Review | Dutch diaries record wartime life, and challenge a national myth

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By Amit


“Lie and deceit, Judaism and capitalism are going to get their comeuppance. The genius of Adolf Hitler will crush them,” Amsterdam police inspector Douwe Bakker crowed to his diary in May 1940, as the Germans bombarded his country. A longtime member of the Dutch Nazi Party (NSB), Bakker was soon appointed to a special police unit investigating enemies of the German occupation of the Netherlands. In February 1941, when more than 300,000 Dutch citizens staged a two-day work stoppage to protest the first roundups and deportations of Jews — celebrated now as the only popular protest by non-Jews anywhere in Europe against the persecution of Jews during the war years — Bakker couldn’t wait to get his hands on the strikers. “Now the games against the scoundrels can begin,” he wrote.

Eighteen volumes of Bakker’s diary — nearly 3,300 pages, embellished with photographs of Nazi rallies and clippings from propaganda papers — are housed in Amsterdam in the basement of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, an archive created immediately after the war to document the brutal occupation. “History cannot be written on the basis of official decisions and documents alone,” Gerrit Bolkestein, a minister of the Dutch government in exile in London, announced on the radio in the spring of 1944, calling on citizens to contribute “ordinary documents” to the historical record — especially diaries. One person listening was Anne Frank, who responded to Bolkestein’s address by rewriting the diary she had been keeping for nearly two years in hiding, transforming idiosyncratic private notebooks into the polished, mature text of witness that we know today. Others were grocers, tram conductors and artists, with nothing in common other than the understanding that they were living through history. Some, like Bakker, had been keeping diaries since the Germans first arrived; others started to record their thoughts for the first time after hearing Bolkestein’s speech. Eventually, the archive would include the work of more than 2,000 diarists.

Nina Siegal, an expat American Jew living in Amsterdam for more than a decade, got a glimpse of the diaries while on assignment for the New York Times. Troubled by the tension between the general perception that the Dutch largely resisted the Nazis and the disastrous fate of the country’s Jews — around three-quarters of them were murdered in the Holocaust, a larger share than in any other Western European country — Siegal looked to the archive for an answer. “It’s important not to read history backwards,” advised Judith Cohen, the director of the photography archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, cautioning Siegal to avoid projecting contemporary knowledge on the events of the past. The diaries, Siegal realized, offered a way “to read history forward … day by day, moment by moment.”

In “The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It,” Siegal intersperses artfully selected and translated excerpts from nine of those diaries with interludes in which she explores larger ideas they raise, allowing the diarists to speak in their own voices while offering the necessary background to place them in context. (The book expands upon a New York Times feature she published a few years ago.) The result constitutes both a dynamic new way of narrating the history of the Netherlands during the war and an important correction to the popular mythology.

Siegal has arranged the diaries so that the writers offer glimpses of the same situation from different perspectives, sometimes giving the illusion that they are in conversation with one another. When the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a yellow star, Elisabeth van Lohuizen, a non-Jewish shopkeeper in the village of Epe who would soon develop a local network of safe houses for Jews, feared the risk taken by her son in joining the small number of non-Jews who wore the star in protest; meanwhile, Bakker chortled over arresting a “joker” caught while doing so. A few months later, after deportations of Jews began in earnest, van Lohuizen wondered how the Nazi sympathizers felt in the face of the Jews’ misery. An answer comes, indirectly, from the diary of Inge Jansen, the socialite wife of an NSB official: She didn’t mention the events at all, recording only her lunch engagements and other trivialities.

Perhaps because Frank’s voice has been so prominent, Siegal has chosen not to focus on the experiences of Jews in hiding, who were a minority; the vast majority of Dutch Jews were rounded up from their homes and deported to extermination camps. In a diary written in the form of letters to her future husband, who had already emigrated to Palestine, Mirjam Levie, a young secretary with the Amsterdam Jewish Council, recorded the response of her bosses as the Nazis began deporting Jews en masse. Historians and others have been sharply critical of the council for cooperating with the Nazis rather than resisting and for attempting to protect their own employees and other privileged Jews from deportation. Levie — who saved her letters by hiding them in a swimsuit tote — reveals exactly how painful those deliberations could be.

Along with nearly all the Jews left in Amsterdam, Levie was picked up in a massive raid in June 1943 that was witnessed by several of Siegal’s diarists. Peeking out of a train car designed to hold horses, Levie could see people “standing on the roofs of their houses, with binoculars, watching us go. A fine spectacle indeed!” Bakker, out that morning to buy strawberries, expressed only annoyance at the many road closures. Perhaps the most chilling account of the raid comes from Cornelis Komen, a salesman who happened to be heading to the countryside for the day to pick cherries. “Many people on the train don’t even know what’s going on in Amsterdam,” he wrote. “The Jews are herded together like cattle. Carrying their bundles on their backs. . . . Parting from their familiar living rooms, their friends and acquaintances. While we are eating cherries, one basket after another.”

Bolkestein hoped that the papers collected would represent the Dutch “struggle for freedom … in its full depth and glory.” Siegal is gentle but unsparing in pointing out that the truth is more equivocal. Her clearsighted analysis allows room for complications of its own. Bakker, on trial after the war, claimed that his diary — which was presented as evidence — didn’t accurately represent his thoughts at the time. Though Siegal assumes this is a defensive strategy, she comes to appreciate its logic: The “persona” of a diary is often not exactly equivalent to the identity of the writer. “The diary becomes a world in which the diarist lives,” a scholar tells her.

During that June 1943 raid, a photographer took pictures of a crowd waiting to be deported. Though he was a Nazi sympathizer who meant for his photographs to reveal the degradation of the Jews, they are now treasured as the final portraits of people on the road to death. The square where the Jews assembled now holds a haunting memorial in the form of asphalt reproductions of the shadows where they once stood. It’s a poignant metaphor for Siegal’s own sense that she is “walking around in a void” — a nation in which an entire ethnic group was all but wiped out, while the complicity of their neighbors in their extermination has yet to be fully examined. “They say that the Dutch Jews are still in hiding,” a friend tells her. This book is an important step in bringing them out.

Ruth Franklin is the author of “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.” She is at work on a biography of Anne Frank for the Yale Jewish Lives series.

World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

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