Cover: The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, from Harvard University PressCover: The Ambiguity of Virtue in HARDCOVER

The Ambiguity of Virtue

Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews

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Product Details


$29.95 • £20.00 • €25.00

ISBN 9780674281387

Publication: March 2014


352 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

28 halftones, 2 maps


[Wasserstein] reconsiders the impossible situation of the ‘Jewish councils’ in Western Europe through a reconstruction of the life of Gertrude van Tijn, a leading member of Amsterdam’s council. As Wasserstein reminds readers, too much of the debate about the Jewish councils has been carried out in the terms proposed by Hannah Arendt, who emphasized complicity and culpability and failed to notice, much less understand, the extraordinary courage and creativity employed by activists like van Tijn. Wasserstein’s textured account recreates the tense and essential interactions with Nazi authorities as well as Allies and potentially friendly enemies; the unbearable daily emotional algorithms of rescue work, including choosing whom to exempt from deportation; and the inevitable rivalries and betrayals. But it also evokes the absolutely vital sustaining power of passionate friendships and loves in cataclysmic times.—Dagmar Herzog, The New York Times Book Review

[A] sober, scholarly and often fascinating book… Partly a biography, partly a history of the destruction of Dutch Jewry… Was van Tijn, who died in the U.S. in 1974, a Nazi dupe or a champion of her people? Wasserstein’s carefully argued, compassionate narrative suggests that at different points in her life she was both.—Rosemary Neill, The Australian

In the life of Gertrude van Tijn, Bernard Wasserstein has found the perfect subject for examining the appalling options that faced Jewish leaders under Nazi rule… Wasserstein tells van Tijn’s story beautifully, weaving the historical background almost seamlessly into the narrative. While leaning on her unpublished autobiography, he corroborates her activity using documents from numerous archives. His evaluations are judicious and humane.—David Cesarani, Literary Review

Absorbing… Wasserstein’s book is a powerful indictment, if another were needed, of the world’s failure to respond to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and 40s… The Ambiguity of Virtue is a valuable, accessible book. It introduces readers to a fascinating woman, reminds us that the central experience for European Jews in the 1930s and even into the 40s was of being trapped in a nightmarish bureaucracy that made the figure of the refugee sadly central to political life, and allows us to conclude that ambiguity need not undo the possibility of virtue. As thousands of child refugees from Central America arrive at the U.S. border, van Tijn’s example is sadly only too relevant.—Dorian Stuber, Open Letters Monthly

Wasserstein reexamines [Van Tijn’s] life and weaves her story beautifully into the fabric of Holocaust history… This book is an important contribution to the field of Holocaust studies, as it shows the ethical complications that Jewish leaders faced, especially leaders involved with refugees… Wasserstein eloquently articulates why we should remember Gertrude van Tijn.— Allison Schottenstein, PopMatters

Whoever thought ‘virtue’ could be ambiguous? But the fraught period during which the book’s protagonist, Gertrude van Tijn, was active ensured that matters were rarely straightforward, as Bernard Wasserstein so adeptly relates.—Emma Klein, The Tablet

In an attempt to understand her motives and actions, Wasserstein takes a close look at the background and behavior of his subject. He gives readers not just a personal portrait of van Tjin, a bourgeois German Jew who embraced Zionism as a young woman and acquired Dutch nationality upon her marriage in 1920, but also a stark picture of the plight of European Jews before and during World War II… A scholarly, thoroughly documented work that elucidates historical issues and explores moral ones.Kirkus Reviews

The story of Gertrude van Tijn is an amazing tale, but as Wasserstein’s magnificent biography shows yet again: in wartime anything was possible.Het Parool