The title of this piece refers to a passage in the most famous wartime diary ever published: that of the young Dutch Jew Anne Frank.
Despite her early death at the age of fifteen in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, Anne Frank most definitely lives on. Her diary was first published in Amsterdam in 1947 and has been translated into more than seventy languages. At the British Library we hold a first edition, as well as scholarly editions and translations into fourteen of those seventy languages, including Burmese, Esperanto, Maori, Welsh and Yiddish. The book is now one of UNESCO’s world heritage publications.
Another famous Dutch Holocaust diary is Etty Hillesum’s Het verstoorde leven, which translates as ‘An Interrupted Life’. Etty worked for the Jewish Council, travelling to and from the Westerbork detention and transit camp, until her internment and deportation to Auschwitz, where she was murdered in November 1943. For part of her life she lived in Deventer, the town I grew up in. My old school was renamed for her, and the old synagogue is now the Etty Hillesum Centre, which works towards a better understanding between religions and cultures. Etty stands out for her deeply spiritual ideas, which centre around her refusal to hate and to avoid her inevitable death. Her ideas are still the subject of research, as shown in the many titles about her held by the British Library, in Dutch, Italian and English.
Another fascinating read, which unsurprisingly won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2018, is The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es. It tells the story of Lien de Jong, a Jewish girl who went into hiding with foster families during the war and thus escaped deportation. Her parents and most of her other relatives were not so lucky. The book is also the story of the half-Dutch, half-English author’s search for Lien and for his own family history. Bart van Es found Lien still living in Amsterdam. They have since become good friends.
With numbers dwindling, many survivors feel an urgent need to tell their story, often as a warning against contemporary hatred of ‘the other’. As Dutch Holocaust survivor Selma van de Perre says: ‘We must show tolerance towards each other.’ 2019 saw the publication of van de Perre’s Mijn naam is Selma, published in the English translation in 2020 as My Name is Selma. It is special partly because it was written so long after the event: Selma is now ninety-eight and survived the only women’s camp, Ravensbrück.
The book’s title is significant because Selma survived the war by adopting a different, non-Jewish name, Marga. Not only that, but she managed to hide her Jewish identity from the Nazis and those around her throughout the war. She was arrested not because she was Jewish but for her work in the resistance. In the camp barracks Selma often tried to keep herself awake, fearing that she might say her name out loud in her sleep.
For many years Selma, who lives in Britain, did not want to write about her wartime experiences. But when she realised that many people here were not aware of the fate of the majority of the Dutch Jewish population during the war, she joined a survivors’ group, ‘The Women from Ravensbrück’, with whom she went back to Ravensbrück year after year. She also started visiting schools in this country to tell children her story. Eventually she began to write, first in English, but as plans for publication became firmer, she had the manuscript translated into Dutch. The published English translation is taken from the Dutch edition.
The Dutch books included here are all very different, but what they have in common is the desire to bear witness to what happened to the Jewish people when the world seemed to be looking the other way. These accounts are also a testament to human ingenuity, to resilience, to courage and to the part that sheer luck played in these women’s stories. And as Anne Frank hoped, we hope also that their stories will live on – forever.
By Marja Kingma
Marja Kingma is curator for Germanic studies at the British Library, and specialises in Dutch history, culture and literature.