Jacoba, with her husband Arie and son Frans
It is hard to imagine a more vulnerable person than a prisoner detained by a murderous regime. To be unjustly imprisoned is to live at the absolute mercy of your captors. You are stripped of your autonomy and dignity. Any action that displeases the authorities can be extremely dangerous. And yet, despite the few resources at their disposal, there are examples of people bravely resisting or disrupting the aims of their oppressors from within their prison cells.
Jacoba Maria Blom-Schuh was 39 years old when the Nazis marched into her home town of The Hague, on The Netherlands’ western coast. Within days of the occupation, resistance from the Dutch people was forced underground, and the German forces quickly set about establishing their brutal system of control. People were expected to submit in every imaginable way; small acts of defiance were cruelly punished, often with death.
In the winter of 1940, the German occupiers extended the so-called “Winter Help” programme to The Netherlands, encouraging the Dutch people to donate money, ostensibly to help the poor. As in Germany, people who refused to donate had their names taken down and could be shamed publicly. Yet the Dutch people were suspicious of the “charitable” aims of the scheme, and suspected that their money was going to support the German war effort.
In April 1941, as spring arrived in the streets of The Hague, Jacoba was approached by a Winter Help collector for a donation. She refused, and told the volunteer that she believed “the proceeds from Winter Help are for the Germans and members of the NSB [the Dutch fascist party].” She continued: “They are a gang of thieves, just like Adolf Hitler.” In an atmosphere of total surveillance, Jacoba’s words were reported to the authorities and printed in the local newspaper. Within days, she was arrested.
Jacoba was imprisoned by the Nazi SS in extremely precarious circumstances. Thousands of Dutch prisoners were deported to concentration camps; most did not survive. Despite the extreme danger, Jacoba refused to submit and co-operate with her jailers. She was known as a talented embroiderer, and so the SS guards gave her a pile of socks to darn. Socks are a crucial part of soldiers’ equipment. Yet, rather than mending them, Jacoba sewed the socks shut, making them unwearable. Using the most limited and basic tools – a needle and thread – she had found an ingenious yet extremely risky method of resistance through sabotage.
Despite her refusal to co-operate, Jacoba was released from detention after three months. She continued to resist against the regime than had imprisoned her, helping a Jewish teenager, Vera Cahn, to avoid deportation. Some of Vera’s family had already been arrested, but she had evaded capture and spent the rest of the war hiding at home with Jacoba.
One year after the liberation of her country from Nazi rule, Jacoba was killed in a car accident. Yet her legacy continues today in two important ways. With Jacoba’s help, Vera survived the war, and later married Jacoba’s son Frans. At the age of 91, Vera is now a great-grandmother, and lives in Amsterdam. Her home is close to the Dutch Resistance Museum, where a brief account of Jacoba’s daring actions, alongside embroidered panels that she made in prison, continue to inspire new generations to take a stand against injustice.