Tag Archives: An Address in Amsterdam

The February Strike, Resisting Then & Now

Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, but far fewer are aware of the February Strike, the only general strike in Western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people.  Seventy-six years ago this week, an incredible 300,000 Dutch citizens poured into the streets of Amsterdam.  Many remained there even after the Germans deployed the SS and the police. The Strike is commemorated every year with a few eloquent words and thousands of flowers at the foot of the Dockworker, the symbolic statue of the Strike.  He stands right where the first roundup of 425 Jewish men took place.  Because of my long stays in Amsterdam researching the Holocaust and resistance, I always write my friends on this date to remind them of the Strike anniversary.

This year, my gesture of remembrance feels different.  The inspiring aspects of the story are still there:  masses of largely non-Jewish people responded with outrage to the roundup of their fellow citizens.  Organized by the communists, the Strike began at the docks and spread to the trams.  Soon, all kinds of people were marching and singing.  The Germans were astonished:  they never expected their Aryan brothers to stand up for the Jews.  Even when the Nazis threatened municipal workers with firing, many stayed on the streets.  In Dutch fashion, the strikers did obey a newly imposed curfew, but were back the next day.

Here’s the catch:  the February Strike was only a great moment.  Just 20% of Amsterdam’s Jewish people survived the war – even though many had been there for centuries, and were fully assimilated into Dutch society, or so they thought.  Some survivors look back at the Strike as the one time they felt fully supported.  But the German reaction was so severe with the police and the SS that it warned the general population never to try anything like the Strike again.  A handful of people began underground activities to resist the Nazis anyway, like the woman pictured in the Resistance Museum below, or the fictional heroine of An Address in Amsterdam.  However, with hindsight we see how tiny that group was compared to those who minded their own business, or who actively collaborated.

Despite the differences between our times and Amsterdam in 1941, the parallels are disheartening.  Refugees and minorities (religious and otherwise) are being targeted for both state-sponsored persecution and for individual bullying and worse. Permission is in the air, justified because “they” are a threat to “us.”  The press is under attack as an enemy of the people.  Obvious lies spurt daily from the White House.  The most obvious parallel between 1941 and now is the quandary of people who disagree with the government:  do we keep our heads down and thus collude?  Do we collaborate and profit as we can?  Or do we resist – and what exactly does that mean?

Like the February strikers, many gathered strength from Women’s Marches around the country – from the sheer numbers, the witty pink hats, the creative signs and the cheerful determination.  Now, fortunately, we are in a very different position than the 1941 strikers.  No one has invaded our country.  The Marches were peaceful, and no one is in jail or deported as a result.  Only 22% of eligible voters elected our current President.  A plurality went for Clinton.  Mid-term elections are coming up in only two years.  If the people who let Trump be elected the first time work to get out the vote, we can get the balance of power between Congress and the President working again.  

In the meantime, we can organize locally for causes we believe in. Those who are able can donate to organizations fighting the Administration in the courts and elsewhere.  We can take to the streets at the right moments, to bolster our spirits and remind ourselves how numerous and persistent we are.  Perhaps most importantly, we can meet hatred with peace, beginning with our own speech and actions.  As tempting as it is to demonize people with whom we disagree profoundly, it is the path of Hitler, of Stalin, of slave owners and tyrants since time immemorial.

We can gum up the works, calling and writing and making outrageous art and being visible.  We can spread factual facts through social and other media.  We can align ourselves with vulnerable people, asking how we can walk beside them.  Most of all, we have to keep our spirits up.  Some of us have given decades of our lives to certain causes, and it’s depressing to see them undermined or worse.  The erosion of the most fundamental American values and political practices is disheartening at best.  But our years of struggle taught us how to fight, and we haven’t forgotten.

This year, the February Strike reminds us that it’s always possible to be just as brave as the strikers were.  We can resist for more than a moment.  To return to the story everyone knows, Anne Frank has the last word:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Now it’s our turn.

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.

 

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.

 

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.