VU professors and students actively resisted the German occupation during World War II by using chemical tricks to forge identity documents, developing listening devices, or administering exams in secret. In his book Geen Duimbreed?!, historian Gjalt Zondergeld gives a fascinating overview of the VU in wartime.
When the VU Amsterdam was forced to close its doors in 1943, the university continued its work underground. Professors secretly administered tests and graded papers, and students continued to actively resist the German occupation forces. Under the leadership of professors such as chemist Jan Coops, pedagogue Jan Waterink and psychiatrist Lammert van der Horst, VU facilities became cells of the resistance. The Hospitium on the Keizersgracht, the Medical faculty located in the Valerius clinic, the Paedologic Institute and the lab on the De Lairessestraat all served as hiding places during the Second World War.
Overtime at the Valerius clinic
The Valerius clinic, under the leadership of professor Lammert van der Horst, hid Jews by admitting them as ‘patients’. Van der Horst also took care of students hiding from the Germans. Eventually, the clinic grew to become the hub of a resistance network, developing microphones, forging identity documents and offering resistance leaders a safe place to meet.
The building was located right next door to the Sicherheitsdienst headquarters in the Euterpestraat. That made the Valerius clinic the ideal place for the resistance to meet, because who would expect them to come together so close to the occupation forces? The Wehrmacht made many attempts to take over the building, but Van der Horst skillfully managed to deflect them by appealing to the clinic’s medical work.
Coops and his resistance cell
Van der Horst was not the only professor guilty of ‘illegal practices’ during the war. He worked closely with VU chemistry professor Jan Coops, who used his lab in the De Lairessestraat (see illustration above) to forge identity papers. Coops used chemical resources to develop a smart method for removing the fatal ‘J’ from Jewish identity documents. His lab also housed students who went into hiding and joined Coops’ resistance network after the round-up of students on 6 February 1943.
Coops and his students did all of this at great personal risk, and Coops was eventually arrested and imprisoned. In 1945, the Americans liberated him from the infamous Remscheid-Lütteringhausen prison in Germany, where he was in extremely poor health. He returned to the Netherlands shortly after the liberation. Several other VU professors were imprisoned during the war, and some, like professor V.H. Rutgers, did not survive. By the end of the war, the VU community would mourn almost 100 people lost during the occupation.
Share your memories
The website Het Geheugen van de VU (The Memory of the VU) offers plenty of information about the history of the VU Amsterdam during the Second World War. If you have any interesting stories about the VU during wartime, please share them with us below.