For Cor Suijk, CEO Emeritus of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, denouncing injustice is not enough.
As a teenager growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, Suijk watched acts of anti-Semitism metastasize in the face of indifference and outright hatred. He and fellow classmates watched as a fellow student who was Jewish, was removed from his school. He questioned his classmate’s inaction, “Don’t we have to do something about this?” Their answer was numbing and unanimous, “You don’t have to do anything.”
The transformative event that compelled Suijk to evolve from Bystander to Upstander occurred during an ordinary trip to Amsterdam. While shopping for food with his father, he witnessed an SS raid where Jewish men were hunted, snatched from their loved ones, and thrown into street cars headed for concentration camps. The horrific screams of distraught wives and weeping children consumed the boy and his father and ultimately defined how they would proceed to live their lives in the midst Nazi cruelties.
Suijk and his father not only hid 13 Jews, but also risked exposing their defiance by recruiting over 81 families to do the same. (A mere seven volunteered to help.) His heroic actions were cut short on Christmas Eve of 1944. Nazi soldiers, after publicly stripping Suijk of his clothes, uncovered 35 pieces of identification intended to facilitate the escape of Jewish families.
He was immediately deported to a camp.
Suijk was beleaguered with lingering guilt following his imprisonment, wondering how many more victims he could have saved. The injustices he witnessed, despite his courageous efforts, were irreconcilable. Later in life, Suijk abandoned his career as a tax inspector to become the director of the Anne Frank House at the request of Otto Frank’s, Anne’s father. He has since devoted his life to nurturing and maintaining the memorial, and teaching the lessons of Holocaust to younger generations.
In interviews and speaking engagements, Suijk continues to look back at his own actions with regret, “But how many more we could have saved!” While his self-deprecation may be baffling to audiences, it illustrates core principles and obligations of being a true Upstander: to defend the innocent, to reject indifference, and to, at all costs, act against injustice. In his words, he says with conviction, “without trying, the result is always failure.”
By Meredith Himelfarb