I had the honor of meeting Tina Strobos at her apartment at The Osborn in Rye two years ago. She shared stories – as she had done with many children, teachers and others – about her efforts to save Jews in her native Amsterdam during the Holocaust as part of an underground network.
Strobos died Monday night at age 91. In honor of her life, and with the hope that her stories continue to be told, I’m posting some excerpts here of a transcript I made of our conversation. Strobos has also told her story in detail on this website.
Below is our Journal News article from October 2009, followed by more of her own words.
Oct. 17, 2009
RYE – When you listen to 89-year-old Dr. Tina Strobos, you begin to see the 19-year-old sorority girl who was growing up in Holland during World War II, with bravery beyond her years.
Her personal stories sketch the terror, the courage and defiance that it took to join an underground network that protected Jews from the Nazis. As a medical student, she and her classmates refused to sign a loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler. The university promptly shut down, and Strobos got to work.
Born to a well-off, intellectual family of atheists, Strobos took Jews into her Amsterdam home and led them to other hiding places on nearby farms. She stashed guns stolen from the Germans, carried babies from danger in the ghetto, kept a radio in violation of the law and doctored passports so that Jews might escape the notice of the Gestapo.
She makes clear that these scenes do not play out in her mind like some classic movie.
“Inevitably you have a lot of mixed feelings, that you didn’t behave quite the right way,” Strobos said from her home in Rye this month. “I didn’t betray anyone, but I could have done more.”
Strobos is credited with saving more than 100 Jews. Her name and that of her mother, Marie Schotte, are inscribed in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Israel.
It took further courage, decades later, to begin sharing her stories with children, teachers and neighbors in the United States. Strobos worked many years as a psychiatrist in Larchmont, retiring only this year.
The Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in Purchase is honoring Strobos at its annual benefit Monday in Mamaroneck. Presenting the award will be actress Tovah Feldshuh, who portrayed another rescuer in the play “Irena’s Vow,” about Irena Gut Opdyke. Also being honored is Lee Katz of Rye, vice chair of the center’s board, for her lifetime in higher education and support of the center.
Of 140,000 Jews in Holland, 110,000 perished, said Donna Cohen, executive director of the center in Purchase. About 15,000 returned from concentration camps, and an equal number survived in hiding.
Strobos and her mother did not question their choice.
“My mother said, ‘You know, we can get killed doing this.’ ” Strobos recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, who wants to live under a regime like Hitler? We have to fight him.’ We both agreed on that. And then my mother also said a very heroic thing. She said, ‘You know, most of the people that we help, they wouldn’t do that for us.’ ”
Strobos’ grandparents had sheltered Belgian refugees during World War I, when children were orphaned and made homeless by the destruction. During World War II, the family offered help again – sometimes unwittingly. Strobos took the opportunity during an aunt’s funeral to go through the mourners’ coats in the hallway, taking their passports. She became skilled at removing the seal and substituting a new photo. At a tea in her home one day, she conspired with a fellow student against one visitor. “He said, ‘I’m going to give her a lot of tea, and when she goes to the bathroom, please go look in her pocketbook and take her papers,’ ” she remembered. “I wasn’t alone in all this, you know.”
On telling her stories from World War II:
“Being a therapist, I find it somewhat cathartic to talk about it. … It’s a consolation. Just like in therapy, you have a supportive audience. And you can set it more at a distance from you.
“A little boy, age 6, asked me: ‘How come you don’t feel bad about lying?’ I said, ‘Lying to the Gestapo?’ I said, ‘Saving a life, you have to make priorities of what’s important. And if you can save someone, and not betraying where these Jews are, then of course you lie.’ But, nice question for a 6-year-old.”
On her “lies”:
“In my sorority and the student body, they had a spy at the Gestapo headquarters, and they would call me and say this … ‘You’re going to have visitors tomorrow.’ It meant to us that the Gestapo was going to come. So I would quickly call, quickly hide all these people, maybe four or five, into other homes.”
“We had to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler, and we refused, so then Hitler closed our universities. So more of us went into underground work then. … We had a lot of underground classes in my house.
“My friends in the sororities and the student body said, ‘We’re not going to sign.The artists also refused to sign and they refused to perform and go to Germany to perform, musicians. And so we had them all in our homes, performing for pay, so they could make a living and keep up culture.
“So that’s how we lived, we tried to keep up studies and culture, for our own sanity, and also, well, as an act of resistance too.”
On an interrogation by the Gestapo at her home, one of eight times when her house was searched:
“They looked at each other and they each grabbed a wrist, and threw me against a wall, and I was knocked out for a second. They threw me in a chair and I was shaking, I was trembling. … My boss in the underground told me, ‘Show them that you’re not afraid of them, you haven’t done anything wrong’ – which I felt was true. And you have to have conviction. And it makes you bold. It makes you less afraid.
“I had shorts on, it was August. And he said, ‘Your legs don’t impress me at all.’ All of a sudden I stopped trembling. I got a message from him. He was afraid of me. ‘Your legs don’t impress me at all,’ he said. In other words he was at a different wavelength. I was afraid I was going to be killed, and he was afraid that he would be tempted and do something that was illegal. So I stopped trembling.
“I said, it’s 6 o’clock, I was supposed to be at grandmother’s for dinner, and could I call her. I could only say I’m not coming for dinner. Nothing else. … Fortunately Tirtsah (a friend) was at that point hiding with my grandmother. I mean people moved all the time. And so I said, ‘I’m not coming for dinner. And Tirtsah said to me, ‘Are you having visitors?’ That was the Gestapo. I said yes. She said, ‘I’ll call your mother not to come home.’ … Then the interrogator banged down the phone. So at least my mother wasn’t walking in a trap and we could prepare. Because they were looking for a specific person, Hans De Jong, the big industrialist. … He had his bookkeeper visiting once a month. And so the bookkeeper was caught, that’s how we knew they were going to come to us. The bookkeeper betrayed him.
“Hans De Jong survived, yes. We quickly put him in another home after the bookkeeper was caught. We quickly put him somewhere else. But later he came back to us. … Fortunately my mother and I could concoct a story. ‘Yes, we had a B&B, and he’s from the East Holland factory, and come to Amsterdam for business, and stayed with us. How did we know he was a Jew? We didn’t know that.’ And so on.
On her mother:
“One time she was in the ghetto and there was a raid in the ghetto. And a mother asked if she could take her baby with her. And my mother said, ‘There’s a raid on right now. Everybody at the entrance is going to be searched and interrogated, and won’t get away with it. And both the baby and I would be caught.’ And my mother came home weeping.”
(Photo: Seth Harrison/The Journal News)