Forty years after his reporting exposed one of the worst war criminals in Dutch history, Hans Knoop is still celebrated in his native Netherlands as a hero.
Last year, more than a million television viewers watched a public broadcaster’s historical period drama on how Knoop, a Dutch Jewish journalist, unmasked the art collector Pieter Menten in 1976 as a monster who murdered hundreds of Polish Jews and stole their property with help from German Nazis. It was the highest rating for such a production in the Netherlands.
“The Menten Affair” will have its U.S. debut March 5 at the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. Knoop, 73, will be on hand to introduce the film and answer audience questions.
Knoop’s exposé led to Menten’s arrest in a country that was profoundly shocked by his ability to escape justice and amass a fortune built on pillage.
But alongside this recognition Knoop, whose mild manner and amiable expression conceal a steely determination, has paid a heavy personal price for the discovery. Harassed by Menten’s lawyers, supporters and even other journalists, Knoop said the scoop effectively ended his career as a working journalist in a country that many believe has still not fully owned up to its Holocaust-era history.
“As I interviewed witnesses, it became clear that Menten’s modus operandi was to use his influence and fortune to either buy or destroy anyone who accused him of wrongdoing,” he said. “That’s part of the reason he was able to evade justice for so long.”
Menten’s belated conviction for war crimes exposed deep flaws in Holland’s ability to try collaborators; he eventually served two-thirds of a 10-year sentence before he died in 1987 at 88.
Menten’s unusual story in Poland began in the 1920s, when he moved there to conduct business, including with many Jewish associates. He lost all his vast property there when the Russians invaded the country’s east in 1939, but regained it when the Nazis took over the territory in 1941. Menten befriended the Nazi occupation forces, tracked down his former associates and murdered them, Knoop reported.
Menten transported war booty to Holland, where after World War II he was sentenced to several months in jail for the general charge of “assisting the enemy” over his chumminess with Nazi officers. The multimillionaire art dealer escaped more serious charges by libeling his accusers, but ultimately was exposed after trying to auction off stolen goods.
Knoop, then the editor-in-chief of a medium-circulation weekly owned by the Telegraaf daily, began researching testimonies collected in Israel by the late Haaretz journalist Haviv Cnaan, whose family was among Menten’s victims.
Knoop was warned off the story by people whose own careers were ruined by Menten when they threatened to expose him. He soon realized they were right.
Knoop was forced to quit the Telegraaf soon after his investigation was published because, he said, another reporter for the paper “began spying” on Knoop at Menten’s behest. And while he toured the world giving lectures about the Menten case, no other major publication in the Netherlands would hire Knoop “because I had a stamp of my forehead,” he recalled.
The attention given to the Menten affair these days is part of a wave of renewed interest in Holocaust-era complicity in the Netherlands, a country where the efforts of those who saved Jews — Holland has 5,600 Righteous Among the Nations, the world’s second-largest tally — have long eclipsed the widespread collaboration that led to the murder of 75 percent of Dutch Jewry.
Knoop, who is Jewish, encountered some bigotry over his exposure of the Menten affair, but he attributes his ejection from the journalistic scene to the sectarianism of Dutch publications back when they were affiliated with adversarial parties and groups, including Protestants, Catholics and Socialists.
So he set up a successful PR agency, which he ran alongside his activities, often pro bono, as a spokesman for Jewish organizations and as a pro-Israel columnist, among other positions.
Still, Knoop is best known for his crucial role in bringing Menten to justice, despite several death threats by the wealthy art dealer.
Knoop says he has no doubt Menten would have had him killed if he could get away with it. However, “I knew that I was protected because if anything would’ve happened to me, all the arrows would point at Menten,” he said.
Menten’s Jewish victims had no such protection under the German occupation. Menten hounded former associates even after they fled their former homes. Wearing SS uniforms provided to him by his friends, Menten executed his enemies by firing squad, sometime making their relatives watch as he commanded the gruesome event from an armchair with a wave of his hand. The special war crimes tribunal found him guilty in the mass murder of 20-30 people, mainly Jews in the Polish village of Podhoretz in July 1941.
The unusual nature of Menten’s story — he is perhaps the only civilian known to have committed mass murder on that scale during World War II purely for financial gain — and the testimonies against him at first sounded far-fetched to Knoop, a skeptical and cool-headed journalist.
He was led to further doubt their veracity by Menten’s proclaimed willingness to confront his accusers and feigned openness to Knoop in interviews.
But he reconsidered when Menten tried to bribe him to bury the story, and after Cnaan, the Haaretz journalist, offered eyewitness testimony of Menten’s crimes.
From then on, Knoop didn’t let Menten out of his sight until he was in prison. Knoop even traced Menten in Switzerland, where Menten escaped the Netherlands to avoid going to prison. Knoop was there when the Swiss police arrested Menten ahead of his extradition.
“I believe Menten was always a monster,” Knoop said, “but he took off the mask only when the circumstances allowed it.”