Dr. Tina Strobos in her Westchester apartment.
Their home in Amsterdam.
Dr. Strobos at left in 1941 with Abraham Pais and her mother, Marie Schotte, with whom she housed scores of Jews.
October 17, 2009
A Believer in Heroism, to Jews’ Lasting Gratitude
By JOSEPH BERGER
The walls of Dr. Tina Strobos’s light-filled apartment here are dappled not only with paintings but also with the many plaques she has received from Jewish organizations, even though she is not Jewish.
Dr. Strobos, a sturdy 89, is honored every so often for the quietly valiant things she did almost 70 years ago as a medical student during the German occupation of the Netherlands: working with her mother, she hid more than 100 Jews who passed through their three-story rooming house in Amsterdam.
That sanctuary, which included an attic lair that was never discovered, was just a 10-minute stroll from a more famous hideout: Anne Frank’s at 263 Prinsengracht. Indeed, the question of why the Franks did not have an escape hatch for when the Gestapo barged in gets her fairly worked up.
At her home, the Jews were stowed away on the upper floors with quick access to the attic, which had a secret compartment for two or three people to cram into. “A carpenter came with a toolbox and said: ‘I’m a carpenter from the underground. Show me the house, and I’ll build a hiding place,’ ” she recalled.
There was an alarm bell on the second floor so she or her mother, Marie Schotte, could alert those above. They drilled their fugitives in how to scramble out a window to a roof and make their way to an adjoining school, which was not likely to be raided.
Dr. Strobos, who will be honored on Monday by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, based in Westchester, retired in May as a psychiatrist and retains a nobility of manner that suggests a life she feels has been largely well lived. Her memory is keen enough to retrieve the tasty details that bring her escapades to life.
She recalled carrying news and ration stamps by bicycle — at great risk, and often cold and hungry — to Jews hidden on farms outside the city. She also ferried radios and stashed boxes of pilfered guns for the Dutch resistance. She was seized or questioned nine times by the Gestapo and was once hurled against a wall and knocked unconscious.
Why would she take such gambles for people she sometimes barely knew?
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said with nonchalance. “Your conscience tells you to do it. I believe in heroism, and when you’re young, you want to do dangerous things.”
But such an outlook has an origin, what Donna Cohen, the Holocaust Center’s executive director, calls “learned behavior.” Dr. Strobos comes from a family of socialist atheists who took in Belgian refugees during World War I and hid German and Austrian refugees before World War II. Dr. Strobos had close Jewish friends and, for a time, a Jewish fiancé, Abraham Pais, who went on to become a particle physicist, though not her husband.
The Nazis required Dutch Jews to wear stars and carry identity cards stamped with a J. So Dr. Strobos patched together false papers by swiping documents from gentile guests and inserting new photographs and fingerprints. As roundups increased, her six-bedroom row house, at 282 Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, became a way station; most Jews stayed briefly, until the underground network could find them more durable refuges.
“We never hid more than four or five at a time,” she said. “We didn’t have enough food.”
Among the people who lodged with her was her close friend Tirtsah Van Amerongen, a blonde who passed for a gentile, and her sister and brother-in-law. She hid an Orthodox couple with five children, who brought their own kosher food. She helped Jews in other hideouts, including a prominent impressionist, Martin Monnickendam, who painted her portrait, which now hangs in her apartment, at a residence for older people.
“You can see he’s a turmoiled type,” she said slyly as she showed off the portrait.
The Gestapo banged on her door many times, she said, sometimes accusing her of concealing Jews and searching the rooms for two or three hours. A Dutch spy in the Gestapo headquarters would sometimes alert her to an impending raid.
“ ‘You’re going to have a visitor tomorrow,’ he would say,” she remembered. “I never knew who he was, but he was always right.”
Erudite and fluent in German, with a talent for striking a sweetly innocent pose, she learned to charm the Germans.
When she suspected that the Gestapo knew that a prominent factory owner had lived in her home for a year, she surrendered his name but insisted that she believed he had been a gentile.
“Some Jews are like violets in the woods,” the Gestapo agent advised her. “They hide by having blue eyes and blond hair.”
Another time the Gestapo told her that it always identified Jews by the look of the inside corners of their eyes.
“My mother and I were not laughing, but my God, they were really nuts,” she said.
During the five years working for the underground, she took interludes to study medical books at a hospital.
“You have to be a little bit selfish and look after yourself; otherwise you just die inside, you burn out,” she once told an interviewer. “There’s just so much you can do for other people.”
After the war, she and her first husband, Robert Strobos, a medical student, traveled to New York on a Fulbright scholarship, and she studied child psychiatry. They divorced in 1964. In 1967 she married Walter Chudson, an economist, and they lived on a saltwater inlet in Larchmont, N.Y. She has two sons and a daughter by her first husband and two stepchildren.
In the decades since her wartime experience, she has spoken out on issues like the torture of terrorists, which she argues is not only cruel but also ineffective.
“Even when they scared me to death and hurt me, it confirmed me that I should not say anything to them,” she said.