A brief history of Dutch Jews which focuses specifically on the Holocaust, Anne Frank and After fills an important niche in English-language works on Dutch history and literature. It provides a succinct introduction for students of Dutch history, culture and literature, balancing brevity with interesting detail taken from both historical and literary sources.
The book begins the story of Jews in the Netherlands with the Dutch Golden Age, briefly mentioning in the first short chapter the reasons why Jews settled in that country. From there it takes the reader through the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi German forces in May 1940 and the gradual introduction of progressive levels of persecution of the Jews in the occupied Netherlands. It details the difficult choices between allowing oneself and one’s family to be deported on the one hand and going into hiding on the other. It then follows the victims as they are taken away to transit camps such as Westerbork and Vught, describing the conditions there, and on again as they are then deported to different concentration and extermination camps; Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor are the camps listed separately as the most common destinations for deportees from the Netherlands. The story of the Holocaust is rounded out with a brief treatment of survivor’s guilt and the problems faced by second-generation survivors which includes references to literature as recent as from the 198os. The authors append an ‘Epilogue’ in which they consider the relationship between literature and history, in my view the least successful part of the book.
An interesting structural technique employed in this book is its use of Anne Frank’s story as a personalising element, a strategy parallel to that used at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the viewer is handed a ‘passport’ at the start of the exhibit and directed from time to time to read a page, on which the stage of the Holocaust shown on a massive scale in the display (persecution in the homeland, deportation, camp, death) is personalised in the experiences of the reader’s ‘special person’. In Anne Frank and After, chapters on the overall history of the Holocaust as experienced by Dutch Jews more or less alternate with ‘instalments’ in the life of Anne Frank which are easily identified by a different page layout. The intended effect – which I surmise succeeds for most readers – is to make the general history described both more comprehensible (less unmanageable, unfathomable) and more personal, and thus more difficult to read in a distanced mode.
In addition, the authors supply a chronology of the occupation and brief biographies for the authors whose literary texts they cite as illustrations; both are useful reference tools, particularly for those not very familiar with the topic.
Even a casual reader will note that the English is, unfortunately, not flawless. My concern ranges from run-of-the-mill examples of usage which are not so much wrong as just strongly influenced by Dutch idiom, such as ‘they put their experiences into words’ (p. 11) to awkward constructions (‘The switching from a microlevel…should not confuse the reader…’, p.10) to the unintentionally funny ‘This book will confine itself to Holland’ (p.10; I am puzzled at the use of ‘Holland’ in this work to refer to the country, where I would expect ‘the Netherlands’).
Such instances are somewhat pedestrian and will annoy native speakers, but should not – assuming a little good will – impede comprehension. Nevertheless, even the possibility of ‘unintentionally funny’ locutions is unfortunate in a book dealing with a topic as sensitive as the Holocaust, one in which precision counts. I worry, though, that opportunities for misunderstanding occur as well. Thus, when chapter VI bears the title: ‘The Paradox of Silence: Survivors and Losers’, it is clear that the word ‘losers’ here refers to those forced to make a difficult decision under duress, and based on incomplete information, and who lost the historic gamble, i.e. lost their lives. But it will be difficult for some readers to suppress the contemporary meaning of the word ‘losers.’
The brief description of Andreas Bumier’s past raises serious questions about the clarity of the English. This account edges toward an unwarranted suggestion of pathology. The authors write: ‘(…) it is estimated that most hidden Jews had to change their address at least three or four times for security reasons. The young Dutch writer Andreas Burnier even had to go into hiding at 16 different addresses. Apart from having to disguise her Jewishness, she also had trouble with her sexual identity: she felt like a boy in the body of a girl, as we can read in her novel, “Het Jongensuur” (Boys’ Hour).’ (p. 66-68). The reader must doubt that a character in a novel is really meant to be identified with the author of the work, and whether the implication that ‘trouble with her sexual identity’ was somehow caused by the occupation and the character’s need to hide and thus to move often, rather than a response to a sexist society. I am certain that such quandaries must be viewed charitably as linguistic problems, but it is unfortunate that these language barriers still exist.
Given the virtues of this book, and its usefulness to a wide range of audiences as an introduction to the occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, I would urge readers of English to take the aforementioned barriers in their stride, for this book has much to offer.
By Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor
First published in The Low Countries, 1997
Dick van Galen Last and Rolf Wolfswinkel, Anne Frank and After: Dutch Holocaust Literature in Historical Perspective. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996; 184 pp; ISBN 90-5356-177-3.
SCHRAM, D.H., ‘An Unfinished Chapter: The Second World War and the Holocaust in Dutch Literature’. In: The Low Countries. Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands 1994-95 (ed. Jozef Deleu et al.), Rekkem, 1994, pp. 195-203.
VANDERWAL TAYLOR, JOLANDA, A Family Occupation. Children of the War and the Memory of World War II in Dutch Literature of the 1980s. Amsterdam, 1997.