Tag Archives: women in the resistance

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 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.

 

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.

 

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.