Semmy Riekerk was born in 1916 in Amsterdam and was raised as a Lutheran. She remembers her father as being a cosmopolitan man, who considered himself a citizen of the world. Semmy’s parents instilled in her a strong sense of responsibility for one’s actions. She married her husband Joop (Johannes Theodore) Woortman in 1938. He was 11 years older than Semmy and had a daughter from a previous marriage. Joop briefly served in the army, spent time as a P.O.W., and then worked in a theatre when he returned to civilian life. In 1942, he arranged for a Jewish musician to receive false identity papers, the first time he attempted to rescue a Jew. Joop then began to organize an underground movement that provided false papers to Jews. He would arrange for pickpockets to steal the documents and Semmy would carry the money to purchase the papers (often at great personal risk). The forged documents were completed after a photograph was added and a Jewish woman hiding in Semmy and Joop’s home added a German official seal.
Joop and Semmy became increasingly involved in the underground resistance movement. Joop would often go to the train station to look for Jews to take into hiding. When they learned that the Germans had plans to deport all Jewish children to concentration camps, Joop and Semmy concentrated their efforts on saving the Dutch children. They organized a network of people who were willing to hide Jewish children in their homes. Semmy remembers a day in 1943, when the German’s launched a surprise raid of homes in Amsterdam in an attempt to capture Jewish children. Semmy and Joop quickly instructed the children to go to safety at a local day care center, which was run by a German Jew, Walter Suskind. On the day of the raid, a scared little boy came to Semmy’s home and she offered to hide him in one of the cupboards in her kitchen. When the Germans searched her house, she pretended to be virulently anti-Semitic and even invited the Germans to share coffee with her. The ruse worked and the Germans never found the boy. Semmy learned that the boy survived the war, later married, and lives with his wife in Amsterdam.
Semmy and Joop’s activities undoubtedly put them in great peril and most likely led to Joop’s arrest in 1944. Semmy never learned the cause or circumstances of the arrest, although she suspected that someone might have denounced Joop. She heard from Joop only twice after his arrest, once from a note that he had thrown from a streetcar while he was being transported to a jail and a second note that Joop threw out of a train destined for Germany. Semmy had the strength and courage to carry on the activities of the underground movement to save the Jewish children despite Joop’s absence. She was given a book which contained a list of 300 names of families who were hiding children that Joop had compiled and made sure that they received ration cards and money from the Dutch government-in-exile every month. Semmy adopted a foster child and told people that she was her maid. The girl survived the war, but had a very difficult time after she learned that both her mother and father had died during the war. Tragically, Semmy learned from the Red Cross that Joop died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She waited a few years for Joop to miraculously return, but eventually accepted the finality of his death and remarried.
Semmy later recalled that she thought about the war every day. She remembered the strong bonds that she forged with other members of the resistance, and how they entrusted their lives with each other. She described the bond as being stronger than that between mother and child. Her devotion to the memories of those whose actions saved Jewish lives continued well after the end of the war. In 1977, she visited Yad Vashem and petitioned to have the name of Walter Suskind (the German Jew who ran the daycare center that hid Jewish children on the day of the German raid) be added to the list of saviors. At first her request was denied, as she was told that the list of names was only for non-Jews as it was a Jew’s duty to save other Jews. She angrily protested, asking, ”Was it his duty to sacrifice his wife and daughter [and his own life] to save other people?” Because of Semmy’s protests, museum officials eventually acquiesced and Walter Suskind’s name was added. Semmy also taught the lessons she felt she had learned during the war to the next generation. She would visit schools and made sure to tell the children that she rescued Jews because they were persecuted solely for who they were, and not because of what they had done. Perhaps more importantly, she wanted the children to understand that she had come to learn that the capacity to commit atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Germans during the holocaust lived inside all people. She likened the human soul to a piano, and within all men and women lived the entire scale from very good to very bad. She wanted the children to know that she was not a saint that she could be as bad as any one else, sometimes.
Semmy and Joop are remembered for their courage during a time of great darkness. Their actions undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives. In an interview after the war, Semmy remarked that Joop never seemed to live up to his potential when their lives were uncomplicated prior to the war. She felt that it was the unusual circumstances of the war that brought out the potential for his ability to organize a resistance movement, which Semmy bravely carried on after his arrest. May we hope that there will never be another time that will require of us the extraordinary sacrifices and risks that were asked of Semmy and Joop. Their actions are commemorated to remind us that the capacity to act morally exists in all of us if we have the courage and determination to do so.