Johan van Hulst, 1911-2018

by Yochanan Afek
4/17/2018 – Prof. Johann van Hulst, a teacher, parliamentarian, active chess player until his last days passed away last month in Amsterdam at the age of 107. For his humanitarian actions, saving over 600 Jewish children during World War II, he received the Yad Vashem distinction "Righteous Among the Nations" from the State of Israel in 1972. | Pictured: On January 28, 2011, Van Hulst celebrated his centenary in Wijk aan Zee | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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A chess player and a resistance hero

Johan van Hulst was born in Amsterdam, in Holland, on January 28th, 1911. He studied psychology and pedagogy at the Free University in Amsterdam, where he later became Professor Emeritus. He then worked as a teacher and mentor in the cities of Oudewater, Utrecht and Purmerend and director of the Pedagogical Academy in Amsterdam, and was a prominent and prolific author with over a hundred publications.

During the second world war, he was instrumental in smuggling hundreds of children from a Jewish daycare centre into hiding. He is one of 5,595 Dutch people who have received the "Righteous Among the Nations" distinction, which is specifically for non-Jews who rescued Jews.

Johan van Hulst in 1969

Van Hulst in 1969 | Photo: Joost Evers, Dutch National Archive CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons

When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, around 140,000 Jews lived there. By September 1944, some 100,000 of them had been sent to the concentration camps. When the Germans began imposing decrees on the Jews, the chess players among them were not allowed to attend their club evenings anymore, and so their non-Jewish club mates decided to play in their homes instead.

"Later we had to stop that too," remembered Van Hulst.

In 1943, Van Hulst, by then the director of a teacher's school in central Amsterdam, stood at the centre of a program to save Jewish babies and children from deportation to the concentration and extermination camps. Here is the heroic story as it appears in Yad Vashem, the world holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem:

The Reformed Teachers Training College was located at 27 Plantage Middenlaan, only two buildings away from the Jewish crèche from where, beginning in January 1943, Jewish children were being smuggled out and hidden at addresses outside Amsterdam. This had expanded into a large-scale operation. Together with the elderly janitor van Wijngaarden, Johan helped out by allowing those smuggling the children to use his school as a transit point.

The back of the Teachers Training College’s garden bordered on the day-care canter’s garden. Jewish children and infants in particular, were passed over the low fence and temporarily hidden by Johan in one of the classrooms until they were picked up by members of one of the children’s rescue organizations. Most of the school’s students were aware of what was going on. In his rare free moments, Johan himself also arranged underground addresses.

The four organizations working with the children smuggled out at least 100 Jewish children via the Teachers Training College. Several Jews, including Walter Suskind, Betty Oudkerk, Harry and Sienei Cohen and Henriette Piemental helped and were crucial to the rescue of children from the crèche. Johan himself helped another 100 to disappear or go with incidental helpers, including two of his students.

When, in late September 1943, the crèche was about to be cleared out, the principal, Virrie Cohen, came to see him and said: “The crèche is crowded. Please come and take a few children with you and put them up in the college for the moment, and maybe they will be picked up today.”

“Now 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,” Johan recalled. “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?’”

Here he is explaining what motivated him to act, during a meeting with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012:


Johan van Hulst chess book

After the war, van Hulst continued to teach, earning his PhD in education and psychology in 1961. He also entered politics and served as a member of the Senate for 25 years (1956-1981) and a member of the European Parliament in the years 1961-68. He was a former chairman of two political parties and at the same time was the author of numerous scientific publications.

Van Hulst was also a prominent chess player, who remained active until his last days, as a member of Caissa Amsterdam, the country's largest club. For example, at the age of 95, he won the Corus Chess Tournament (now Tata Steel Chess) in a group specially created for former politicians, and he won it again in 2010.

In 2011, the club published a wonderful book to celebrate the professor’s 100 anniversary titled Johan van Hulst - Een leven Lang schaak als sublieme bijzaak ("A life with chess as a wonderful diversion") which was presented in a memorable evening attended by a large audience. The club’s annual blitz championship is named after him.

Wei Yi y Jrden van Foreest con Johan van Hulst en enero de 2016 | Foto: Alina l'Ami

Wei Yi and Jorden van Foreest with Johan van Hulst in January 2016 | Foto: Alina l'Ami

He was perhaps the last living chess player to have attended the World Chess Championship held between Alexander Alekhine and Max Euwe in 1935. On that occasion, he asked former champion Emmanuel Lasker, "Mr. Lasker, what do you think of the possibilities of Euwe? " Lasker replied, "with this time control Alekhine is the favourite".

Here are two games of Prof. Johan Van Hulst against 2 former world champions in simultaneous exhibitions. In both a draw was agreed though he had a clear edge.


In October 2017 the director of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, Jeroen van den Berg commented on Twitter:

He made it. This past January, he still took part in the closing ceremony of the Tata Steel super tournament. Just like in previous years he awarded special prizes to the best junior players in the Challengers group.

Johan van Hulst died in his hometown of Amsterdam, on March 22nd, 2018.

Dr. Uvencio Blanco contributed reporting

Yochanan was born (1952) and grew up in Tel-Aviv, and now lives in Amsterdam. He has been involved in nearly every aspect of chess, both as a professional and a volunteer, for the last 50 years, and remains an active player, composer, writer, organizer, trainer and commentator. He is an International Master and International Arbiter for chess as well as International Grandmaster for chess composition, and the author of Extreme Chess Tactics (Gambit 2017) and Practical Chess Beauty (Quality Chess 2018).


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