree with what you preach, then we’ll start our own church.’ …The Dutch have a long tradition of thinking for themselves, not just swallowing what officials tell them. They have a tradition of not being merely followers, as the Germans seemed to me to be. Our not following orders made things difficult for the Germans, more difficult than they had thought it would be…many Dutch people never followed orders.”
Initially, Eman’s Resistance group listened to forbidden BBC war news broadcasts and spread the information to as many people as possible. These efforts grew as the Nazi regime began enacting anti-Semitic laws. Eman soon worked to hide a Jewish friend being threatened with “relocation,”. Meaning movement to a concentration camp.
This action spiraled into relocating 60 people in safe houses in cities as well as rural areas. Because of the large number of Jewish individuals fleeing persecution, Eman was routinely confronted with the problem of housing too many individuals in one place, which was even more damaging Particularly in an urban setting.
To try to alleviate this challenge, Eman eventually delivered, by bicycle and trains, false ID cards as well as extra ration cards to those who needed these resources.
She also carried personal mail to and from the evacuees’ families, who dared not leave their tiny confined places, nor receive official postal mail. She also helped launder evacuees’ money, as it was recalled for newer-issued banknotes.
Despite Eman’s efforts at discretion and strategy, the Gestapo soon discovered her identity and her connection to Resistance work. Fearing arrest, she fled from her home to a family on a dairy farm, where she found refuge and a new identity. At this new location, her Resistance work continued. She even tracked Nazi troop movements and stores of military equipment.
On April 26, 1944, her fiancé Sietsma was arrested.
This once again jeopardized Eman’s identity and she changed her name again. She now had a premonition of her own arrest. Despite these ill feelings, she kept working with the Resistance. Unfortunately, her premonition proved to be true.
Diet Eman discovered
While traveling by train, Eman was asked for her ID, which was immediately identified as fake. Removed from the train for questioning, Eman knew that the pack of illegal documents she was carrying would be discovered, leading to her arrest and even death. At the last minute, she had a chance to dispose of the documents at a busy station when one of the German officers was distracted by another man’s new plastic raincoat, a novelty at the time.
Eman was still taken to prison
In Scheveningen because of her fake ID, and on to the Vught concentration camp for questioning. There she met the celebrated Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie. Corrie ten Boom later wrote a bestselling book, “The Hiding Place,”. Discussing her work in saving Jews during the Nazi occupation
Eman recalls that,
“Corrie and Betsy ten Boom were real evangelists: they started evangelizing every morning, surrounded by a whole group of women who were, you might say, quite desperate…Corrie and Betsy told them all about the Bible and the faith, which was beautiful…Corrie actually taught a Bible class. She had her own Bible in prison, the tiniest little Bible, perhaps just a New Testament or part of the Bible. At night the pages of that Bible circulated among the women…everyone got one part of that tiny Bible. You could have it for about five minutes of reading under your grey blanket, and then you had to hand it on to the next person. It was summer, so it was light outside for a long time.”
At the concentration camp, Eman was assigned to work in the laundry. She was very distraught at having to scrub the bloodied clothing of civilian prisoners who were executed nightly by SS men. She had an emotional breakdown at that time.
Soon, it was time for Eman’s trial.
Diet Eman Escaping Nazi incarceration
Because she had so thoroughly remembered her false identity and pretended to be a simple, naive housemaid, she was released and survived till the end of the Nazi regime, continuing her secret delivery work under increasingly impoverished conditions.
After the war, she received thanks from numerous leaders for her efforts, including Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1946. She was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations award by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
In the post-war years, Eman left the Netherlands. She became a nurse, married an American, raised two children, and lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She. didn’t speak about her Resistance work until 1978. That year, she spoke at a “Suffering and Survival”. Conference.
There she met Dr. James Schapp, a professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, who worked with Eman to write her memoir, which was published in 1994.
It wasn’t until 1978 after she heard fellow Resistance leader Corrie ten Boom speak in Grand Rapids that Eman began to think that she had an obligation to reveal her story. Haunted by the horrors she had seen to the end of her life,
“It really breaks your heart,” she said. In 2017, she recalled, “Terrible things happened in my life. My fiancé was killed, and all my friends from the Resistance.”
She recalled that the first person she saved was a violinist named Herman, who worked with her at a bank. She recalled a pastor saying,
“If something unusual happened in your life, and God is involved you have to tell it.” Eman remembers thinking, “yes, it was unusual, and God was involved, because we wanted to obey God to help the Jewish people.”
Another reason Eman decided to tell her story, she writes, was that, “the neo -Nazis started to show up again. When the war ended, we all said ‘This can never happen again.’ But now polls show that 22 per cent of the U.S. population does not believe there was a Holocaust. The story has to be retold so that history does not repeat itself.”
Diet Eman lived an extraordinary life. She was proud to become an American. She constantly asked herself, “What does God expect of me?” When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, she knew just what she had to do. And, at great sacrifice, she did it.
It is too bad she is not still with us. Our troubled times need voices such as hers.
Lead Image: Diet Eman (Diet Eman, with thanks to Women Heroes of World War II: 32 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue)