Book Review: “Invisible Years” — A Book for the Ages
By Roberta Silman
Invisible Years is simultaneously an indispensable source and a distinguished work of art.
Invisible Years: A Family’s Collected Account of Separation and Survival during the Holocaust in the Netherlands by Daphne Geismar. Foreword by Robert Jan van Pelt. David R. Godine, 247 pages, $40
Invisible Years is a remarkable book, both in presentation and content, and a fitting way for its publisher David Godine to celebrate 50 years in business. In the hand it has the feel of very few other books; one that comes to mind is Life? or Theater by the great artist Charlotte Salomon, which I also reviewed for The Arts Fuse. Daphne Geismar, the child of two of these Dutch Holocaust survivors, is not only a teacher and researcher and now author, she is also a well-known book designer, and the care she has lavished on every aspect of Invisible Years is outstanding. The book takes the form of a play rather than straight prose, but the narrative has the feel of a tapestry which slowly makes sense as seemingly unconnected threads come together in a wonderfully unexpected way. In addition to the words are photos and reproductions of family keepsakes, as well as a detailed map of everyone’s whereabouts: taken together, the visuals and words comprise a work of art so intimate and so memorable that this extended family becomes a part of your life. Forever.
Before I get to their story, I must commend Robert Jan van Pelt for the excellent Foreword. He is a Holocaust scholar who lays out the background that is necessary for a full understanding of what happened to the Jews in Holland during the Second World War: how the Dutch Calvinist leaders in the 16th century revered the Old Testament even more than other Protestants, and how that made Holland uniquely poised to welcome Spanish and Portuguese Jews during the 17th century. And how they thrived so that Amsterdam became known as the Jerusalem of the West in the 19th century, when non-Jewish Netherlanders “remained largely immune” to the anti-Semitism that was taking hold in the rest of Europe. And, lastly, how Holland’s neutrality during the First World War delayed the social change that eventually roiled through the rest of Europe, the result of the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent Great Depression. He also outlines the structure of Dutch society, which is crucial to what happened later:
[It] was marked by a plurality of distinct groups or social pillars, the largest of which, the Roman Catholics—who were primarily concentrated in the south of the country—counted only 30 percent of the population. Each pillar was characterized by its own religious and political ideas, which were reflected in the economic, social, and cultural choices people made. . . . These power blocs were represented in parliament by their own political parties and in the economy and society by their own professional organizations, trade unions, and school systems. . . . Thus, the true constitution of the Netherlands was a contract of mutual indifference between the major religious and political groups.
This indifference, which felt so liberating for so long, was tested when, as van Pelt concludes in his Foreword: “in May, 1940, the twentieth century invaded the corner of the world where the De Zoete, Cohen, and Geismar families — and my own Hanf family — had been so much at home.”
What happened to those three families might have remained one of the countless untold stories of people hidden (in Dutch called onderduikers) during the Second World War if not for the invitation extended by the Breeplein Church in Rotterdam on the occasion of its 75th anniversary. Then Daphne, the granddaughter of Erwin Geismar, who perished, and Chaim and Fifi De Zoete, who were hidden in that church’s attic for two years, began the “deep and emotional dive” that led to this amazing book. She met the Reverend Gerrit Brillenburg Wurth and his wife, Gerda, and the sexton Jacobus de Mars and his wife Annigje. She listened to her niece thank these two remarkable couples for “the nobleness of spirit with which you gave your help to others without expecting anything in return,” and, in her words, “I understood that the stories I thought I knew were broader and more interconnected than I had realized — and that the story-holders were aging. . . . at dinner that night with the Brillenburg Wurths, my relatives and I made plans to piece together the history of our families during the German occupation of the Netherlands.”
What sets this book apart is not only its meticulous attention to detail. The breadth of the narrative continues after the end of the war; it addresses the many challenges people who survived in hiding faced. There are nine narrators: Chaim and Fifi De Zoete; their three daughters, Mirjam, Judith, and Hadassah; David Geismar; his father, Erwin; Nathan Cohen, and Zigi Mandel. Their stories are taken from letters and diaries found in what Geismar calls “Holocaust drawers” which were stuffed with documents by both her mother Mirjam and her aunt Judith; interviews also comprise some of the source material, and there are “supporting narrators” that include other family members, helpers, and fellow hiders. These sources have been translated and edited to make a compelling story that proceeds through sections: Before and Trapped to Forbidden, Separated, Invisible, After, and Zigi, who was Polish and a latecomer to this family after the war. The Invisible section includes a map of Holland, which records where the narrators were hidden and when and for how long and with whom. And finally there are what Geismar calls History Briefs, a short section at the end written by Robert Jan van Pelt and Jennifer Magee. This contains short explications of names, facts, organizations, and places mentioned in the narrative, giving the reader invaluable historical context. You may have thought you knew, by way of the story of Anne Frank and her family, everything about a family hidden in Holland during the Holocaust. But you will discover, as I did, that there is a lot more to learn.
It was so easy to fit into the educated professional class of Dutch society, so all three of these families lived privileged assimilated lives in the ’30s. The De Zoetes were in the Dutch East Indies until 1936 because Chaim did a stint as a military pharmacist in exchange for receiving his university education. All three of their girls, Mirjam, Judith, and Hadassah, were born there. When they came back to Holland they settled in Rotterdam. Erwin Geismar emigrated from Germany to live in Holland, but married a German Jewish woman and they returned to Freiburg for the birth of their only child, David, so he would have German citizenship. In Amsterdam Erwin owned a leather goods factory that supplied the fashion industry, so he traveled freely to France. He also maintained ties to his in-laws in Germany with whom David, an only child, spent summers until he was six. Nathan Cohen’s father was a physician in northern Holland, and Nathan was the middle child between two sisters in what seemed a carefree upper-middle-class household. None of the families were especially religious, but they observed the major holidays and one kept a kosher home. They were proud of their Jewish heritage and the parents clearly felt a responsibility to help Jews less fortunate — all three of these families welcomed German refugee children (starting in 1938) when things became increasingly dangerous in Germany. And by early 1940 Erwin Geismar became actively involved with the Committee for Jewish Refugees from Germany, because, as David put it, “I understood that in Germany there was something wrong.”
In late May 1940 something became “wrong” in Holland as well, when the Nazis occupied the country and put Reichskommissar Arthur Seyss-Inquart in charge. These families, which had tried to emigrate to England and Palestine, were trapped. Queen Wilhelmina and the official Dutch government had moved to London and were considered allies of England. But the Dutch people were now under Nazi occupation, and by the end of 1940 it was clear that the Jews were going to be persecuted and their property confiscated; many of them would be deported. In early 1941 a Jewish Council was established in Amsterdam where Jews were forced to live in a ghetto; by June 1941 there was a curfew, and Jews all over the country were forced to wear yellow stars In Forbidden we see the children becoming aware that their lives were hanging by a thread and that everything would change. By 1943 they are all separated from their parents and each other. In Separated we are informed that 40,000 sought hiding places and only 28,000 managed to find them. We learn how these three sets of parents called on gentile friends to help, how they maneuvered their way alone or sometimes with the help of an organized grassroots resistance movement. We learn how sometimes money was exchanged and sometimes not, how some of those hidden were made to feel welcome and made long-lasting friendships, how others were treated more grudgingly and, in one case, abused.
Each narrator is given a voice. What comes through is their intelligence and patience and belief in the future. The sheer bravery of the hidden and many of those who hid them takes the breath away: we are reminded how difficult it was to remain anonymous in small Dutch towns as well as in neighborhoods in the big cities. There were rewards for turning in Jews. The narrow escapes are riveting, especially Chaim’s account of life in the church attic, the rare excursions outside of hiding places, the urgency of having to move to another hideaway quickly, and the constant reminder, as Mirjam put it,
that I was not a plain Dutch citizen. I was someone that the Germans were interested in. Your whole life was one scary time. You tried to make yourself invisible.
And when that fails, as it does in the betrayal that befell Erwin Geismar, we are as bereft as those he left behind. In hindsight one wonders if Erwin knew what would happen to him at 41, for he left a remarkable memoir that survived intact — miraculously — and concluded with this sentence:
In the end, I hope that my lines will be read by people who will see how we struggled under terrible circumstances, and that the reader will want to take up this struggle that we have fought and experienced from the front lines for the construction of a worthwhile human society.
By May 1945 the Allies had liberated Holland. Only 50,000 Dutch Jews survived out of a prewar population of 155,000. As Daphne Geismar lays it out:
These survivors faced difficult choices. Make a clean break with the past and begin a new life in a new place from scratch? Or return to one’s city or town to resume an interrupted life without murdered loved ones? And not only that, but struggle for restitution of position and property — or catch up with interrupted schooling — in the presence of neighbors and onetime friends who had been passive bystanders during the persecution. And what about the toddlers and children who had been taken in by Christian families, and who emerged from hiding as orphans?
The section called After is in some ways the most interesting section of this moving, often heartbreaking book. Survival is to be celebrated, but so is the hard work of picking up the pieces and carving out a new life. Mirjam, Judith, Hadassah, Nathan, David, and Zigi were teenagers when the war ended, yet they had already lived through what seemed to be lifetimes. (Our current struggle with the Covid-19 crisis gives us an inkling — but only an inkling — of what these young people and their parents endured.)
So this section not only remembers all the many relatives who were killed by the Nazis but also gives us real insight into the hard choices facing these brave survivors as they tried to shape their future. Here the narrative seems to take a breath as the various threads come together and you realize that what you thought were individual stories are entwined into a story of one family that had to face some hard truths about the effects of the war, yet continued to summon the resilience that had helped them survive. I will not spoil the ending, in which hachsara (the program in Holland that prepared young people for emigration to Palestine) and Zionism and resettlement in Israel play a huge part, but urge you to read every last word and ponder every photo. For here is a family that knows all too well that triumph has many facets, that healing takes time, and that those who lived had responsibilities going forward. In 1950 Chaim wrote his three daughters “a seventy-page letter . . . to provide guidelines and stability for ‘moments that require answers to questions about life.’” In it he writes,
Gladness and gratitude overwhelmed me. Gratitude to all of those who had supported us during the war years. But part of it, too, was an emotion of thankfulness that, for now, I will call divine. But this feeling was almost immediately stifled, remembering just one of the millions of cases where the children had not returned. Surely countless ones among them must have been a thousand times more deserving than we.
Such humility is rare and pervaded these lives, and also sets the tone for this book, which would not be complete without Zigi’s story, its last section.
Zigi is not about being hidden in Holland, but about Zigi Mandel, who married Hadassah in 1959 after they met and worked together in the Israeli military. Zigi’s story “underscores the vastness of war,” and serves as a moving counterpoint to stories up to that point. He and his parents and older sister Lilka left Krakow on September 1, 1939, heading east. Their harrowing “trek” was filled with hardship and hunger and typhus, which killed the parents after they made the fatal decision to leave Siberia and go south to Bukhara. By then it was just the three of them, since Lilka, who was eight years older than Zigi, had stayed behind in Lwów where she worked in a hotel and had a boyfriend. (She was subsequently betrayed while working under false papers in Poland.) On his own at 14, Zigi journeyed further east as part of a group of Polish orphans and landed in Balachadi, India, in a camp for Polish children. He was then adopted by a European Jewish family in Bombay and finally arrived in Haifa in April of 1943, where, at age 15, he started a new life.
Zigi’s stoicism is remarkable as he tells his story, ending with “I can no longer visualize my mother or father, Basia and Zygmunt. I was with my mother until I was fourteen years old, and yet I cannot ‘see’ her face! I loved her very much.” Zigi’s loving nature is attested to by his and Hadassah’s sons, who said, “There is no love story like theirs, even in Hollywood’s most exciting stories.” Clearly, he was a thoughtful, highly intelligent man, and worth noting are his remarks on the State of Israel in the section, Later Years and “his struggle to reconcile two fundamental beliefs”:
That the highest moral value is that of honesty and integrity. [And] As a Jew and an Israeli citizen, I believe that the one and only raison d’étre for the existence of the State of Israel is its “being there” to receive any Jew in need.
The trouble is that these two beliefs often contradict one another. Therefore, I’ve no other option but to establish priorities. My belief as a Jew comes first. I see it as a simple case of survival. To some that may seem harsh and possibly even unfair. Let me try to explain. Sometimes we Jews have a few “good” decades. But, in the end there always comes a time of oppression or even persecution. There is a supreme need to prepare a place of safety for any Jew who may need it. Nobody will do it for us. That, for me is the quintessence of Zionism.”
Nobody has earned his beliefs more than Zigi and the rest of this extended family. But that Geismar chose to venture into such difficult territory while concluding her narrative is also testament to their continued bravery and ability to face difficult questions.
At the very end of History Briefs is the section titled “Why Were So Many Dutch Jews Murdered?” This is one of the mysteries of the war — that in a country where anti-Semitism did not seem so firmly entrenched, there was such a high mortality rate of Jews, two times that of Belgium, three times that of France. Or why, in comparison, were almost all Danish Jews saved? Did it have to do with the “pillars of indifference” described earlier that were so much a part of Dutch society? The questions Geismar asks in these two paragraphs should serve as a blueprint, not only to historians but to policy-makers as well. For, as we have been reminded so sharply in these last weeks in the United States, complacency will not protect an oppressed population. It behooves us to learn what happened in the past, even when the details are excruciating, so that we are not doomed to repeat.
Invisible Years is simultaneously an indispensable source and a distinguished work of art. It should find its proper place in every university library, as well as homes interested in our Jewish heritage, departments of Jewish studies, and synagogue libraries. The work done by these children and grandchildren of the De Zoetes, Cohens, Geismars, and Mandels to commemorate their remarkable parents and the challenges they met so bravely is, truly, a book for the ages.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.