Category Archives: Reflections


Three questions have fascinated me most in the years I’ve been exploring what happened in Amsterdam in 1940-45:  what did people do at that time about the dilemmas they faced?  what would I have done?  and what does that mean I must do now?  The Reflections here will be a place for me to wrestle with these questions, probably just by asking even more.  According to Dutch writer Remco Campert, whose father wrote the iconic poem of the Dutch resistance, says, “Asking yourself a question, that’s how resistance begins. And then ask that very question to someone else.”

Fortunately, “Reflections” is a broad enough title that it will give me a space to share anything else that I hope will be of interest to other readers and writers.

Collaboration, Even on a Protest March

Hundreds of people showed up Tuesday night in our small “city” of Burlington, Vermont to support the rights of refugees and immigrants.  Because of our open-mindedness, Burlington has been a refugee resettlement area for years, so we have a lot at stake as a community – not just the refugees themselves, but the businesses they buy from and where they are employed, and the citizens of a city made so much more culturally diverse than it would be otherwise.
March on Church St.

The crowd was mostly young and red hot, with some headscarves and brilliant African fabrics scattered through the crowd.  After listening to the speakers as we shivered in the chill, we finally got to march toward the top of our historic Church Street, then back to City Hall.  The pace was brisk and the chants surged from one end of the blocks-long march to the other.

A tall, harsh-voiced teenager shrieked “S—w Donald Trump!” and the crowd joined right in.  I recoiled – not because I am less angry than they are, but because I’ve studied the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam too long.  Hatred gets us nowhere – or, rather, it sets us on a dangerous path that we have seen before.  As soon as we begin to denigrate other people and see them as less than human, there’s no limit to the evil we feel entitled to do to them.

I knew the chant was wrong, but I did what too many people did during the Holocaust:  I kept silent.  I made excuses:  I’m too old, they’d never listen to me.  In other words, I collaborated with what I knew was wrong.

On the edge of the crowd, a lanky man in his forties spoke up, not shouting but speaking loudly enough to be heard.  “We shouldn’t chant that,” he said.  “It’s an awful thing to say.”

The teenager asked, “What do you want us to say instead?”

A moment later, we were all shouting “Love trumps hate.”  The man who spoke up made a difference.  Next time, I want it to be me.

Sign showing Anne Frank "We could have saved her"

“We could have saved her.”

Why I Had to March in Washington, Not Elsewhere

I had to march somewhere the day after the Inauguration for the same reasons as everyone else.

I could have joined my neighbors at the statewide rally in Montpelier, Vermont.

But I had to join the Women’s March on Washington.  Why?

Marchers and capitol

Because that’s where the man lives now.  The one who received a minority of the popular vote and now has the nuclear codes in his hands.  A privileged white male who has inspired and legitimized hate crimes, and is about to commit them at the policy level.  A self-admitted sexual predator – no, a braggart, about what he should be ashamed of.  An aggressor who takes what he wants no matter to whom it belongs, like the early “settlers” who invaded Native lands.  A sleaze who will do anything you’ll let him get away with. A perpetual liar whose incessant degradation took down one of the world’s most experienced and distinguished women politicians.  The first President for whom the White House will be a step down in luxury from his own residence.

I had to march within a few blocks of that guy.  To clog his streets – not just Independence Avenue, but the Mall, Constitution Avenue, everything he sees from his back windows. To be part of the roar that would penetrate even the double glazing.

I had to walk in the footsteps of the civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peace marchers, the women’s rights advocates.  To be on the march that began long, long before this one, seeking justice in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  I needed to be brave in that land, rather than despairing.  To remind myself that other marchers won at least partial victories – the Civil Rights Act, withdrawal from Vietnam, the right to choose, the Equal Pay Act. I owed it to those earlier marchers to show up where they did.

Marchers by National Gallery Women's MarchI needed to walk in my own footsteps, too.  To remember stumbling sleepily off an overnight bus as an 18 year old to the roar of a megaphone that said “Good morning, Antioch.”  I returned to march again and again – to protest the Vietnam war, then to support women’s rights.  Then marching wasn’t enough, and I spent ten years in Washington, working first in public interest groups, then for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Federal Women’s Program.  I worked for almost everything Donald Trump is attacking.  I take it personally.  I lived in Washington long before that man did, and I’ll still be marching and supporting good causes there long after he’s gone.

I needed to march in Washington to reassure myself.  No matter who is dominating the House and Senate, no matter who is sitting in the President’s chair, no matter how powerful they are, women and our allies can still fill the streets of Washington as full as they’ve ever been.  Not just with old fogeys like me, but with a new generation who will also be marching for decades ahead.  Not just white women like me, but women of all colors, women in headscarves and pink handknit hats, women of all persuasions.

Washington is the center of what I fear in our country now, and even in its best moments it’s a flawed city of the rich and poor, full of puffery and vanity, racism and sexism. “I envy you North Americans,” Che Guevara said.  “You live in the heart of the beast.”

sign about womanhood and unity

But Washington is also the essence of what I love about the United States.  It’s a diverse metropolis with a huge, open space at center of the city where absolutely anyone can come.  The Mall is lined with free museums which honor who we are as a nation: the Natives who were here first, the slaves who created so much of our wealth, the Constitution we are still learning to fulfill, the immigrants who made the United States what it is.

On Saturday, we marched in all our variety and humor and enterprise and determination and sisterhood.  We, the people of the United States.  In our nation’s capital.  Ours.

A Writer in the World, or at least N.M.

Socorro mountainsThe last few days fulfilled my longtime dreams of what I might do as a writer in the world. Being with two groups in New Mexico to discuss the importance and possibility of resistance gave me a sliver of hope, even ten days before Donald Trump’s inauguration. If there are 35 people in a red state in two locations who are receptive to that message, we need not despair for our country. Around the talks, I got to visit with dear old friends, see countryside utterly different from my usual haunts, appreciate the marvels of sandhill cranes for the first time, and learn from the Pueblo Native Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Because of my astronomer partner, I knew I was going to be in Socorro, New Mexico, and tried to think about who might be interested in a book talk about An Address in Amsterdam, my historical novel about a young Jewish woman who joins the anti-Nazi underground. With a little research, I tracked down a small Unitarian congregation which was willing to take a chance on a talk called “Resistance Then and Now.” Richard Sonnenfeld, the kind man who’d said yes and done the promotion, welcomed me to the sunny social hall of the local Episcopal church where the UUs meet on Sunday afternoons. We chatted about the latest outrages on the news as we arranged chairs. My partner had invited some astronomers to join us, and all in all about twenty of us collected.

Warm welcome from Richard Sonnenfeld

Warm welcome from Richard Sonnenfeld

After an organ prelude – unique in my decades of speaking to groups – I began the conversation by talking about the way the Dutch faced the choices of collusion, collaboration and resistance. There were so many ways to resist, from the low key ones like reading an underground newspaper, to the much riskier endeavors of delivering such papers (as my book’s heroine does) or hosting Jewish families or others who needed to hide. When we began the discussion, we talked about the possibilities for resistance now in a number of contexts: finding and sharing information that is increasingly unavailable, standing beside or sheltering persecuted people, and protesting or taking other direct action. It was impressive to hear the number of local initiatives which had already begun. To that list we added the intention to reach out to the local mosque and find out what support they might welcome. I felt cheered by the time we parted company.

Driving from Socorro to Albuquerque a few days later meant huge vistas rimmed by mountains, and desert vegetation broken by occasional settlements. Thanks to the wonders of GPS, I navigated smoothly through the city streets of a place I’ve never been. Instead of a stuffy, set-apart museum building, I found a handsome Art Deco storefront that drew people in just like a store, with a sandwich board on the pavement and interesting stuff in the windows. Variegated turquoise tiles across the whole façade livened the whole place up, with a bright sign across the full width for the “Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico.”

Holocaust & Intolerance Museum

After greeting the staff and volunteers who keep the place alive, I passed uneasily under the replica of the gate into Auschwitz: Freedom through Work. To my left were a series of exhibits about the Holocaust, mostly presenting material that was familiar to me in a way that was easy to access, with lots of pictures as well as text. On the other side were hard-hitting exhibits about hatred and where it can lead – the Orlando shootings, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and how propaganda works to manipulate our perceptions. I was saddened to hear that the Museum lost funding from a major Jewish organization because of the broader topics they cover. To honor the Holocaust of the Jews and to recognize its hideous uniqueness is not, in my view, to say that no other genocides count.

Like any book lover, I soon went downstairs to the library and study center where I eventually gave my talk. The collection was as comprehensive as the exhibits. I was delighted to find my bible for my own book, Jacob Presser’s Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry, like finding an old friend among strangers.

Jennie Negin & Mary

Board Chair Jennie Negin & Mary

The Museum kindly arranged for a delicious cold cuts luncheon on proper rye bread, and soon we had a dozen people munching and chatting. By the time we went downstairs, about fifteen people had gathered, thanks in part to Board Chair Jennie Negin’s decision to close the Museum for an hour so all the volunteers could attend. I felt honored to be among them: a couple of high school students, an historian, a retired opthamologist, a supporter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an African American woman married for decades to a Jewish man, her mother, a capable librarian and others, all drawn there to support the Museum’s work. I talked with them about my own background, what drew me to the story of the Holocaust and Resistance in the Netherlands, and gave them some highlights of what I’ve learned and how it applies to us all now.

Questions and comments poured in, including a painful one about the role of Jewish people who collaborated in some way. We talked about the Jewish Council and its very ambiguous role in representing the Nazi demands to the community, and negotiating on its behalf but often futilely. We heard about the dollhouse in the Museum collection, which was hidden in a neighbor’s attic and survived the war, unlike its original owner. One man honored me by saying he would place me among the righteous Gentiles. This gesture feels like an anointment – and a charge to continue to get this message out into the world. Not just the memory, as important as that is, but the message of the courage of the resistance and how necessary it is now.


My Cousin, the Star

photograph of Barbara Tarbuck

Barbara Tarbuck

Other girls had canopy beds or family trips to Luray Caverns, or big sisters who painted their toenails for them.  I had my Cousin Barbara Tarbuck – even if she lived in Detroit and I was an only child in North Carolina, even if I hardly ever saw her red-haired beauty.  She was always with me:  in my inner world, not just in the elegant green velvet hand-me-down dress her mother mailed to me.

Barbara was six years older than I, already acting in radio plays with professional actors when she was only nine years old.  Think of it – my cousin on the radio!  I saw her in my mind’s eye, surrounded by legions of fans and friends, fending off overzealous admirers.  I wasn’t.  My Canadian parents and I were a thousand miles away, recoiling at Colored and White drinking fountains.  Kids made fun of my accent and my ineptitude at sports and singing.

I felt more than left out; I felt unwanted.

It was much easier to bear because Barbara loved me, and I could aspire to be like her.  I adored her from afar, the way I adored Dorothy Gale or Nancy Drew.  But Barbara was a real person, in my own family.  If she’d lived in North Carolina, she would have protected me from the mean kids.  I just knew it.

Apart from those fantasies, Barbara’s life told me that my dreams could come true, even after I grew up.  From the gritty public schools of Detroit and Wayne State University, she won a Fulbright to study at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Her career blossomed, first in New York for ten years of theater that included Broadway, then in Los Angeles, where she also acted for TV and movies, plus directing and teaching.

Our visits as adults began when I was in Washington doing poorly paid public interest work, and she was an actress in New York, first struggling and then modestly successful. I brought her questions I couldn’t ask anybody else, especially about men and my mother.  We came from the same stormy ground. As she regaled me with her stories, Barbara showed me it was OK to be ambitious and single-minded, that a whole life could be woven around the love of an art.  You were allowed to give up on a relationship, a marriage.  Flings were fine, even ill-advised ones.  Barbara was a fierce woman.  I had been brought up to be so much nicer than she was, and she helped me get over that.

We talked in her exposed-brick apartment for as long as she could sit still.  Even her best friend describes her as a “loveable narcissist.”  I don’t think I ever had her full attention for more than ten minutes at a stretch in those years, but it was delicious while it lasted.  Then, when she got restless, I had the joy of walking down the streets of New York beside my beautiful, brilliant cousin, who was part of it all.

In the evenings, I was fascinated by Barbara on the stage:  someone I recognized but did not recognize, so fully did she inhabit the characters she played. I loved seeing her perform, whether a one-woman show in an attic, or “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway.  When I asked how she kept her performance so fresh night after night, Barbara looked astonished.  “But it’s always different!  The audience is never the same.  The other actors are in a particular mood, or they stress a word you didn’t hear the same way the night before.”  The effort Barbara put into her art was breathtaking – and she was a quick study.  She never let a single experience go to waste.  While she was on tour in Washington, D.C., she was startled by a unnerving noise when she came back late.  Before she went to investigate, Barbara stopped to memorize her facial expression and body position.  “I’ll use that one day on the stage,” she said.

Barbara moved across the country to Los Angeles “for two reasons:  money and power.” She’d had enough of being a starving actress, even with her successes.  I was about thirty years old when I visited her for the first time.  She and her future husband were living in a petite redwood cottage embraced by orange and other trees that were mythical to me.  Waking up there for the first time, I was just as transported as I had been in Manhattan.  Once again, Barbara was introducing me to another world. California was good to her, professionally and personally.  She became financially stable for the first time, and had found the right man to marry.  Soon, Barbara had a child at age 40 without missing a beat (or cancelling a rehearsal, I suspect).  Her daughter was an intelligent child with red-gold hair, often reared by her father when Barbara was on the road.  They bought the small property in Santa Monica which is still the family home decades later.

As my own friendships and work world expanded, Barbara was no longer the unique star she’d been when I was a child, but I still loved visiting my cousin. Although we had grown up far from each other, it hardly mattered.  We had some things in common that even my closest chosen family didn’t offer. We came from the same earth, the same story of a Nova Scotia coal miner’s teenaged daughter seduced by the radical union organizer who became our grandfather.  His foolscap yellow letters educated us both politically, some sent to her in Detroit and others to me in Durham.

Into the crucible of Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage had come first my father, then her mother and three more. My father had his mother’s sweetness and his father’s brilliance and devotion to apple trees and gardens.  Barbara’s mother was just as smart, but sharp-tongued and thwarted after being denied an education.  Her dreams poured into her daughter like fire water.

We understood all this and more about each other.  We even spoke the same language, epitomized in the following exchange.  Barbara once said, “So I drove out him out there.  It wasn’t hours, but it was” – here she paused and we simultaneously said “a fur piece” and burst out laughing.  Oh, that laugh!  Loud, insouciant, carrying the echoes of our grandparents. Barbara’s voice wasn’t just what she was born with, rich and textured, but an instrument that she had cultivated for decades, much as one would an apple tree.

While I was emerging as a writer in my fifties, I came to Los Angeles to study with Deena Metzger more or less annually.  After an intense week of soul-searching and writing, I’d meet up with Barbara and we’d talk for hours as always – in the arid Pine Mountain forests or along Venice Beach, or in her postage stamp back yard in Santa Monica. I learned what she was up to.  Not just acting, although that was always the heart of it.  She found plenty of artistic challenge in her Los Angeles work, somewhat to her surprise, and loved directing and teaching at UCLA.  Once I accompanied her to a rehearsal of a play she was directing, and watched her adjust an actor’s body language.  How did a slightly different arm gesture make a whole different character?  It was part of the art she had devoted herself to ever since she met the professional radio actors in her childhood, people who had worked on national programs like The Lone Ranger.  

Although I was a bit player in Barbara’s life, I held her stories: her trip to Florida when her father burned to death in a trailer, a secret relationship, the spot on the back of her right calf that she covered with makeup as a young woman, her agony over her brother abandoning his children, her decision to have a baby at age 40 and how easy (!) it was physically, her refusal to have a facelift even if it cost her some work.  We once stopped communicating for a few years because she said something that I couldn’t stomach, but eventually we reconnected.  We both knew we were right, but the relationship was just too valuable to let it go.

I wasn’t the only person Barbara never gave up on.  She didn’t let her mother’s shrill and sometimes egregious behavior drive her away.  When her smart and handsome husband became devastatingly disabled, she made sure he had the right care until the end of his life.   It was Barbara who made sure our cousin with developmental disabilities got two idyllic weeks in California every year.  She even did what she could to pick up the pieces with her brother’s children.  She made a deep relationship with the next generation of Nova Scotia cousins.  I can only imagine what she was capable of with her friends, colleagues and students whom I don’t know.  No wonder so many people were bereft on December 27, 2016, when she died at 74, less than a month after being diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, a rare brain disorder.

A few days after the diagnosis, I flew from Vermont to California.  Barbara was performing, as always, raving but enchanting apart from a few meltdown moments.  At one point, I caught her attention and said, “Barbara, I have loved you my whole life.”  I said it twice to be sure she understood, and she did.  No one else is living to whom I can say those words.

A photograph (which I hope I’ll find one day) depicts an idyllic visit to Detroit when Barbara was a suave thirteen-year-old, I a plump seven. She has breasts; I have pudge.  Her hair is swept up in a fashionable duck tail; mine has the frizz of the last failed permanent wave.  She already looks like a star, but a loving one.  We’re standing close to each other.  I’m squinting but my face is completely happy.  I belonged to her.  Now she’s gone.

Two Heroines: One Syrian, One Dutch

As someone who is always fascinated by women in the resistance, I was curious about Raghda Hassan, the revolutionary heroine in Sean McAllister’s award- winning documentary, “A Syrian Love Story.” Every fall, the Vermont International Film Festival shows social action films which bring the world to our doorstep. I wondered how Raghda would compare to Rachel, the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam who joins the underground against the Nazis. The film is the heartbreaking chronicle of the oppression of the Syrian people, and the dissolution of the marriage, as well as the calamity of the family having to leave first their neighborhood, then their city and country.Poster for A Syrian Love Story

Early in the film, Raghda’s Palestinian then-husband, Amer Daoud says, “She’s a very strong woman, and I am a very weak man.” At that point, she was in prison, but she is eventually reunited with her husband and sons. Even to the naked eye she is deeply traumatized both physically and otherwise. The film focuses more on Amer, in part because his English is better.  We never learn enough about Raghda and why she made the decisions she made.

I found myself impatient with filmmaker McAllister at times despite his laudable commitment to this film. He says that he had the same experience as Raghda when he was picked up and jailed by Assad’s security forces. By definition, a man is not subject to the same torture as a woman, and no British citizen with an embassy and press corps behind him is in the same position as a Syrian – particularly a known revolutionary. Moreover, because of the film in his captured camera, Raghda and her family had to flee their country for Lebanon.

In the end, Amer and the children are settled in France, but Raghda is in Turkey working in a high position as an advisor to the Syrian opposition government. For the first time, we see her as she must have been before she went to prison, with the composed face of someone doing what she truly wants. She has lost her husband and children but is glad that they are safe. She’s been tortured, moved endlessly, been forced to live away from the home she passionately loves. She has seen Assad triumph again and again, slaughtering his own people.

Raghda smiles. “I still have hope for humanity and freedom and my country.” She is a heroine in the old fashioned sense. Rachel is just as brave when she faces soldiers and police on the street, with illegal documents in her pocket. But she does reach a breaking point, where saving herself and her family becomes paramount. She is not a flame that will burn itself out to the limit like Raghda. She’s an ordinary teenager who turns into an activist and does the right thing – not the one in a million superwoman who is Raghda. I admire her greatly, but she wasn’t my subject.

I pray that Raghda has enough notoriety through this film to protect her, and that her faith has not been utterly destroyed by the continued massacre in Syria.


An Address in Amsterdam Tops Lists

I’m grateful for all the terrific coverage for An Address in Amsterdam, which you’ll find below.  BookSparks has done a fine job on the publicity.  But what touched me most deeply was from Books j’adore, a blog that no true book lover should miss:


An Address in Amsterdam is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. . . Rachel Klein is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. . .This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face.  Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.” Books J’adore, “An Address in Amsterdam”

“This deeply spectacular literary fireworks show of hope, strength and renewal will captivate every reader at the first word.” —Bookstr, “10 Historical Fiction Reads to Devour this Fall” 

An Address in Amsterdam is the biggest literary event for the historical fiction genre this year…”—Redbook, “20 Books By Women You Must Read This Fall”

“Hey historical fiction aficionados…add this profound book to your Amazon cart immediately.”—PopSugar, “21 Fiction Reads to Check Out This Fall”

This novel demonstrates that bravery and love can help to conquer even the most hopeless situations.” —Buzzfeed, “5 Historical Fiction Reads to Curl Up with this Fall”

“Debut author Mary Fillmore serves up a complex, engrossing and gorgeous historical fiction tale.” —Brit + Co, “11 Fall Reads to Keep You As Warm As Your PSL”

“Fillmore paints a chilling portrait of how venomous ideology, backed by brute force, gradually infiltrates a seemingly enlightened society. Ample research informs her tale of Rachel’s coming of age — a severely embattled one, but not without its moments of hope and joy.”—Seven Days Vermont, “Page 32”

Historical fiction lovers will devour this novel in one sitting.”—Akron Today Magazine, “Fall Reading List”

The Magic of a Book Launch to Die for


large audience with speaker at front

Launch at Phoenix Books Burlington

Words I never thought I’d hear:  a call from Phoenix Books to say “Your book launch is sold out.  We can do standing room, but the 100 seats are sold.”  Not to mention “Your makeup person stopped by to wish you luck.”  I never had a makeup person before.  But I’d been working toward this night for 13 years, and I didn’t want the video to look amateurish.  As I slipped on my carefully chosen ivory silk shirt (over the most expensive bra I’d ever bought) and the mauve velvet jacket, I wondered if I could get through the evening without losing my voice to tears.  It had been a long haul.

As the friend who introduced me said, An Address in Amsterdam wasn’t a book that wrote itself.  Apart from facing the pain of the Holocaust and resistance in the Netherlands, an enormous amount of research was needed, first to understand the backdrop of the story, then to ensure that the plot and characters were realistic to the time, then to refine the details.  For example, what people ate was determined by supply, and by their access to ration coupons and the black market.  Even something as simple as a walk in the park was complicated for Jewish characters, who were banned from public spaces after a certain point.

When people started to arrive for the launch, my longtime partner and greatest supporter, Joanna, greeted them with an orange rose for the women (the Dutch color) and a white carnation for the men (the flower of resistance).  They descended the long open staircase to find me at the bottom, grinning so hard that my face ached.  Hug after hug followed.  All kinds of people came:  my old friend from Washington in the seventies, my faithful writing group, the mother of our fairy goddaughter, the indispensable editor from Our Bodies Ourselves, my hairdresser and her daughter, my full moon circle, colleagues, clients and former clients, neighbors, and most of all our friends from every walk of life.

Everything was in place and ready to be recorded by the first-class videographer Kenric Kite, who had worked with me before on “Anne Frank’s Neighbors:  What Did They Do?” and the brilliant photographer Karen Pike, who had done the author photograph I love.  Two stunning bouquets were on either side of the podium and book display:  bells of Ireland, snapdragons, lilies, delphinium, all in resplendent corals and golds and azure and green.  The room was abuzz, almost like a flock of birds on the lake during migration, everyone in communication.  Looking out over the crowd, I couldn’t believe what I saw:  chairs all the way to the edges of the room, with every visible seat filled except a few places in the front row, and all the way to the back.  People were standing and sitting on the stairs.  As the last details were ironed out, I chatted with the crowd a bit about the significance of the flowers.  When the bookstore manager signaled that we could start, I asked “Could someone please go and get Joanna?” and everyone laughed.  Hostess to the end, she was standing by her post.

Launch audience with Joanna photo

Photo by Karen Pike

Tod Gross, Phoenix Books’ manager, welcomed everyone, followed by Cheryl Herrick, who introduced me and mentioned a crucial moment in my early life.  I was standing in the schoolyard of Carr Junior High School in Durham, North Carolina on the day when the first African American student was to enter the school.  She was by herself, being jeered and taunted.  Would I collude with the others by minding my own business?  Would I add to their noise or tell them to stop?  Or would I stand beside her?  These are the same questions that An Address in Amsterdam explores, in a different place and time.

Maybe that’s what made me feel at home in Amsterdam, and in the terrible world of 1940-45:  the combination of great beauty and great suffering, and dilemmas where absolutely nothing is black and white, where there are often few good choices, and the examples of courage are rare but utterly remarkable.  As I spent hours in archives and museums and wandering the canals to find significant addresses on five long visits, the world of that time became clearer and clearer to me.  When I saw a photograph of trees whose limbs had all been amputated, for example, I said “Oh, it must have been during the Hunger Winter.”  Sure enough, the date was the terrible winter of 1944-45, when more than two thousand Amsterdammers starved to death, and there was no fuel to heat their homes.

As I read and spoke at the book launch, I tried to give people the feel of both aspects of An Address in Amsterdam:  the suffering of the characters and the city itself, but also their courage and resolve, their refusing to let themselves be completely robbed of love and beauty in their lives.  The heroine, Rachel, begins as a naïve 18 year old who doesn’t understand that she’s falling in love, but a year later she is already working for the underground and grows up very fast.  Although only a handful of people resisted as Rachel did, they deserve our respect for the risks they took, and their persistence even in the worst of circumstances.

Photo by Karen Pike

Photo by Karen Pike

In my research, I learned about more and more individuals who had been murdered:  80% of Jewish people in the city of Amsterdam, plus the resisters and others whom the Nazis hated.  I began to miss them.  I began to imagine them here and there, their fish stalls and doctor’s offices and cabarets and galleries and orchestras.  Part of my work was bringing them back to life, not just at the moment of deportation and death, but before that, when they were still struggling and loving and enjoying life.

The launch audience asked serious questions:  about the woman on the cover of the book, when I realized that it wasn’t enough to portray the suffering and mass murder, how I constructed scenes by getting “into” the characters, what it was like for me as a Gentile to write about a Jewish character, how people in the Netherlands might react to the book.  I answered for a while, then thanked everyone and asked them to please spread the word.  Every book had a flyer in it to suggest how to do that, as well as a stamped post card.  I closed with some thanks, and it was only then that I broke down, remembering my great friend Eliane Vogel Polsky, who was hidden in plain sight as a Belgian teenager, and was the midwife for this book.  She asked about it in our final conversation a year ago.

Mary and Eliane in Amsterdam, photo by Karen Pike

Mary and Eliane in Amsterdam, photo by Karen Pike

Upstairs, the line for book signing snaked along for what seemed like miles.  How I loved composing those inscriptions!  As I saw that I needed to speed up, I said “Someday I’ll just write ‘Best wishes’, but tonight I’m going to do it right.  These are my friends.”  Several people said “This is for my aunt,” “This is for my friend who’s in the hospital,” “This is for my daughter.”  I loved the feeling of the book going out and away in so many directions that I couldn’t even imagine.  Rachel, who represents so many young Jewish women who were killed, is alive and traveling.

The icing on the cake:  Tod, the bookstore manager, asked me how many books I thought we’d sold. “Forty,” I said optimistically.  “Ninety seven,” he said, “almost a book a person.  Some people bought multiple copies, but even so.  We never see that.  25% is what we expect, 50% is really good.”

I come from the maritime people of eastern Canada, so the metaphor of the launch appeals to me.  I’ll never go back to the shore of being a writer rather than an author.  Now I’m afloat, and so is my ship.  It has been built, plank by plank, from pieces gathered in many times and places.  The ship has slipped down the pathway made for it, and has splashed into the water, where it is swaying and eager for the sea.  Where it may go is a mystery.  My best hope is that the book will be taken seriously both as a good, deep story about a brave young Jewish woman, and as a warning about how quickly an open, liberal city can change.  When hatred and violence threaten, An Address in Amsterdam shows that anyone can take courageous action, in our own place and time.

The Brooklyn Book Festival Proves Reading is Alive!

It’s such a truism that people aren’t reading any more, and that the physical book is dying.  I don’t believe it — partly because the three littlest children I know love books more than almost anything.  Their favorite word after a story has been read is “AGAIN!”  I can’t believe that they won’t still be holding a book when they are grandmother-aged like me.

That apart, I just returned from the Brooklyn Book Festival, an extravaganza with hundreds of booths, dozens of workshops, and thousands of booklovers.  It was like eating ice cream all day.  When I approached the Belladonna booth, a young woman told me all about their feminist collective and the importance of women’s voices in literature.  I had to blink to be sure I wasn’t talking to my younger self.  The other (diverse) women at the booth were all under 30, and seemed just as thrilled as I was to be there.Brooklyn Book Festival crowd

The Festival was packed, in a good way. I couldn’t find this year’s attendance numbers, but the last count was 30,000.  Interspersed among what seemed like miles of booths were a few stages with bleachers or chairs facing them.  There was nearly always standing room – and the variety in the crowd really gave me hope.  It was nearly always a younger crowd with a few grey heads like mine interspersed rather than the reverse, more genders than we used to count, and lots of shades of human skins and beings.  Just seeing that rainbow gives me hope, especially at such a dire time in race relations and murders by police.

For me, the Festival was a landmark –  first time I’d ever been to an event like this as an author, not just as a reader.  I had the joy of walking around and talking with people who I know love books.  Yes, I asked them what they were displaying and why, what their favorites were, how the day was going.  But for the first time, I got to say “May I tell you about my book?  It’s An Address in Amsterdam, the story of a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the underground during World War II.  It’s coming out October 4 from She Writes Press.”  Almost everyone smiled and took a post card, usually with some positive comment.  Sometimes people who overhead asked for post cards, too!

The whole day was a love fest for people who love books.  The booths displayed exquisite letterpress editions, translations of books from a particular moment in France, books that cross the boundaries among the so-called “middle Eastern” nations, every kind of fiction and nonfiction (both pure and hybrid) imaginable.  The giants of the publishing industry were absent as far as I could see.  Everyone at a booth was from an independent bookstore, or a small or university press, or they were authors and publicists representing books directly.  All booklovers – the tribe I’ve belonged to more than any other since I was five years old.

My She Writes Press sisters had several booths, and I hope to be among them next year.  Here are Connie Hertzberg Mayo (The Island of Worthy Boys), Anjali Mutter Duva (Faint Promise of Rain) and Barbara Stark Nemon (Even in Darkness).  I read all of their books before coming, and can recommend each of them as a delicious experience for historical fiction readers — whether you are in 19th century Boston, 16th century India, or 20th century Europe.

Connie, Anjuli, Barbara at Brooklyn Book Fair

I was also happy to meet Sande Boritz Berger (The Sweetness, a Holocaust era novel which shows the intertwined fates of cousins on either side of the Atlantic) and Barbara Bracht Donsky (Veronica’s Grave, a powerful memoir about growing up without a mother).  Melissa Ray was there with a whole booth’s worth of Conjuring Casanova, a romp with a gorgeous cover of Venice.  Robert Soares of Booksparks also showed other She Writes books, including mine (!!) and Ginger McKnight-Chavers’ alluring new novel, In the Heart of Texas.

As I looked for a workshop site in neighborhood near the booths, I marveled at the Brooklyn rowhouses, so reminiscent of Amsterdam’s yet in a different color range, a rich, murky reddish brown.  Striding toward me were three women:  a tall, thin one with curly brown hair and two others wearing STAFF designations.  The first was Margaret Atwood, and I felt like a silly teenager gazing at her.  That’s a kind of gawking I can get into, as opposed to movie or TV stars who leave me unmoved.  I had already seen the line to get into the Atwood talk, and it circled around the block.  I instead chose a few events which probably wouldn’t attract the masses, the best being a panel on Inventing History in New Fiction (John Keene, Susan Daitch, Jeremy M. Davies, Christian Lorentzen).  Even that obscure subject in the first slot of the day drew a decent crowd.

My favorite “booth” was a van: Saint Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore and Textual Apothecary.  It’s stuffed with all kinds of works, and she traveled all the way from Montana to be in Brooklyn.  I bought Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and a book for my favorite three-year-old, spending the grand sum of $2.  But I’ll always remember Rita, and maybe one day, when I’m done promoting my own book, I’ll do just what she does. . .  There’s room for a van like hers on the east coast, I’m sure of it.  And the market will be there long after I’m gone.

Saint Rita at Brooklyn Book Festival

Russell Shorto Revisits Amsterdam

I wouldn’t think of plagiarizing the photo that sets the tone for Russell Shorto’s mouthwatering New York Times article, “Amsterdam Revisited.”  But I wish I could:  it’s taken at my favorite time of day, twilight, just as the lamps are lit, with the last glow of northern light gracing the venerable canalhouses and a boxy modern houseboat, just like our 2009 Amsterdam home.  Shorto’s history with Amsterdam is much deeper and longer than mine, and I always relish reading anything he writes.  Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is among my “must reads” for anyone who is about to visit.

As Shorto points out, it’s always the Golden Age in the central canals, where dreaming one’s way back to other centuries is just a matter of squinting a little, and focusing on the endless architectural details that distinguish the 1600s from other times.  The edges of the stone outside staircases are just as rounded as the shape of the canals themselves.  The ratio of window to brick seems inconceivable without the benefit of steel.  It’s hard to believe that those miles of relatively untouched canal houses are all supported on wooden stakes sunk into the ground by manpower alone.

Amsterdam Canal Houses

Amsterdam Canal Houses

Shorto moves beyond nostalgia skillfully, as he so often does, and touches on the paradox that the city is both the beneficiary and the victim of visitors from around the world, many of whom are not there to admire the architecture.  I’ve been in Amsterdam from January to June on five occasions since 2001.  The winter is best in every way.  I even love the darkness, the long nights and the chilly, often rainy days.  The city has a stillness at that time disturbed only on the weekend.  As one wanders the canals, candles are often lit even in the middle of the day in the cafés and restaurants, and early in the evening in private homes.  The gentle streetlights give an almost ethereal glow to the sidewalks and houses.

Spring Means Mobs

As tulip season approaches, it is as if human beings are poured out of some huge funnel and inserted in many streets in the center of the city.  Spring also means weddings, and in the last few years, the displays of British stag and hen parties have bloated like tumors.  Whole crowds of buddies invade, most with the goal of cramming as much debauchery and drinking as possible into a brief time.  Once universities are out, the sidewalks are mobbed, and the lines at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh require the patience of a tortoise.  I’ve always gone home right about then.

Like Venice, Amsterdam could sink under the weight of all this.

Apart from all the visitors, there’s population pressure both from those born Dutch, and those who are entitled to immigrate from the former Dutch colonies which provided so much of the wealth of the Golden Age.  Sheer numbers will change the character of a city that was only 734,000 when I first fell for it as if I were a teenager gawking at a movie idol.  Then I began learning so much more about the city, and discovered one of its shadow sides: the Holocaust of almost three-quarters of the Dutch Jewish people, and how that could possibly happen in “the world’s most liberal city.”  But that’s another story.

Kudos to Shorto for his tribute both to Amsterdam’s past, and a glimpse of the changes that already are and those which may be ahead.

A Long Labor: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

Rhodea Shandler’s A Long Labor:  A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir is a treasure.

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

When I first began to learn about the Holocaust and resistance in the Netherlands, I expected the stories to be grisly and the heroes to be larger than life.  Very few stories have a happy ending in that time, and even those that do involve loss, terror and many shades of grey.  And yet.  There’s inspiration to be gleaned by seeing that ordinary people acted with courage, and that they were human, too, sometimes failing to do what they knew they should.

Rhodea Shandler faced many of the same dilemmas as the fictional characters in my historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the Resistance.  Rhodea gets pregnant while in hiding on a farm, and the formerly welcoming hosts freeze her out emotionally and practically (less food under worse conditions).  Only because another Jewish woman in hiding with the same family is a nurse does she successfully deliver her baby in breech position, of course with no anesthetic or proper sanitation.  Similarly, when my novel opens, my heroine Rachel is making a delivery to a wardrobe full of hidden Jewish people in a basement.  They all crush in together as the police raid the house.  Rachel feels another woman’s rounded tummy mashed against hers, and wordlessly learns that she’s pregnant, and of course it must be a secret.  The hazards of the noise of childbirth, much less a baby itself, were more than most hosts could take on – especially given that they were already risking deportation, execution, imprisonment and/or torture.

Like many Jewish people who survived the Holocaust, Rhodea did not feel compelled to record her story until very late in life, and in fact died in 2006 just before this book was published.  She takes us through the warning phase before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, when the small NSB (Dutch Nazi Party) was still being seen as innocuous:

“Since Holland was a democracy, the NSB had the right to try to influence the people by means of rallies, hate mail, newspaper articles and so on.  Initially, most Dutch people just made jokes about them.  It was such a small party that it did not seem strong enough to make trouble.  We knew they were there, but we thought they were ineffectual. . . What could we possibly have to fear?”     Page 52

In fact, it was the NSB and their followers who beat up on the Jewish community after the Nazis invaded, far more than the German soldiers.  They were under strict orders to behave properly toward their Aryan brothers – a situation which changed radically after many Dutch made it clear that they regarded the Germans as oppressors.

Although Rhodea was never in the resistance, her perspective fascinates me as that of a young Jewish woman, and one who survived the war in hiding.  Her story is different from the Amsterdam situation with which I am more familiar, because she lived in the small northern city of Leeuwarden, where the Jewish population was virtually exterminated.  Although she moved several times from one hiding place to another, Rhodea was not betrayed by her hosts, only treated badly when she was pregnant.  She herself understands why her situation terrified them.  Again and again, she shows what a big heart and compassionate perspective she has.

However, a moment arrives when she does something that haunts her forever.  She was working with mental patients at the Jewish asylum at Apeldoorn, where the staff had advance warning to get out.  Her husband spoke to her by telephone and insisted that she leave immediately.  After helping some of the patients prepare to evacuate, Rhodea decides that it is time to save herself, even though other staff are remaining.  She takes off her Jewish star, dresses in street clothes, and leaves her identification behind.  Her colleagues are angry:

 “They looked at me as a traitor; they were so dedicated to their work. . . I probably would have stayed too if my husband hadn’t been so adamant on the phone that I come home.  I knew I had to look after myself first.  It had really come to that point.”  page 80

Her agony is compounded when she encounters some of the patients already wandering around the town as she heads for the train station.  They of course recognize her as she shoos them away, an action which haunts her for years.  “Was I a deserter?” she asks herself, even knowing that staff and patients were all seized and deported a few hours after she left.  There were no survivors.

I’d read about the horrors of persecuting and exterminating the residents of this asylum and their caregivers, although this is the first time I’ve read a first person account.  The situation appears in my novel because my heroine’s father is a physician who had recently admitted a patient there.  When he hears of the Nazi raid,

His conscience was wracked by the thought of all those unstable people being subjected to even more terror. “Just before we came here, I had a man who attempted suicide admitted there. He was a peddler who couldn’t support his family anymore because of the Nazis.” He shook his head, looking like an old man who doesn’t understand the world anymore. 

Like Rhodea, An Address’s heroine, Rachel Klein, comes to the point where she must save herself and her family – but by then she has done months of work for the underground.  She is tired and terrified, and something happens which is a last straw for her.  Even knowing that she had to do what she did, both the real Rhodea and the fictional Rachel are haunted by saving themselves, a particular kind of survivor guilt.  They also respond to their persecution and predicament as Anne Frank did, by becoming more broad-minded and humanitarian.  Rhodea puts it beautifully:

“Even now, the knowledge that all our loved ones, friends, family and everyone who suffered in concentration camps and jails did not survive their ordeal makes me jump out of bed in the middle of the night with tears running down my cheeks.  although it was 60 years ago that all this happened, even now it is unclear to me why the Jews were so hated and even nowadays continue to be persecuted in certain groups.

“It causes me to try to be benevolent and understanding, and to avoid confrontation or judgment of others who are different from me.  This is the only light that I see now.” 

For more information about the book, click here.