Most history books like to tell the big story. Battles won and lost. Treaties made and broken. Ordinary people rarely appear other than as statistics. I like history told through the eyes of ordinary people. What did they eat and drink? How did they wash their clothes? And what would they wear to weddings and funerals? I like the Tenement Museum for showing how immigrants lived on the Lower East Side of New York City. Also, the Country Life Museum in county Mayo, Ireland for its depiction of rural Ireland in the 100 years since the Great Famine.
It’s why I enjoyed reading Ons Kamp by Marja Vuijsje, a Dutch language work of non-fiction subtitled “a more or less Jewish history“.
The Vuijsje Family
Ons Kamp is a history of the Vuijsje family. Isaac Vuijsje was born in 1879, a member of the Jewish underclass who lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Amsterdam. He and his wife Schoontje had six children, one daughter and five sons. One half of the family died in the gas chambers of Sobibor and Auschwitz. The other half, four brothers, returned to Amsterdam after the war. Nathan, the author’s father, survived Auschwitz by playing the trombone in the camp orchestra.
The title Ons Kamp is Dutch for “our camp”. In a way, Auschwitz really was the Vuijsje family camp, if for no other reason than that Nathan insisted on telling his family stories about the camp. Every day until he died at the age of 86. Nathan saw his survival as a personal victory over Hitler and liked to count, each year at his birthday party, the numbers of years he had outlived his arch-enemy.
But the story starts earlier, in Nathan’s youth. He grew up to be a baker just like his father. Despite the economic crises in the 1930’s, Isaac Vuijsje managed to open his own bakery and thus provide employment (and bread) for his entire family.
World War II
Then the war came. The Germans occupied the Netherlands. One by one, members of the Vuijsje family were put on the transport trains into Poland. They believed up to the very end that they were headed toward labor camps.
Ons Kamp follows the Vuijsje family during the war and the way back home to Amsterdam. In the most literal sense, Ons Kamp is family history. Yet, the events that shook the lives of the Vuijsjes sent tremors throughout Dutch society. Many of those cracks and fissures are still visible today. So, Ons Kamp is also a history of the Netherlands in general and Amsterdam in particular.
More than History
Iconic historical moments stand out. I can remember some of them from my youth in the US, but never realised their impact in the Netherlands. For example, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 was followed daily by the entire Vuijsje family. It was a watershed moment to confront the Holocaust publicly.
Remember the gasoline rationing in the US as a result of the Arab oil embargo in 1973? The same thing happened in the Netherlands though maybe the Vuijsjes didn’t mind so much being bike-loving Dutchmen.
But Ons Kamp is more than history. It’s a tender portrait of a father who should have died in Auschwitz. A snapshot of a fractious extended family. A glimpse of a child on her father’s knee, listening to stories of “that damn camp”.