Johan van Hulst, a former Dutch senator and teacher renowned for his efforts to save hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust, died March 22 at the age of 107, the Dutch Senate announced this week.
As principal of the Reformed Teachers Training College, van Hulst found himself at the center of a growing operation to smuggle Jewish children out of Amsterdam to protect them from Nazi persecution during the Second World War.
The college garden bordered that of a Jewish day-care center, from which hundreds of Jewish children were passed over the garden fence to be temporarily hidden by van Hulst before being collected by members of a children’s rescue organization and smuggled to safety.
“Try to imagine 80, 90, perhaps 70 or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you…. That was the most difficult day of my life,” he remembered of the period in 1943 when the Jewish day-care center was due to be cleared out, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
“You realize that you cannot possibly take all the children with you. You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took twelve with me. Later on I asked myself: ‘Why not thirteen?’”
Following the end of the Second World War, he became an active member of the Christian Democratic Appeal Party and later became a senator.
Ankie Broekers-Knol, president of the Dutch senate, told CNN in a statement that van Hulst “led an extraordinary life. He will be remembered as an icon of democracy. He dedicated both his work as an educator as well as his work in the Senate to the democratic values of freedom and equality. He serves as an example to us all.”
Ruth Peetoom, chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Appeal party, described van Hulst as “an icon of justice.”
“Van Hulst was intelligent, courageous and modest,” she said in an email to CNN. “In his long life he has meant a lot to others in different ways.”
He was honored by Yad Vashem in 1972 as Righteous Among Nations, in recognition of his resistance to the Nazi persecution of Dutch Jews.
Yad Vashem spokesperson Simmy Allen said van Hulst will be remembered by “the entire Jewish people for his valiant efforts in the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to van Hulst during a trip to the Netherlands in 2012.
“We say those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds of universes. I want to thank you in the name of the Jewish people, but also in the name of humanity,” Netanyahu told the senator, according to The Times of Israel.
The Dutch ambassador to Israel, Gilles Beschoor Plug, told CNN that van Hulst “will be remembered especially as a hero of the Dutch resistance during World War II. His passing is a great loss. His courageous acts saving many Jewish children remain an inspiration for generations to come.”