Holocaust-era Dutch ‘diary keepers’ depict horrors outside of Anne Frank’s hideaway
For her sprawling book, journalist Nina Siegal read through hundreds of wartime diaries to portray difficult day-to-day lives of Dutch during Nazi Germany’s five-year occupation
When Anne Frank began to rewrite her diary while in hiding, she was one of thousands of people responding to the Dutch government-in-exile’s wartime request for members of the public to record — and eventually share — their experiences under Nazi rule.
While Frank’s diary was written within the confines of an Amsterdam hiding place, hundreds of other diaries came from people who witnessed other aspects of Germany’s half-decade occupation of the Netherlands, during which 102,000 Jews were deported and murdered.
According to journalist Nina Siegal, in fact the world’s most famous diarist, Anne Frank, “is not really telling the whole story, or the right story, in some ways.”
Siegal, the author of “The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands as Written by the People Who Lived Through It,” told The Times of Israel that the narrow scope of Frank’s account was a function of her age and situation.
“She could not tell the whole story; Anne was a child, and cut off from the world,” said Siegal. A prolific cultural writer for The New York Times, Siegal lives in Amsterdam and is an ongoing researcher into the wartime fate of Dutch Jews.
“Anne Frank’s diary was part of a process that was radically democratic in the way they were thinking about documenting the war,” said Siegal, whose research into the diaries received a lavish photo spread in The New York Times.
Zooming in and out of texts written by people who were victims, bystanders, and collaborators, Siegal’s recently published “The Diary Keepers” tells the story of the genocide of the Jews chronologically.
From a Nazi-sympathizing Dutch police inspector to a Jewish reporter who covered Russia and Palestine, Siegal chose seven main diarists — from among 2,100 diaries held by NIOD, the Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies — in order to bring readers through events including the “Hunger Winter” and Liberation.
Framing Siegal’s archival hunt was her desire to “use the collection in the way it was intended,” she said.
Much of Siegal’s research for the book revolved around why three-quarters of Dutch Jews were annihilated during the war, the highest proportion of any country in western Europe.
“Anne Frank leaves people with the impression that the Dutch non-Jews were very protective of the Jews,” said Siegal. “People focus on the redemptive idea that ‘in spite of everything, people are really good at heart.’”
Setting out to show readers a “larger narrative” of wartime society, Siegal was interested in why — for example — so many Dutch people took photographs of their Jewish neighbors being “rounded up” and deported.
“The last Jews are being rounded up,” wrote salesman Cornelis Komen, who observed a daytime “razzia” (raid) in Amsterdam.
“Herded together and taken away like cattle. From hearth and home to foreign parts. …They may not be a pleasant people, but they’re still human beings,” wrote Komen in his diary.
Nearly eight decades after Liberation, NIOD is still working to transcribe wartime diaries, three of which appear for the first time in Siegal’s book.
“I wasn’t aware of how incredible a resource it would be, how deeply engrossing,” said Siegal, who spent more than two years in archives immersed in the everyday lives of Dutch people during the war.
‘A murky zone’
With family roots in the wartime borders of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Siegal’s grandparents and mother survived the Holocaust through a combination of hiding and imprisonment in labor camps.
“My mother’s whole side of the family were in the Holocaust,” said Siegal. “Most of the Hungarian and Czech sides of my family perished.”
Growing up, Siegal’s mother talked about the war in “weird ways,” said the author.
“My mom would tell these stories that were terrifying but always ended with a punchline,” said Siegal. “I was left in kind of a murky zone, which in part is why I was so interested in covering this.”
In addition to the Netherlands’ disproportionate victim count, Siegal wanted to explore “what it took to resist, and what it took for someone to be a real resistor on behalf of the Jews,” she said.
My mom would tell these stories that were terrifying but always ended with a punchline
“I was mostly really interested in what it was like for a normal person to experience it on a day-to-day basis,” said Siegal, who interviewed some of the surviving diarists and their inheritors.
In a compelling example of “filling in” history that’s been largely erased, Siegal used diary entries to depict an overlooked chapter of Jewish heroism during the German occupation of Amsterdam.
For two weeks in February 1941, Jewish fighters fought pitched battles with Nazi supporters in several parts of the city. The brawls culminated in the mass arrest of 400 young Jewish men, which in turn catalyzed Dutch people to go on strike throughout the country.
“Monday, a sense of resilience was awakened, and the young Jews began to organize themselves,” wrote Salomon de Vries, a Jewish journalist in Amsterdam.
Monday, a sense of resilience was awakened, and the young Jews began to organize themselves
“By Monday afternoon and evening, [the Jews] fought back, using iron rods or whatever they could get their hands on. But some of the [Dutch Nazis] who showed up were carrying revolvers. Several people got killed,” wrote de Vries.
The ensuing German assault on the Jewish Quarter was well-documented by a German photographer outside the Portuguese Synagogue. Snapshots show dozens of Jewish men on the ground while SS men with guns hover above them, but only people’s diary entries depicted the street-fighting beforehand.
“The fact that these Jews battled with the SS for two weeks before the raid is barely mentioned when people commemorate the Dutch strike that took place after the raid,” said Siegal, whose book includes new information about the fate of the men arrested in February 1941.
‘Still kind of in hiding’
“The Diary Keepers” makes evocative use of texts written at Westerbork, the transit camp where most Dutch Jews were imprisoned en route to German death camps in occupied Poland.
At Westerbork, prisoners’ lives revolved around the weekly announcement of 1,000 people bound for the next day’s transport. In the days between those harrowing rituals, some prisoners performed in cabarets while others were shipped to Amsterdam as “order police” to assist with the round-up of Jews.
“There is an immediacy and intimacy to diaries,” said Siegal. “They feel more present somehow. I can move through history with people and as they figure things out I can figure them out too,” she said.
Writing in his diary about the weekly “transport” leaving Westerbork, journalist Philip Mechanicus observed, “Hitler picks up Jews with proper trains to take them to a privileged place in Europe… and he exterminates them in classes, just like an undertaker places the dead into the ground in classes.”
Siegal’s book is part of a sea change in wartime memory that’s swept the Netherlands in the past decade. After more than half a century of largely not discussing the Holocaust, younger generations are interested in learning about what took place.
There is an immediacy and intimacy to diaries
For example, said Siegal, the sprawling “National Holocaust Namenmonument” (Names Monument) in Amsterdam was opened in 2021, while two buildings nearby are being renovated into a National Holocaust Museum, set to open this fall.
In academia, Dutch historians are examining aspects of the genocide previously left untouched or distorted, while entities including Dutch National Railways are making public atonements in recent years.
Projects like the “Names” monument and coming national museum took decades of advocating, educating, and building agreement among stakeholders, said Siegal.
“It took a very long time in the Netherlands,” said Siegal. “Many European countries had a memorial or a museum on the national level long before,” she said.
Dutch “memory work” around Germany’s occupation, said Siegal, is also connected to slavery, colonialism, and other painful heritage subjects.
“How do we enter a past where certain voices have not been included? The issue is about cultural memory being shaped from these voices, too,” said Siegal.
From a pre-war community of 160,000 Jews, including German-Jewish refugees, fewer than 50,000 Jews live in the Netherlands today. In Dutch government reporting, antisemitism was found to be rampant in — for example — sports stadiums and online forums.
“There are so many Jewish people here who are still kind of in hiding, they don’t know how to relate to the general population that doesn’t quite get this history,” said Siegal.
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