Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home
The Ambiguity of Virtue

The Ambiguity of Virtue

Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews

Bernard Wasserstein

ISBN 9780674281387

Publication date: 03/31/2014

In May 1941, Gertrude van Tijn arrived in Lisbon on a mission of mercy from German-occupied Amsterdam. She came with Nazi approval to the capital of neutral Portugal to negotiate the departure from Hitler’s Europe of thousands of German and Dutch Jews. Was this middle-aged Jewish woman, burdened with such a terrible responsibility, merely a pawn of the Nazis, or was her journey a genuine opportunity to save large numbers of Jews from the gas chambers? In such impossible circumstances, what is just action, and what is complicity?

A moving account of courage and of all-too-human failings in the face of extraordinary moral challenges, The Ambiguity of Virtue tells the story of Van Tijn’s work on behalf of her fellow Jews as the avenues that might save them were closed off. Between 1933 and 1940 Van Tijn helped organize Jewish emigration from Germany. After the Germans occupied Holland, she worked for the Nazi‐appointed Jewish Council in Amsterdam and enabled many Jews to escape. Some later called her a heroine for the choices she made; others denounced her as a collaborator.

Bernard Wasserstein’s haunting narrative draws readers into the twilight world of wartime Europe, to expose the wrenching dilemmas that confronted Jews under Nazi occupation. Gertrude van Tijn’s experience raises crucial questions about German policy toward the Jews, about the role of the Jewish Council, and about Dutch, American, and British responses to the persecution and mass murder of Jews on an unimaginable scale.


  • [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, New York Times Book Review


  • Bernard Wasserstein is Harriet & Ulrich E. Meyer Professor Emeritus of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author