Moral Complexities

by Jim Scott (he/him)

The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It, HarperCollins, ©2023 by Nina Siegal, pp.527
Following the decimation of Rotterdam by the Nazi war machine, the Dutch army surrendered to Germany on May 15, 1940, shortly after the Netherlands’ Queen and her government’s cabinet had fled safely to London. In an indecently-belated message four years later, to the ravaged, remaining Nazi-occupied Dutch, the exiled Minister of Education, Arts and Sciences broadcasted from London to the few remaining, illegal underground Dutch radios. The message to the spiritually bedraggled but brave Dutch and its overmatched and dwindling resistance fighters:  
“History cannot be written based on official decisions and documents alone.  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.” (Minister Gerrit Bolkestein, March 29,1944)
The Netherlands was liberated 16 months after Bolkestein’s message (May 5, 1945) and nearly immediately created (May 8, 1945)the Bureau for War Documentation to retrieve these diaries, letters, and other materials (which eventually totaled over 2,500 items, now archived in the renamed National Institute for War Documentation, in Amsterdam).
During those painful war years, an exceptional horror had been committed within and upon its Dutch Jewish community. Of the community’s 160,000 total members, 102,000 Jews were deported and murdered, the uniquely highest percentage of Jews (64%) in Western European countries (in France: 25% killed; 40% in Belgium; and comparable to Hungary 60%; Poland 90%). 
Author Nina Siegal, is a New York Times researcher/cultural journalist living in 21ST- century Amsterdam. She is an American Jew(with Dutch and other European ties), and was in hot pursuit of answers to her research question: “How so many of the images [in a Dutch-curated photo exhibition, The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs: The Netherlands, 1940-1945] had been shot by bystanders, ordinary Dutch people who had witnessed the roundups of their neighbors from their Amsterdam apartment windows?”
Her answers? “The photographs told a story of bystander fear, but also bystander complicity. One could look out the window and see their neighbors, marked, forced into public squares, driven into trucks, beaten humiliated, and deported. It had happened just outside their doors, outside their windows.  Everyone could see everything.” Thus began her book’s project in earnest, culminating in her 500+pp of riveting story told by diaries. 
Pouring through the handsomely archived letters and diaries, available in the publicly accessible archival facilities in Amsterdam, Siegal selected 9 diaries to help tell her story of the war-period realities, “what, where, when, but also the how and why. And how it felt to live through it, through the eyes of individuals from every walk of life.”
She chose from among victims, bystanders, and collaborators, whose diaries began before Bolkestein’s belated broadcast, by telling the story of the genocide of the Jews chronologically from 1940 through the war’s end and events beyond.  Siegal includes rich notes on the progression of the official “Dutch Memory of the War” (i.e., “the essential goodness of the Dutch”) affected by the serious doubts and questioning of that “official Memory” mythscape arising in the probing of younger historians, journalists, and social activists, “asking how the society had allowed it to happen.”
Her nine diarists were 4 women, 5 men:
  • Women: a secretary for a Jewish organization; a member of the Dutch resistance; a socialite married to a member of the Dutch Nazi Party; a teenage factory worker
  • Men: an established, leading journalist; a diamond cutter; police inspector-member Dutch Nazi Party; a freelance journalist; a traveling salesman
Siegal has ripped the bandage off a deep, slow-healing wound in the remarkably stolid Dutch cultural personality, giving fresh air to the healing process needed to complete the recovery.  Painless, it is not. Necessary, it is. Diarists chosen by Siegal did not include Anne Frank, who, like perhaps most of the diarists who were inspired by Bolkestein’s belated message, had already begun diaries years earlier and who likely revised original entries, anew.  Frank, in confirmed pursuit of a literary future, had even begun a fresh journal by modifying substantial parts of her own story, which itself was later modified and shaped by her father and others before it was exposed to the public. In Siegal’s words, “Frank’s diary is a literary gem, but it is relied on too heavily to tell the entire story of the Dutch occupation and also the Holocaust…More diaries, more perspectives, help us to get a far better sense of this geography and topography.”  (Notably, the Dutch publication (1948) of Anne Frank’s Diary was extraordinarily successful and by 1950 its sixth printing was still a sell-out.  Her book appeared in the U.K. and U.S.A. in 1952, with its introduction written by Eleanor Roosevelt. By 2019, over 35 million copies had been sold worldwide, published in over 70 languages.) 
Siegal’s story helps the reader understand that Frank’s diary fits nicely within the narrative of the Dutch “myth of resistance” which was incompatible with later, disciplined published research and Siegal’s interpretation of more diverse narratives. Early post-war Dutch writers had created a coherent narrative about “an assaulted and unbroken nation, emphasizing Dutch heroism.” There were “the good” and “the bad” but the good were the overwhelming majority, and thus, the “bad” was essentially ignored.  Frank’s diary did not fit wider perspectives than that of the “mythscape”, nor was it compatible with the well-documented, discriminatory treatment of pre-and- early-war-years- Dutch Jews, or extraordinarily harsh treatment of post-war Dutch Jews, who had successfully fled and were humiliated upon their return to Holland after the war. Early war Dutch mentality “in line with the Reich” behavior among the leadership competed with “mythscape resistance” storyline which thrived in official propaganda and within some working classes. Siegal documents these dueling themes, citing the nearly total capitulation of Dutch industrial might to German war needs, the behavior of certain worker unions, as well as the verbalized, pessimistic conviction of a former Dutch prime minister that “Berlin would decide Dutch future until, perhaps, the year 2000.” However, the “bad” was said to have been too trivial to examine openly, left to fester in the consciousness of Dutch citizenry.  That is, until the publication of a massive, 13-year research study, Ondergang(Destruction) by Professor Jacques Presser, University of Amsterdam, in 1965, released in Dutch, and translated into English 3 years later.  it specifically covered the persecution of the Jews. “It explored in detail the Nazi genocidal program, and the cruelty and violence committed by the occupying forces in the Netherlands, but also of Dutch complicity and indifference--a subject that had been considered taboo. Its publication was experienced as a tsunami in the culture.”
As a resident in the Netherlands for over four years in the 1980s, after Ondergang and nearly forty years after the Holocaust, this reviewer personally encountered the near-impenetrable reluctance of many ordinary Dutch (neighbors, elderly, business executives, shopkeepers, sportsmen, Jews, Christians, clergy) of the age and of awareness of both Anne Frank’s Diary and Ondergang to talk about their own experience during the war years, or even about their feelings of abandonment by the government early in the Nazi occupation. I offer their silence as testimonial support to Siegal’s book on the dimensions of pain and horror visited on that beautiful people and nation by the invading jackboots and facilitated by stubborn ethnic/religious/class inequities within, for the healing process among the citizenry had only just begun.  
Siegal’s book begins with informative stage-setting (Prologue and Introduction), brilliantly conceived and presented; once read, you’re hooked.  The body of the text flows in four parts: Part I-Occupation; Part II-Persecution & Deportation; Part III-Toward Liberation; Part IV-The War in Memory.  Siegal’s rich Endnotes, Acknowledgements, and user-friendly, language-fluent translated Index are integral bonuses for those who wish to dive deeper into the Dutch experience.
A minor weakness is that the reader must navigate the first 400+ pages of diary research before Siegal tackles the Ondergang and tough material questions on “What is history? what is reliable history? what about the changing memory culture in the Netherlands? what about the 1970s and 1980s erosion internationally of Jewish amnesia, driven by the massive production of survivor testimony and rapid creation of Holocaust museums in Europe and the U.S.A.? And what about the accuracy of aging individual memory, which is not stable?”
The sea-change in the characterization of the Dutch character (from “resistance” to “complicity”) is critical in understanding the significance of Siegal’s story, so exposure to it early on could aid readers to fully commend her book. It seems that Siegal is asking her readers to “hang in” through the lengthy and emotionally difficult storytelling of her book, although the reader might well have benefited by being fore-armed first by the excellent analytical work in the back end of her book…i.e., Part IV-Chapter 26, 27,28, which explore “the archaeology of silence, suffering and struggle, loyalty and betrayal, humanity and barbarism, good and evil, and a gradual lifting of the collective repression,” which also introduces the critical Ondergang.  Thus, armed for my second reading of her book, I contextualized and evaluated better her research. Perhaps for first-time readers of the book, one might first explore her treatment in Part IV of the nuances (strengths and profound weaknesses) of human testimony and fragile memory, and “the bad”, to prepare the reader to more capably evaluate her diarists’ testimonies when you read them. 
Please read this outstanding book, whether directly on pages 1-507(end) as Siegal has presented it, or taking in Part IV (pages 421-457) first, as I recommend.  But, either way, you are in for a fascinating journey and a revelation of another page in humankind’s eternal struggles with moral complexities.  The Dutch are a proud people, for good reason, with global accomplishments in world history as witness, but despite all their goodness, cultural and interpersonal perfection remains for them, as well as for us all, forever elusive.
~January 2024
The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It By Nina Siegal Cover Image
ISBN: 9780063070653
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Published: Ecco - February 21st, 2023

The Diary Keepers: World War II Written by the People Who Lived Through It By Nina Siegal Cover Image
ISBN: 9780063070660
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Published: Ecco - February 6th, 2024