Sunday, February 26, 2023

Books: Nina Siegal On "The Diary Keepers" Who Chronicled World War II In The Netherlands


The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

By Nina Siegal

Ecco; hardcover, 304 pages; $29.99

Nina Siegal is a journalist who has worked for the New York Times as a writer for the City section covering Harlem and The Bronx, as well as The Wall Street Journal and The Economist, among other outlets; and a novelist who has authored two books, A Little Trouble with the Facts and The Anatomy Lesson. Siegal is also a doctoral candidate in the Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory, and Material Culture at the University of Amsterdam. She received a 2021 Writing Creative Non-Fiction Grant.

Siegal's first nonfiction book is The Diary Keepers, and it is a compelling look at the story of World War II and the Holocaust told through the diaries of Dutch citizens in firsthand accounts of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

There are select writings drawn from a collection of more than two thousand Dutch diaries written during World War II and maintained by devoted archivists. They reveal a part of history that has not been seen in quite this way before, as there are stories of a police officer with Nazi sympathies and a Jewish journalist who documented daily activities at a transport camp.

Nina Siegal. Photo credit: Stuart Acker Holt.

Siegal's family survived the Holocaust in Europe, and she has always wondered about how regular people experienced World War II. She had heard stories of the war as a child and Anne Frank's diary, but the tales were all told as moral lessons, including to never waste food, to be grateful for all you receive, and to hide your silver; or told with punch line. Details of the past were not told in an effort to make assimilate easier into American life.

"When I was a girl, my grandfather Emerich would drive his silver Pacer over to our house in Long Island from Sunnyside, Queens, to take my brother, David, and me out to lunch," Siegal writes. "David's favorite spot was McDonald's on Northern Boulevard and mine was Friendly's on our town's main street, a kind of all-purpose American diner with bouncy leather seats. We'd alternate. Even weeks, McDonald's and odd weeks, Friendly's.

"As with all good rituals, there was a catchphrase. Before we would step out of the Pacer and into the parking lot, Grandpa Emerich would turn to the back seat, narrowing his eyes. 'Now, you can order whatever you'd like,' he'd say with a mischievous glint in his clear blue eyes, 'but if you don't finish it, I'm going to shove it down your throat with a rolling pin.'

"Even as we laughed nervously, we knew this joke had an indestructible core. Wasting food wasn't an option for Siegal kids, no matter where we ended up dining in junk-food America. A form of explanation would often arrive later, while we were seated at a sticky table fishing out the last greasy crisps of our fries.

"'When I was in the camps,' grandpa would start...What followed might be a story about covering a hunk of bread in his pocket for days, and rationing it to himself over time to stave off hunger. Or how one could sip a watery soup slowly to make it more filling.

"These narratives perplexed me, as a ten-year-old girl growing up on Long Island, because the world 'camp' only conjured images of joyful canoe rides and marshmallows melting the Hershey's on s'mores...

"As I grew older, I accepted more easily that there were certain questions you didn't ask; or if you did, you couldn't expect an answer. Although I adored my grandfather, I saw that there was an ocean that divided us. His life had been back there in the 'Old Country,' across the Atlantic, a place that seemed to me to contain innumerable, unimaginable horrors. Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Germany, to my mind, were nightmare places of forced labor, prison, random arrest, the Jewish camp guards known as Kapos, and the SS. I didn't know what all of these words meant, but they inspired fear. Nevertheless, I was assured that all of that was over."

These questions, driven by a quest to find out about what Emerich lived through, came up again when Siegal moved to Amsterdam as an adult. She was confronted by another one, which was: why did seventy five percent of the Dutch Jewish community perish in the war, while in older Western European countries the proportions were significantly lower? How did this square with the Dutch resistance narratives she heard about and in what way did it relate to the famed tolerance that was talked about by people in the Netherlands? Most important to her was, how could she raise a Jewish child in this country without knowing the answers?

Siegal pored over the diaries of ordinary citizens to understand the nature of resistance, the workings of memory, and the ways we reflect on, commemorate, and re-envision the past.

In her deep research, Siegal discovered that Dutch officials were aware that a record of what the people went through during World War II should be preserved, as she writes in this excerpt: "On March 28, 1944, the crackling voice of Gerrit Bolkestein, Dutch minister of education, arts, and sciences, came across the airwaves from London on Radio Oranje, the broadcast station for the government in exile. Ten months earlier, everyone but Dutch National Socialists and other German sympathizers had been forced to turn in their radio sets, under threat of punishment. But lots of people kept a hidden device, and on this occasion, those who had them huddled around their illegal transmitters in closets or attics by the back door of the barn to listen:

'History cannot be written on the basis of official decisions and documents alone,' Bolkestein told his listeners, who'd spent nearly four years living under German occupying forces. 'If our descendants are to understand fully what we as a nation have had to endure and overcome during these years, then what we really need are ordinary documents - a diary, letters.'

He urged Dutch citizens to preserve their personal journals and other intimate correspondence that conveyed their private struggles and personal wartime ordeals - materials that the Nazi overlord did not even want them to have. 'Not until we succeed in bringing together vast quantities of this simple, everyday material will the picture of our struggle for freedom be painted in its full depths and glory,'

Bolkestein and other Dutch officials had fled the Netherlands after the German invasion in May 1940 and had been operating in exile. It had been a painful four years, as they'd seen their country overtaken by fascist ideology and hundreds of thousands of their citizens drafted into service for the Nazis, deported to work camps and concentration camps.

By the spring of 1944, the end was in sight. At the very least, there was reason for hope. The war had reached a turning point at Stalingrad, the Allies were making clear advances, and the German army was finally in retreat. Even in pro-German circles, the general expectation was that an Allied invasion of Western Europe was only a matter of time.

On Radio Oranje, Bolkestein let the people know that the stories of individual struggles, personal experiences, written in ordinary peoples' own words, would be valued by future historians. He promised those listening that the government would establish a new national center for war documentation, and that it would collect, preserve, and publish the material, which would illustrate the character and stamina, the courage and endurance, of all of his countrymen and women...

We tend to think of history as a story that is written at some temporal remove from the events described. Was it unusual that Netherlands' Minister had already obtained approval from the Dutch Cabinet to found an institute focused on a war that hadn't even ended? It would be another half a year before the Allies won any significant battles in the Netherlands, and fourteen months before the entire country would be liberated. 

The idea to create a study center of the still-unfolding present had been conceived by exiled Dutch-Jewish journalist Loe de Jong, who had become a famous Radio Oranje voice out of London during the war period. Behind the scenes, it was De Jong who had convinced Minister Bolkestein to press for the initiative in the Dutch Cabinet, He also penned Bolkestein's March 29 speech.

He was unaware that, back at home, in the occupied Netherlands, another group of historians, led by an economics and social history professor, Nicolaas Wilhelmus Posthumus, was developing a similar plan. Posthumus, a scholar with a strong affinity for archival research, had already established several libraries and study centers to preserve documents about economic and social life, and by the end of his life, and by the end of his life he'd set up fifteen such institutions.

In 1935, he had established the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, 'to acquire archival treasures from the possessions of the hunted and the defrauded,' in a time of 'political crisis and persecution' as the Nazis rose to power in Germany. He'd also supported his wife, Willemijn Hendrika Posthumus-van der Goot, a Dutch economist, journalist, and peace activist, in establishing the International Archive for the Women's Movement, a feminist studies library, also in Amsterdam.

Almost immediately after the Nazis invaded Holland, Posthumus saw the necessity of an archive to collect evidence of the impact of the occupation, and he gave his first lecture on the matter in the May days of 1940. Two years later, he was fired from his professional post at the University of Utrecht for his anti-fascist attitude. Later the Nazis confiscated large portions of his archives; twelve Rhine barges full of materials from the Social History institute were shipped off in 1944 alone.

This did not stop him; Posthumus was already clandestinely collecting source material about the war and the occupation in 1942; working from an office at a publishing house in Leiden, he planned his 'National Office for War Documentation,' built a team of board members, and started fundraising. In January 1944, this group met secretly in an Utrecht cafe to draw up the institution's research and publication plan."

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