Why So Many Dutch People Killed Themselves in the First Days of WWII

Lucas Ligtenberg's book investigates why 350 people took their own lives during the first month of the German occupation.

by Jan van Tienen
12 July 2017, 12:58am

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands

On the evening of the 15th of May 1940, only five days after German forces had invaded the Netherlands, Jewish writer Abel Herzberg was walking through Amsterdam. It was his job to make sure all the lights in the city were turned off, to make it harder for Nazi bombers to find their target. That's exactly what he was doing when he was stopped by a panicking maid, who begged him to follow her to a home nearby.

When they got there, Herzberg found the bodies of a Dutch couple who had attempted suicide. He tried to save them, but it was too late. The pair were not unique in their decision to end their own lives – that same month, 350 people in the Netherlands, including entire families, did the same thing.

In his new book, Mij krijgen ze niet levend ("They won't get me alive") writer and journalist Lucas Ligtenberg investigates this horrific period and tells the stories of the people who lost all hope. I spoke with Lucas about his work, and about why so many Dutch historians seem to have avoided this topic so far.

VICE: Why did you decide to write this book?
Lucas Ligtenberg: I've always found the topic both fascinating and confusing. Whenever the subject comes up in the Netherlands, you usually only hear about a few prominent Dutch writers or scientists who killed themselves during the war, but I was interested in the stories that haven't been written about as much. I checked some of the standard works, such as historian Loe de Jong's The Kingdom of the Netherlands During World War II , but it covered very little specifics or personal accounts on the matter.

Why do you feel these stories are so important?
They represent the panic and shock caused by the occupation. It's hard to fully appreciate what Dutch people – and especially Dutch Jewish people – must have felt when the Germans invaded. For many, the thought of Hitler in charge was so terrifying that they decided suicide was their only way out. In some cases, it only took five days for them to lose hope. Trying to understand their stories gives some more insight into how horrible this period was.

How has the experience of writing the book affected you?
I can't ride my bicycle through Amsterdam without being reminded of the people I've written about. Wherever I go, I think: "Right, in this street so and so killed themselves, and this person died here." A lot of places in the city are now marked for me by their history.

Why do you think most history books haven't paid that much attention to these suicides?
In some cases, the reasons are personal. That same historian Loe de Jong, who was Jewish, fled with his wife and neighbours to the Dutch port city of IJmuiden on the day after the Dutch capitulation, to head to London from there. But they were split up and while De Jong and his wife made it to London, his neighbours – the Win family – had to return home. That same night, the Wins all took their lives. He was very close to them, they had often gone sailing together. Maybe the experience was too painful to write about. He only ever briefly mentioned the suicide once in his work.

Left: Bruno Asch (back row, far left) took his own life before his family were captured. Right: The Win family

Did doing this research ever become too much for you?
Yes, one of the stories that really shocked me was that of Bruno Asch. He was a prominent Jewish German – a member of the local council in Frankfurt and Berlin – living in the Netherlands with his family in 1940. When the German army invaded Amsterdam, he took his own life. I can only speculate it was out of guilt for not taking his family to safety.

His wife and children were later arrested by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. One of his daughters escaped initially – she was just on her way home with a friend. When she saw her sisters and mother at the tram stop she wanted to run to see them, but her friend stopped her. Her mother and sisters were killed in the concentration camp, and she herself was eventually arrested four months later and killed as well.

Did your research teach you more about suicide in general?
All the different first-hand accounts I read provided some insight into the victims' emotions at the time. But it's hard to compare these cases to suicides in general, because to me, they appear unique to the circumstance of the start of the occupation. In the end, I can only speculate about why exactly someone would choose to take their own life.

If you or someone you know struggle with thoughts of suicide, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.