30 APRIL 2018 | KAREN KAO
May 4 is Memorial Day in the Netherlands. At 8pm for 2 minutes long, the entire country is silent. No trams, no cars, nothing on the radio or the television. It is a national act to commemorate the Dutch victims of war violence.
Joodse Huizen is another act of commemoration. The title translates as Jewish Houses to denominate a series of books centered around houses across the Netherlands where Jewish families once lived. Volume 4 of Jewish Houses came out in April 2018. The street addresses are the titles. The authors are often descendants of the families who once lived at that address.
humanity in action
I don’t know many of the names mentioned in Joodse Huizen 4. I can’t place all the addresses either. But behind all the names and places lurks the core event: the Holocaust. Of course I had learned about this in school but I heard much more when we hosted exchange students for the Humanity in Action summer program.
The intellectual touchstone for Humanity in Action has always been study of the Holocaust, the most devastating example of the collapse of democratic civil society and the denial of rights to minorities.
Back then, students came from the US, Denmark and Holland. The latter two countries were chosen because less than 25% of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust whereas almost all of the Danish Jews survived. The question HIA asked was why.
For the students who came into our home, many of whom were Jewish themselves, this was a deeply troubling question. Americans are not taught about the occupation or the moral dilemmas of day-to-day life. Survival, resistance and collaboration can look frighteningly similar, as The Assault by Harry Mulisch so chillingly illustrates.
Jewish Houses 4 touches on some of these themes. In “Stadionweg 28,” friends come to the rescue when the family De Vries goes into hiding. But the focus of Joodse Huizen is not on the betrayals and deportations. Jewish Houses is about life. As Hans Goedkoop puts it in the foreword (translated):
The death we always talk about when that damned war comes up can only be given meaning if we see the life that was lost.
For obvious reasons, few of the former inhabitants of Joodse Huizen 4 can speak for themselves. One exception is Rob Cohen, as interviewed by Selma Leydesdorff, about his former home on Staalstraat 3 in Amsterdam. Other authors rely on secondary sources: contemporaneous newspaper clippings, family photos and the digital archives of the Joods Monument.
Many essays are based on the writer’s own memory of stories told to them by family members. But memoir is the most difficult form of creative nonfiction.
The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a problematic form in which reality and imagination blur into what its proponents describe as a “fourth genre.” The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters—in describing the memories of sources and witnesses—wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction.
This is not to say that memoirists are liars. All our memories are fallible, frail, capable of great leaps of imagination. It’s as human to forget as it is to mis-remember. I am suspicious of memoir but I reject memoir disguised as fact. It’s even unpalatable to me as fiction where it merely serves as
the axe-grinding memoirist’s get-out-of-jail-free card, a way of having your cake and eating it, too.
How can I take seriously “Amstellaan 9-11” when the author describes herself in the third person? Or believe the long quotation in “Plantage Doklaan 28” attributed to a dead man without any source being named? These are cardinal sins in the world of creative nonfiction. As John McPhee once said:
The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue.
a missed opportunity
These are mistakes the publisher should have caught. Or, better yet, instead of asking these writers to write about a house, he should have instructed them to tell a story.
The best essays in Jewish Houses 4 are the ones where the author is part of the narrative: the heartbreaking letter by Nechamah Mayer-Hirsch to her dead Auntie Annie in “Singel 28” or the frustration expressed by Mirjam Rotenstreich in her search for living sources to write “Industriestraat 7.”
Unfortunately, too many of these essays rely on the reader to recognize names, places and events. The pathos in Jewish Houses 4 comes from our knowledge of how these stories must end. What a missed opportunity.
You don’t have to know anything about the Holocaust in order to fall in love with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. This young adult novel written by John Boyne turns on an unlikely friendship between two little boys. One lives in a nice house with a garden and a tall fence. The other one lives on the opposite side of that fence inside a concentration camp.
The ability to create lively characters and an interesting narrative arc does not belong solely to fiction. In her family memoir Ons Kamp, Marja Vuijsje relates the history of the Vuijsje clan before, during and after the war. She made Jewish Amsterdam come alive for me in a way that few of the stories in Joodse Huizen 4 could.
the jewish dead
As I was reading Jewish Houses 4, I had to think about a film I recently saw. Coco is a kiddie film about the Day of the Dead. This Mexican holiday is a sort of Memorial Day, too, though the ones to be remembered are usually family. The moral of Coco is kind of cheesy but it seems appropriate here:
When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.
The clock is ticking on the war generation. The Peace and Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki is rushing to collect survivor stories. Last year, Svetlana Alexievich‘s history of female soldiers in the Soviet Army came out in English as The Unwomanly Face of War. As The Guardian review put it:
This is a tough read, both emotionally and intellectually. But it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. There’s a visceral anger in Alexievich’s introduction that’s rare in any history book. Her message is: these stories deserve to be heard.
Joodse Huizen 4 could have become the Dutch contribution to worldwide survivor literature. If only there had been a story at the heart of each house.