Book review: 14 Jewish children who survived World War II

February 16, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

Visit the book's website.
I just finished reading Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival by Marcel Prins, Peter Henk Steenhuis et al. (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2014).

This book is an incredible document, containing the personal memoirs of 14 Jewish men and women who were children in the Netherlands during the war. Each of them survived by going into hiding, and their gripping tales have much to teach us even today.

I have heard it said that individual people can't make much difference in stopping great evil. But in Hidden, it is evident that even small actions and choices by individuals can mean the difference between life and death for others. Consider for instance, Rose-Mary Kahn's story about her father's escape from Westerbork, the Nazi transit camp in Holland:
My father waited until the new moon, so that it would be really dark. Then he made his escape, as arranged, before the evning roll call, and ran to the agreed hiding place. As he was waiting for the foodwaste man, a patrol of Germans and military police came past. 
One of the military policemen saw my father lying there. They looked each other straight in the eye, but the man didn't say a word.
This policeman saved the father's life, simply by choosing to remain silent. His inaction busts one of the great excuses that was used by Nazis and collaborators after the war: the lie that "I was only doing my job".

This lie gained prominence as the famous Nuremberg Defense at the postwar Nuremberg trials of high-ranking Nazis. When faced with judgement for their crimes, these formerly feared Nazi leaders turned themselves into hapless automatons, claiming that they had been obligated to follow higher orders.

This excuse was also used by Karl Silberbauer, the Nazi officer who arrested Anne Frank's family. After the war, Silberhauer returned to work as a police inspector in Vienna, Austria, and remained anonymous until he was discovered in 1963 (as documented in The Anne Frank Case: Simon Wiesenthal's Search for the Truth). When the media descended upon him, Silberbauer was unrepentant: "Why pick on my after all these years?" he said: "I only did my duty."

On the contrary, Hidden shows that Silberbauer and others like him still had a moral choice to make. Here is how another policeman handled similar circumstances, as told by Benjamin Kosses in Hidden:
Six months later, my uncle came to see me. The local policeman had been to talk to him. "I've been told to arrest you and Bennie before Wednesday morning," he had said, "and take you to Winschoten and hand you over to the Germans at the station. I'm not going to arrest you now, but if you're at home on Wednesday morning...I'll have to take the two of you in." We understood his warning...
What would I do?

For many ordinary people, the Holocaust served as a crucible of their character. As they saw their Jewish friends, acquaintances and co-workers being targeted, they were placed in situations where they couldn't dodge crucial moral choices.

Should they provide a hiding place for a friend in need, or otherwise help with his or her escape? Should they report the suspicious activities they witnessed at the neighbour's, where the resistance might be active or a Jew could be in hiding?

Consider the situation of the hotel owner in the following story, told in Hidden by Lies Elion. Her Jewish family had just lost their hiding place, and they were in a panic as they wandered the streets with no place to go:
In desperation, my father just walked into a hotel, where he explained the situation to the hotel owner and asked for a room. The man let us stay, on the condition that we behaved like regular hotel guests and didn't hide away in our room.
The hotel owner was a stranger to this Jewish family, but he made the choice to help them even at risk to himself. The family stayed at the hotel for 10 days, until the Dutch resistance movement found them another hiding place.

In similar circumstances, it was not unusual for co-workers, acquaintances and even close friends to fail to help. Hidden documents several such instances, including this story by Benjamin Kosses, where he writes about his first night on the run:
We left that same evening, at around ten o'clock. My uncle knew a man a few miles away who would help us. When we got there, we knocked on the doors, on the windows. No one came. I was so tired that I fell asleep in the garden, in the children's sandbox. My uncle sat waiting all night...
In the morning, he hammered on the door again. This time someone answered, "Oh, you're here. Come on in." We spent the day in one of the bedrooms. At the end of the afternoon, the man came upstairs with a nervous look on his face. "My wife thinks you should leave, before the children get home. Our home is too small for us to hide people." 
And that was our hiding place gone. It was a difficult time.
This man did not find the courage to help the Jewish persons at his doorstep. Turning them away could have meant death for them, as they had no other place to go.

Those who chose to help the Jews

On the other side of the coin, many regular people became heroes during the war. The Dutch resistance was a huge movement, "peaking at over 300,000 people in hiding in the autumn of 1944, tended to by some 60,000 to 200,000 illegal landlords and caretakers and tolerated knowingly by some one million people, including German occupiers and military" (Wikipedia).

Hidden is filled with stories of those who helped the Jews to survive. Israel later created the Yad Vashem medal to recognize the contributions of these "Righteous Among the Nations." Over 9000 people have received the award, including a family that hid one of the children in Hidden, and the Yad Vashem centre documents many of these inspiring stories on its website.

It should be noted, however, that even those who helped were not always motivated by altruism. Lowina de Levie writes in Hidden about their retreat into hiding:
Non-Jewish colleagues of my father's arranged the addresses for us. How they found them and how much it cost were subjects no one mentioned, not even after the war. One thing was clear though: Money was necessary, and it was almost impossible for people without any money to go into hiding.
Lies Elion writes of yet another motive that some people had for taking in Jews:
Uncle Hannes's son Teun took me to another address nearby. When the people came to the door, they were really indignant. Who's this you've brought?" they said, "We asked for a girl of at least seventeen, didn't we? We want a housemaid, not a little girl." [Elion was 12 or 13 at the time.]...
They let me say. I was given a tiny little bedroom...They made me work as their maid and they really made me work hard. In addition to the daily chores, they wanted me to dust and wax all of the furniture once a week. That meant that everything had to be moved - and it was all so heavy! I used to cry myself to sleep every night.
The stories in Hidden remain relevant to us today, 70 years after the end of Second World War. They continue to hold up a mirror to our own faces, because the moral dilemmas that were present in the Holocaust still recur in various forms today. How do we ourselves react in the face of the injustices of our own time?

The first step: conquer fear

People tend to be afraid of so many things. No one wants to stick out their neck and risk criticism, loss of prestige, social standing, employment, and so on. In fact, people sometimes do precisely the wrong thing out of a misguided need to prove their loyalty to the evil in power, and this too can be motivated by fear.

Some of our fears are definitely warranted, as there are real risks involved in standing up against the prevailing obsessions and injustices of the day. Many people make the choice to stay "safe" and passive, hidden in the crowd.

It is perhaps telling that the highest-ranking Nazis eventually used the Nuremberg Defense. While they appeared so aggressive during the World War, they actually turned out to be cowards who would not take responsibility for their own behaviour. Evil thrives on cowardice.

After reading Hidden, I believe that the most important ingredient in doing the right thing is to conquer fear itself, and prevent it from disabling us. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in his inaugural address: "[T]he only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

It is only when we find the courage to take personal risks that we can help bring about a better world. On the individual level, we might even be saving lives, as in the case of the prolife movement.

As Winston Churchill said: "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities... because it is the quality which guarantees all others."


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