Tag Archives: Jewish people in hiding

Anne Frank’s Birthday: What Do We Say?

The birthday of Anne Frank was June 12, 1929, which means she was just eleven years old when the Nazis invaded Amsterdam, the “safe” place to which she and her family had fled.  Understandably, her parents made the decisions about when and how the family went into hiding.  In contrast, when I began imagining the heroine of An Address in Amsterdam, I wanted her to be old enough to create her own life, even under the Nazis.  At 18, she could make an independent choice to join the underground.  During the 13 years it took me to research and write the book, I avoided re-reading Anne’s Diary because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by it.  But I remembered our first meeting vividly, even so.

Anne Frank smiling

When I was ten or eleven years old, I took The Diary of a Young Girl to my favorite place to read in our tiny duplex apartment in Durham, North Carolina.  It was a hall closet which lost half its space to the hot water heater, but that meant it was always warm.  I’d found a bathmat to put on the floor and brought an extra pillow with me.  Although the light wasn’t excellent, it gave me solitude and an environment so neutral that I could journey deeply into my book.

Anne Frank gives little description of Amsterdam, and in any case I couldn’t have imagined a city with canals instead of streets, and the vocabulary of its rows of centuries-old, handcrafted houses was still unknown to me.  But, as I burrowed into my closet, I entered every other aspect of her world:  the hideous Mrs. van Dam, the wondrous beauty of Peter, the cruel shrew who was her mother, her kind and virtuous father.  I recognized her parents particularly, bifurcated into the contemptible female and the saintly male, and my heart bled for her.  To be confined that way! To have to tiptoe, not be able to flush the toilet during the day, to live with constant fear of discovery.  Anne felt like prey.  One day, I would understand that, too.

 

The more I read, the more I couldn’t bear to lose Anne.  Her story couldn’t end badly, could it?  Anne Frank was too bright, too witty, too good a writer, too wise beyond her years, to die.  She’d escape out a back window with a handsome Gentile boy even nicer than Peter who’d always admired her, wouldn’t she?  I was used to fiction, not history, and I probably didn’t know about the Holocaust until after I finished the Diary.  When I got to the end and learned that Anne had died at Auschwitz, I was devastated.  None of my peers in the human world meant nearly as much to me as she did.  Anne was like me: she felt things deeply, she adored her father as much as she hated her mother, she was already passionately attached to Peter, and books and writing were her mainstays.

It was the first time I loved a ghost, but not the last.

A Hidden Jewish Child’s Story Meets Mine

In the 13 years it took to research and write my historical novel An Address in Amsterdam, I could not have imagined the meeting which took place in Philadelphia on Sunday evening, with a man who had been a hidden Jewish child.  The setting was a reader’s paradise:  the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, a community institution which has shelves to the rafters and loads of activities for everyone in the neighborhood.  Just before my event, a group had been making Valentines on the large mezzanine which overlooks the main floor of the store.

Mr. Vega hidden with his "brother" 1944

Mr. Vega hidden with his “brother” 1944

I’m standing at the top of the steep staircase to greet people as they arrive.  An older man comes up first, followed by a woman about his age and a younger couple.  When I apologize for the sharp incline, the younger man chuckles and says, “These steps are nothing to the Dutch.”  He cocks his head toward the older man, who turns out to be his father-in-law, Lex Vega.

I take Mr. Vega’s warm hand.  His eyes are vibrant and liquid, his gaze almost affectionate, his smile glowing and contagious.  Because of an illness, he has difficulty speaking, but we are in immediate and real communication even so.  The son-in-law continues, “He comes from Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam.”

“Of course!” I say.  “The beautiful Sephardic Jewish cemetery is there.”  It’s a place I love, and an important scene in my novel took place there.

Mr. Vega’s eyebrows shoot up, and he speaks.  His wife and daughter help me understand.  “I was born in the house right beside the cemetery, and lived there until I had to go into hiding.”

“But I know the house!  I know exactly where you mean.”  I could see it, just on the edge of the cemetery grounds.  Nearby, the large blue stone gravestones incised with Hebrew letters have stood for centuries.

The son-in-law added, “The family lived openly as Jews well into the war, because his father was the guardian and buried the bodies.  But eventually they had to hide.”

Mr. Vega interjected, and this time I thought I understood.  “Someone warned you?”

He nodded.  Soon Mrs. Vega was by our side, saying she’d read the book.  I asked her what she thought of it, and she said, “Of course we know the story.”  She paused.  “The book was real.”

Even though I had to focus on the reading, I was remembering a spring day, probably in 2002, when I, like my heroine Rachel Klein, needed a break.  Day after day, I had been studying how the Nazis carried out their diabolical work in the Netherlands.  The horror of it was in my body and mind like a fever, and I had to get away from it.  Because I love walking by rivers, I decided to follow the Amstel in the direction of Ouderkerk.  Maybe I’d get there, maybe not.

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael

My mood lightened as I slipped out of the city, and buildings gave way to freshly mown pastures.  Dots of yellow flowers poked up here and there.  The river glittered in the surprisingly consistent sun.  I stopped for an old cheese sandwich in an ancient café, and paid homage to a gigantic statue of Rembrandt.  By late afternoon, I arrived in Ouderkerk, a picturesque village built right up to the water.  Wandering along its lanes, I spotted a cemetery with an iron fence around it.  The large flat stones seemed to call me in.  A sign told me where I was:  the Sephardic Jewish cemetery.  It took my breath away.  No matter where I went, the stories of the Jewish people of Amsterdam would find me.  Whatever was guiding me into those stories was gently sending me back to my job.  What was that force?  Something within me, some long buried truths that needed to emerge?  The spirits of the dead, or what the indigenous people call Great Heart?  I don’t know how to name that force, but some people call it G-d.

All this came into my mind as I spoke with Mr. Vega.  The next day, he sent me his story, able to communicate much more fully by e-mail.  It turns out that his parents made no proactive effort to evade deportation.  Instead, a woman who worked with the Resistance, Mrs. Catherina Klumper, pushed them to let her hide first Mr. Vega’s grandmother, then himself at age five and his younger sister, and ultimately the rest of the family.  Mr. Vega was placed with a loving Catholic couple, first in Arnhem and then in Friesland after the battle of the “bridge too far.”

I could still see the kindness of Theo and Bets van Heukelom in Mr. Vega’s open face.  He called them Aunt and Uncle, and enjoyed the company of an older “brother” Theo as well.  Unusually, Mr. Vega stayed with the same family throughout the war – and even more unusually, his entire nuclear family survived, and they were reunited.  The whole town welcomed them back, and returned all the goods which were in safekeeping.  The Vegas were literally the only Jewish family in Ouderkerk, and were liked and respected.

After a few visits following the war and Uncle’s death in 1946, the families lost touch.  It always bothered Mr. Vega, and in 2013 his wife persuaded him to make a real effort to find whatever remained of his war family.  More than sixty years had passed.  Here’s what he writes:

I began to call everybody in the Dutch phonebook with Uncle’s name, “van Heukelom” or Aunt’s family name “Bindels.”  Every time, after I had introduced myself, they told me that they did not know what I was talking about.   But after fifteen calls, I got Theo on the line.  How did I know that it was him?  He reacted spontaneously with an immediate answer:  “Oh, my little brother in the war!”  This was one of the most heart-warming experiences I ever had.  Not only had I now rediscovered the family of Uncle and Aunt, but he called me his brother!  So it was really true that I belonged to their family!

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his "brother" Theo in 2015

The once hidden Mr. Vega and his “brother” Theo in 2015

 

Not only did they reestablish contact, but Mr. Vega went through all the necessary processes to give his Aunt and Uncle the Yad Vashem honor for Righteous Gentiles.  The ceremony was held in Ouderkerk last year, and he was able to acknowledge them publicly and say, “I was very well taken care of with affection and with respect for my Jewish identity.”  If only it had been that way for every hidden child.

So here’s where Mr. Vega’s story and mine intersected, as we stood at the head of the stairs together.  For reasons I’ll never fully understand, it became my task and honor to remember and write about the Jewish people of Amsterdam.  His duty was to loop back after decades and to acknowledge the kindness of his war family.  And perhaps to let me know that, even though I was born after the war, even though I’m neither Jewish nor Dutch, my book somehow holds some of the stories.  Especially of those who will never rest in the beautiful cemetery in Ouderkerk, or any other.

 

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 Dutch thought it couldn’t happen there, too

Marcher places flowers at Amsterdam's Auschwitz memorial

Marcher places flowers at Amsterdam’s Auschwitz memorial

The New York Times reports that the Dutch are constructing a memorial wall and Holocaust museum in Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter because memory is fading or inaccurate – despite the worldwide readership of The Diary of Anne Frank.  There is so much more to the story than one brilliant child writer’s account, despite her humanitarianism and universal appeal.

Historians have grappled endlessly with the question of how and why one of the most tolerant nations in the world allowed almost three-quarters of its Jewish population to be murdered.  It’s especially ironic since the Netherlands was a refuge for Jewish people since the Spanish Inquisition.

While the answers to “Why?” are many and complex, a primary one is that the Dutch believed it couldn’t happen there, even after the Nazi invasion.  The Jewish people had been assimilated for centuries, in professions from symphony conductors to medicine and art, shopkeeping, peddling, diamond cutting and trading.  The head of the Dutch Supreme Court was Jewish.  It was preposterous to think that people so integral to society at every level could be isolated and shipped off somewhere.  Much less murdered.  No matter what the Germans were doing in their own country, it couldn’t happen in the Netherlands.  Dutch people wouldn’t allow that.

Hiding was the best policy

Nor was it only the Dutch Gentiles who believed this. In doing the research for my historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, I learned that many Jewish people themselves refused to believe that persecution would turn into isolation, much less deportation and mass murder. At each step – registration, identity cards, restricted travel and business, stars, even deportation – some people continued to rationalize the Nazis’ actions.  Others, like my fictional heroine, resisted.  Only one Jew in seven hid, which turned out to be the best way to survive the war other than pre-emptive escape.  Dutch Jewish citizens felt a misplaced confidence in their country and countrymen – much like the confidence many in the U.S. are feeling now, as we complacently believe that Donald Trump can’t win.  Instead, we hear more and more hate rhetoric aimed at Muslims, refugees, and undocumented workers and their families.  What can we do to provide them with the protection which the Dutch failed to give the Jewish part of their people?

What are we refusing to believe in 2016? 

Donald Trump says we should bar members of one religion, Muslims, from entering our country, targeting them in a way that violates the core American value of religious freedom.  He wants to build a wall to keep out the citizens of a particular nation, again singling out a group of people rather than judging them as individuals.  This is directly contrary to the lessons of the Holocaust.

Fortunately, one of these is that resistance can have some effectiveness, even in the very worst situation – especially when it happens broadly and quickly as a unified action (as in Denmark).  We live in a democracy where we can work to ensure that Trump does not get into office.  Even if Hillary Clinton were a far less progressive candidate than she is, we should still work as hard as we can to elect her – persuading not only the lukewarm voters, but those who, like me, supported Bernie Sanders.  If we believe not just in him as an individual, but in what he stands for, we have no choice but to learn the lessons of history.  Let’s stand beside him and work for Hillary.