Reading history forwards
Jews in the Netherlands suffered catastrophically during the Holocaust. Can the diaries of their neighbors help explain their fate?
“The Dutch saved most of their Jews, didn’t they?” This question came from a guest at a dinner before a lecture I gave earlier this year, after I mentioned my research about Anne Frank. All eyes turned expectantly to me. “Well … ,” I stalled, wanting to correct the record but uneasy about rebuking a stranger. “It’s a bit more complicated.”
I’ve heard versions of this question from many people over the past few years. Perhaps in part because of the remarkable popularity of Anne Frank’s diary, readers tend to assume that many Jews in the Netherlands were hidden by non-Jews.But the truth is more disturbing. Around 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered by the Nazis—the highest death rate anywhere in Western Europe. For a comparison: 25 percent of French Jews and 40 percent of Belgian Jews were murdered.
Explanations for how this happened range from the geography of the Netherlands—a low-lying country, bordered by Germany, that lacks forested or mountainous regions where Jews could have hidden—to the Dutch culture of obedience and faith in bureaucracy: when the Nazis told Jews to register with the authorities in 1941, they largely did, supplying their persecutors with a ready-made list of names and addresses. Still, as journalist Nina Siegal discovered when she moved to Amsterdam more than a decade ago, in many ways the Dutch have not fully reckoned with their complicity in the genocide of the Jews who lived among them, preferring a national mythology that stresses heroism and resistance.
As my readers know, in March 1944 a Dutch minister of culture made a speech on the radio asking citizens to preserve documents of the war years for a future national archive. After Anne Frank heard him, she began revising her diary with an eye to its publication. But she wasn’t the only one: the fledgling institute ultimately collected more than two thousand diaries. In addition to Jews in hiding, like Anne, and prisoners at Westerbork, such as Etty Hillesum and journalist Philip Mechanicus, the writers included grocers, shop clerks, tram conductors, policemen, artists—people with nothing in common other than the sense that they were living through history.
In her new book, The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, As Written by the People Who Lived Through It, Siegal curates a selection of these diaries—by Jews, Nazi sympathizers, resistance workers, and bystanders—to tell the story of the Holocaust in the Netherlands through the voices of ordinary people. (My review for The Washington Post is here.) The technique allows her, as she puts it, to “read history forwards,” deriving meaning from the overlaps and juxtapositions of these accounts as well as their omissions.
In general, published diaries tend to focus on the exemplary, offering inspirational models for how to live. The voices of villains are ones we don’t usually hear, but they too have a lot to teach us. I was fascinated by Siegal’s inclusion of Nazi voices—in particular that of police chief Douwe Bakker, a longtime member of the Dutch Nazi Party who rose in the ranks of the police force under the occupation. “Lie and deceit, Judaism and capitalism are going to get their comeuppance. The genius of Adolf Hitler will crush them,” he crowed to his diary as the Nazis marched in.
But for me, the most haunting lines came from Cornelis Komen, a salesman who happened to be heading to the countryside to pick cherries on a beautiful spring day in June 1944 when the Nazis staged a massive roundup, seizing most of the Jews who remained in Amsterdam. “Many people on the train don’t even know what’s going on in Amsterdam,” he wrote.
The last Jews are being rounded up. Herded together and taken away like cattle. From hearth and home to foreign parts. First, they’re taken to Vught [a Dutch concentration camp],then they’re transported to Poland—oh, the misery these people must be going through. Separated from their wives and children. They may not be a pleasant people, but they’re still human beings….
The Jews are herded together like cattle. Carrying their bundles on their backs. Their blankets. They packed their things days in advance. Still, how hard their departure must have been. Parting from their familiar living rooms, their friends and acquaintances. While we are eating cherries, one basket after another.
They may not be a pleasant people, but they’re still human beings. Even after having read it many times, that line still stops me cold. Still, despite his antisemitism, Komen couldn’t quite wrap his head around the disparity between his experience and the Jews’. One group of people torn from their homes, friends, families; the other eating cherries, one basket after another.
What I’m reading, etc.
My Robert Caro project has been an even more rewarding reading experience than I expected. I’m now about two-thirds of the way through The Path to Power, the first of Caro’s volumes about LBJ. I just finished “The Sad Irons,” an extraordinary chapter about the extremely hard conditions for farmers—especially women—in the Hill Country before LBJ brought electricity to the region. As I pointed out on Twitter, Caro depended on his wife, Ina, to win the farm women’s trust and hear their stories.
I should finish on schedule by the end of March and pick up with volume 2, Means of Ascent, at the beginning of April. Please join me!
From David Enzel, who writes the useful Substack Holocaust News, I learned about this new documentary about Adolf Eichmann. I’m interested in watching it—has anyone seen it? Let me know in the comments.
Every biography is a work of artifice—it creates a narrative out of life, which is messy, unpredictable, contradictory, and mostly private. I’m interested in biographies that not only acknowledge but engage with that tension, that probe archival gaps rather than seek to cover them over, and that make clear that theirs is only one version of events.
Where I’ll be
On March 27, I’m interviewing Devoney Looser about her book, Sister Novelists: The Trailblazing Porter Sisters, Who Paved the Way for Austen and the Brontës. But I’m definitely also going to ask about her roller derby name, which is Stone Cold Jane Austen. We’ll be at NYPL and on livestream; (free) tickets here.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are considered, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
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Of course, as we know, Anne and her family weren’t saved, but they were sustained in hiding for over two years by non-Jewish friends.
Komen was wrong about this. Almost all Dutch Jews were first taken to the transit camp Westerbork before being deported to Poland (or, in exceptional cases, elsewhere).