The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

By Nina Siegal; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Journalist Nina Siegal had finished talking to two researchers at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam about a photographic exhibit they had done, when one of them, René Kok, invited her to see one more thing before she left.

What he showed her was an archive, lit like a scientific lab, filled with rows of metal filing cabinets and camel-colored boxes containing personal diaries from World War II: more than 2,100.

Anne Frank’s diary (#248) is one of them, but so are others written by “shop clerks, resistance fighters, train conductors, artists, musicians, policemen and grocers.”

Siegal points out that Anne Frank’s diary gave the world the impression that the Dutch protected their Jewish citizens because the Frank family were hidden for more than two years by friends.

The truth, according to Siegal, is that The Netherlands had one of the lowest survival rates for its Jewish citizens of all the Western European countries. Of an estimated, 140,000 Dutch Jews, only about 35,000 survived. That is to say 75 percent of the Dutch Jewish population was murdered in five years, compared to 25 percent in France or 40 percent in Belgium.

Siegal’s exploration of the archive has resulted in her book, THE DIARY KEEPERS. The book offers a snapshot of life in The Netherlands during the German occupation, an examination of the role diaries can or should play in recorded history, and how attitudes about remembering and memorializing the Holocaust changed over time.

Seven diaries were excerpted for this book. Three are written by Jews (one survived the occupation in hiding, one wrote from a concentration camp and one worked for the Jewish Council until the Jewish community was liquidated). Two were written by Dutch Nazis, one a policeman in Amsterdam and another the wife of a doctor aspiring to a position with the SS in The Hague. One was written by a member of a resistance organization and one by a 17-year-old factory clerk.

The excerpts begin on May 10, 1940, when German Luftwaffe paratroopers descend into the area around The Hague. As sections open, Siegal provides context for the events unfolding as the diarists wrote. Using this approach readers get multiple views of the same events. (In one case, two diarists – Douwe Bakker, a Dutch Nazi and police agent, and Ina Steur, a clerk at the Werkspoor Factory – were at the same event which they described in their diaries later.)

One of the more professionally trained writers Siegal selected was Philip Mechanicus. He grew up in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter and became a respected foreign correspondent, covering among other things Russia and Palestine. He was fired for being Jewish in 1941 and arrested in September 1942 for being in public without wearing a yellow star.

He was sent to Amersfoort concentration camp where he was tortured. Two months later, he was transferred to the Westerbork transit camp. His diary was written in 15 little notebooks he got from the camp’s school. Before he was sent to Auschwitz he was able to smuggle the notebooks to his non-Jewish ex-wife. Thirteen survived.

“I have the feeling that I am an unofficial reporter covering a shipwreck,” Mechanicus wrote in his journal on May 29, 1943.

A point that Siegal makes again and again in her book is that we look back at historical events with 20-20 hindsight. Today, we know what lay ahead for the diary writers. But they had no idea at the time that they were writing. What they recorded takes us back to what they experienced in the moment.

Many academic historians believe that diaries shouldn’t be relied on as historical records. They are limited to one person’s perspective, are a subjective record of events and don’t tell the full story of an event or period. Siegal argues that they make a valuable contribution to our understanding of unfolding events.

Siegal doesn’t conclude her book with the end of the war.

One of the diarists, Douwe Bakker was a Dutch Nazi and an inspector at the Central Criminal Investigation Department of the Amsterdam Police Department. He was arrested in May 1945 and underwent several trials until 1948. In May 1947, as his second trial was coming to an end, his 3,300-page, 18 volume diary, complete with photos and newspaper clippings was brought in as evidence.

He confirmed that the diary was his and had been written immediately or shortly after the events described in it, but insists that “my words were more fanatical than my deeds.” Despite the proof contained it, he insists that he never harmed anyone or promoted any harm.” At one point in his second trial he claims “he himself couldn’t understand what he’d written. ‘I must have been hypnotized,’ he said.”

In 1948, he was sentenced to life in prison. But his words outline one of the problems of diaries as history: they can be a platform for ego dramas.

This book isn’t just a view of The Netherlands during the German Occupation. Siegal grapples with challenging questions throughout:

  • How much did people know about the Nazis’ plans and how much did they trust the information they had?
  • Why did survivors stay silent after the war and what changed to encourage them to speak out about their experiences?
  • How valid are diaries and journals as a basis for documenting historical events given that they are one person’s subjective point of view and may — unconsciously or not — be a fantasy view of self and behavior in a given set of circumstances?
  • How have the memorials to those lost in the Holocaust changed in The Netherlands over the past seven decades?

Siegal’s book is by turns poignant, horrifying and emotionally challenging. It’s an important addition to our understanding of the Holocaust and life during the German Occupation.

The Author: Nina Siegal

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Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island. She moved to The Netherlands in 2006 to research her second novel, THE ANATOMY LESSON, which tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece.

She rented an apartment in the neighborhood where Rembrandt lived, the Jodenbuurt or Jewish Quarter. Observing the number of Jewish buildings no longer serving their original cultural purposes, turned into memorials or missing and replaced with modern buildings, she “started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books.”

Although none of her family (to her knowledge) are from The Netherlands, her mother’s family came from Hungary and Ukraine. Most died at Auschwitz. Her grandfather survived three concentration camps and was liberated from Mauthausen. Her grandmother and mother survived by going into hiding.

A novelist and frequent contributor to the International New York Times, Siegal continues to live in The Netherlands, where she is raising her daughter.

She earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University and a master’s in fine arts in fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

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