Upon completing my preliminary examinations in June 2022, I was privileged to receive a George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellowship to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which enabled me to travel to Israel, live and work for an entire year in Jerusalem, and do archival work for my doctoral thesis. From August 2022 to July 2023, I had the unique opportunity to conduct research at some of the world’s top-ranking universities, archives, and libraries; connect and exchange ideas with fellow scholars in my field; and experience a different—yet vibrant—academic culture. While I already lived in Israel for an extensive period of time in the past and completed both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the Hebrew University, returning to Jerusalem as a Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellow with my wife and children proved to be an exciting and wonderful opportunity to advance my research and dissertation work.
My dissertation project, titled “The Jewish Experience in Hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, 1940-1945,” examines the choices, motivations, behaviors, and experiences of those Jews who sought to escape the Nazi deportations and find refuge in the attics, basements, cellars, barns, and underground shelters of their non-Jewish countrymen. By examining the local conditions and personal circumstances of these individuals, as well as highlighting the social dynamics between Jews and non-Jews in Dutch society, I demonstrate the diversity and distinctiveness of the Jewish experience, which was determined by factors on the individual, community, and national level. It was shaped by socioeconomic status and religious affiliation, by the integration into Dutch society and the creation of social networks, by family status and geographic setting, by gender and the existing generational divide, and by whether one was a well-established Dutch citizen or a newly arrived immigrant from Germany, Austria, or Poland.
While the Israeli academic year typically begins after the Jewish High Holidays—sometime during the month of October—my family and I decided to move to Jerusalem in August. This relatively early arrival gave us time to settle into our rented apartment in the beautiful, quiet, and charming neighborhood of Katamon and take care of schooling, healthcare, and other bureaucratic matters. Furthermore, I had the chance to familiarize myself with the available archives and potential resources and plan out a routine and weekly working schedule.
Jerusalem turned out to be the perfect setting to conduct my research, particularly due to its convenient proximity to prestigious research institutions like the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem. After dropping off my daughter at school, I would commute to either the Yad Vashem Archives or the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University. The relaxing atmosphere of the Harman Science Library and the National Library of Israel on Givat Ram allowed me to organize and analyze the materials I had collected the previous day at Yad Vashem. Occasionally, I would travel to the Mount Scopus campus on the other side of the city and explore the available sources at the Bloomberg Library for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Besides the sense of nostalgia that I experienced upon returning to Mount Scopus, I was amazed at how the campus had evolved over the years. To my surprise, I discovered a wealth of academic works on the Holocaust in the Netherlands, as well as postwar memoirs in the English, Dutch, and Hebrew languages that were written by Holocaust survivors who, at one point or another, went into hiding in Holland. I found, for example, the fascinating personal account of Max Amichai Heppner, who, for three years, hid in a chicken house until he was liberated by the British. I also encountered the memoir of Yigael Benjamin, who wrote not only about his own hiding experience as a young Zionist but also about the Zionist underground movement in the Netherlands.
Because my dissertation draws on a large body of oral history interviews, the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem became indispensable to my work, as both institutions served as access sites to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. These collections house over 60,000 testimonies, with over a thousand focused exclusively on the Jewish hiding experience in the Netherlands. While researchers have the option to access these interviews by working from either Yad Vashem or one of the many computers located at the Hebrew University, scholars can also connect remotely through the university’s wireless network, granting them the flexibility to find a calming place on campus—or elsewhere in Jerusalem—and diligently study these interviews. My research benefitted immensely from these records, in which survivors narrated their experiences of persecution and mass violence and their decision-making process informed by their own conceptualization of the historical circumstances.
Most importantly, however, these records revealed a phenomenon that has rarely been discussed in relation to the Jewish experience in hiding: the presence of antisemitism—usually in its traditional, religious form—among non-Jewish rescuers. While Benno Benninga’s postwar memoir In Hiding (translated into Dutch as Ondergedoken) provides a glimpse of this phenomenon, there were hundreds of cases in which Jews were confronted on a daily basis with antisemitic slurs from those people who ostensibly chose to protect them. This religious antisemitism, especially in the Dutch countryside, was often accompanied by the coerced conversion of Jewish children, who were exposed to anti-Jewish diatribes and forced baptisms. Christian families saw it as their task to save Jewish children not only physically but also spiritually, revealing, to quote Bob Moore, “the darker side of rescue.” Finally, what we ought to acknowledge here is not only the manifestation of antisemitism but also its consequences for the victims. The oral testimonies of Jeanette Ringold, Bob Gosschalk, and Marianne de Liema-van Kleef are especially compelling, since they offer a more nuanced insight into how antisemitism affected the emotional state—and eventually the behavior—of Jews during the war.
The focal point of my Holocaust research, however, was undoubtedly the archival collections at Yad Vashem. Here, thousands of diaries, letters, and family papers produced by Jews hiding in the Netherlands during the Shoah were at my disposal. Moreover, the archives contained an extensive number of interviews with Holocaust survivors, as well as almost two hundred memoirs, which I was able to request through the Yad Vashem Library. Interestingly, during my initial visit to the archives, the librarians and archivists explained to me that while Yad Vashem maintains a public database of digitized documents, which one can access online through their website, it also holds an internal database with an extraordinary number of written documents and oral testimonies, which requires in-person access. On site, I read the testimonies of several Jewish women—as well as men—who experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and even rape during their time in hiding. The range of Jewish experiences I encountered during my research demonstrates that Jews living under the German occupation were dynamic historical actors who coped with countless different feelings and conditions.
During my stay in Jerusalem, I experienced unexpected—yet very pleasant—interactions. I had the privilege to accompany Professors Celia Applegate and David Blackbourn from Vanderbilt University during their visit to the Yad Vashem Museum. While I had visited the Museum on numerous occasions in the past, each return to this remarkable site, which has seen various renovations throughout the years, remains a powerful and emotional encounter. The continuous stream of thousands of visitors to this extraordinary place each day serves as a testament to its profound significance and far-reaching impact.
Alongside my own research, and thanks to the flexibility the Mosse Fellowship provided, I had the opportunity to design, develop, and teach an asynchronous, online course on World War II during the summer of 2023. For six weeks, undergraduate students from UW-Madison explored the major political, social, military, and ideological developments of World War II; discussed the memories and legacies of the war; analyzed and interpreted primary source documents; and drew connections between historical themes and contemporary issues of war and genocide, demonstrating the relevance of history to the present. For their final projects, the students were required to curate a historical artifact, research their chosen item or object, and record a five- to ten-minute long podcast. Most of the students were non-History majors, and I was thoroughly impressed with the outcomes they produced. One student, for example, curated a photograph, captured by a Polish railroad worker and found in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections, that depicts the uprising of Jewish prisoners at the Treblinka killing center. The student went on to create a beautiful and informative podcast that detailed the content of the photo, the prisoners’ revolt, and the consequential outcomes of this noteworthy event.
In summary, my research plans, the available archives, the extensive collections of oral testimonies and written documents essential to my work, and the generous financial support provided by the Mosse Program—all enabled me to advance my dissertation, develop myself as a scholar of the Holocaust, and make an impact in my field. Moreover, I received tremendous and unwavering support from Program Director Skye Doney, who offered guidance on approaching and navigating the archives, effectively organizing my sources and notes, and proposed various ideas for my dissertation and, potentially, future projects.
The proximity of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel, and—in my case—Yad Vashem makes this graduate exchange an incredible opportunity to advance one’s research and writing. Going on the exchange together with my wife and children, I was very pleased to see that Jerusalem has an endless number of coffee shops, restaurants, parks, community gardens, bookstores, study spaces, and high-quality schools. It was truly wonderful to wander the narrow streets and alleys and experience the city’s charming atmosphere, colorful scenery, and the day-to-day encounter between tradition and modernity. I greatly appreciate the generous two-year support I have received from the Mosse Program and am deeply thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Thanks to the confidence vested in my dissertation project by the Mosse Program, I have been honored with the George L. Mosse Graduate Exchange Fellowship for a second time and will, thus, be extending my stay in Israel for another year. This extension will provide me with the opportunity to finish my archival research, begin writing my dissertation chapters, and make significant progress toward the culmination of my doctoral studies at UW-Madison.
Alex Scheepens is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his M.A. in European Studies (2016) and B.A. in International Relations and History (2014), both from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and completed a second M.A. in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2021). His current research centers on the Jewish experience in hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. By employing a geographical lens and the history of emotions and drawing on written and oral sources in the Dutch, English, and Hebrew languages, he looks at the choices, motivations, behaviors, and experiences of those Jewish individuals who sought to escape the Nazi deportations and find refuge among their non-Jewish countrymen. Alongside his dissertation work, his teaching and research interests range from topics in modern European Jewish history and the Holocaust to the history of antisemitism, Zionism, and the State of Israel.