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Learning to Not Read History Backwards (Local Tips & Reviews)

Some years ago, at an exhibition in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter, “The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs: The Netherlands, 1940–1945,” I was struck by single photograph of a young couple striding arm-in-arm through one of my adopted city’s most recognizable squares, the Dam, in front of the royal palace, in January 1943. They looked gloriously happy, maybe even in love, but on the lapel of each of their winter coats was a Star of David.

I could not stop looking at the picture. The image just took my breath away. How could they be so vibrant and cheerful, while so clearly marked for death? I remarked as much to Judith Cohen, the director of the photography archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., during an interview a few days later.

“It’s important not to read history backwards,” she responded. “It’s important to keep in mind that nobody knew how it would end.”

Of course that was right; even in January 1943, most Jews in the Netherlands didn’t know that the edict that they must sew the yellow Star of David into all their outerwear was a sign of far worst to come. Some suspected as much, and refused to wear the symbol, and some non-Jews wore it in solidarity with the Jews to show their overlords that they didn’t approve of this method of branding. Most of these people were subsequently arrested—the Jews deported and the non-Jews frequently let go. But the couple in the photo, Miep Krant and Ralph Polak, who were in fact engaged that day, could, at least temporarily, regard the star as a mere inconvenience.

Nobody knew in January 1943 what we know today, which is that 75 percent of the Dutch Jews would die in Nazi concentration camps before the end of the war. They were living history forwards, day by day, moment by moment, attempting to enjoy and go on with their lives, in spite of the mounting persecution, increasingly stringent regulations, and deportations to an foreseeable future.

A week later, I visited the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam for the first time to interview two researchers, René Kok and Erik Somers, who had curated the photography exhibition. I was writing an article for The New York Times, about how so many of the images had been shot by bystanders, ordinary Dutch people who had witnessed the roundups of their neighbors from their Amsterdam apartment windows.

I’d long been fascinated by the NIOD, both for its hallowed reputation as a center of war and Holocaust scholarship, but also for its very special building. It is housed in an exquisite double-wide mansion on the Herengracht, dripping with baroque design features, including cherubs and deities, and Romanesque soldiers whose heads pop out from columns and pilasters.

Other impressive buildings situated along this Golden Bend of the “Gentleman’s Canal”—one of the UNESCO Heritage canals that make up the city’s picturesque grachtengordel—are nowhere near as ornate. They tend to be more faithful to a Calvinist tradition of stoicism and spare design, and the NIOD building flies in the face of those principles. I appreciated its interesting gaudiness in contrast to the otherwise austere canal mansions on either side.

I found that the interior also reflected the same kind of whimsical splendor, as its nineteenth century owner had decided on decorating it in a “potpourri of styles,” in the manner of a seventeenth century castle, hand-painted silk wallpaper, the Turkish-style mosaic tile encircling the sunken bathtub, the skylights that gave sight to the sun and moon, and the backyard complete with grassy lawn and horse stables, where the original owner had parked his carriage.

René Kok picked me up in the foyer and led me upstairs to meet Somers in conference room to talk about bystander photography during the war. While most of the surviving imagery we have from the occupation period in the Netherlands was taken by German or pro-German Dutch photographers for propaganda purposes, they explained, they’d been able to discover many new images taken by ordinary people who had clandestinely shot pictures out their windows, without getting caught.

Cohen had already informed me about how rare these were. She’d confirmed that it was very difficult to find images taken by “non authorized” photographers, especially of Jewish raids, or Razzias.

“We all know the who, what, when, and where of the Holocaust, but the why is a mystery still,” she had told me. The “why,” she elaborated, “is why so many people let it happen, why they collaborated, or watched from the sidelines, or made it possible in one way or another for the Nazis to round up and deport their neighbors. ‘What were ordinary people thinking? What were they doing?’ If you can get bystander photos, that that explains a little bit of the why.”

The thought played through my head again and again as I spoke to Kok and Somers. The photographs, however, told a story of bystander fear, but also bystander complicity. One could look out the window, while drinking tea, and see their neighbors, marked, forced into public squares, driven into trucks, beaten, humiliated, deported. It had happened just outside their doors, outside their windows. Everyone could see everything.

Just then, René tapped me on the shoulder, breaking me out of my musings. “Before you go, can I just show you one more thing?” he said. He led me down through the mansion’s carved cherrywood staircase under a pendulous chandelier, through the modern study hall with its glass atrium below the carriage house, and down white marble stairs into the basement. There, he heaved open a bank vault door, one-foot thick, and pressed into the NIOD’s archives, announcing that we were about to dive “below sea level.”

The archive, stark and bright like a scientific lab, was filled with rows of metal filing cabinets. Using a hand crank, René Kok opened a single wall, revealing hundreds of camel-colored boxes. Inside these, he said, were personal diaries, written by ordinary Dutch people during the war. There were more than 2,100 of them.

“We opened the Institute three days after Liberation,” he explained “We asked people to bring in their personal documents about the war. The diaries came pouring in.”

In these files were the stories of shop clerks, resistance fighters, train conductors, artists, musicians, policemen, grocers. Anne Frank’s diary was submitted here, too. He said the range of the collection was vast. He pulled a file from the wall and opened it. The first thing that jumped out at us was a portrait of Hitler, pasted lovingly onto the black-and-white marbleized notebook cover. Inside, we found hand-drawn sheet music for SS marching songs. I’d never even imagined SS marching songs—but that made perfect sense.

“Did you say more than 2,100 diaries?” I asked.

René drew out another file from the wall. This one contained hand-painted watercolor illustrations. I gasped at drawings of Nazi soldiers standing in an open doorway, a civilian silhouetted in the hall. Another folder contained school notebooks filled with youthful poetry, pretty floral-patterned journals, bound, typed editions thick as textbooks. Why was René showing me all of this?

He explained that the Institute had recently initiated an “Adopt-a- Diary” program to make these journals more accessible to the public. His colleague René Pottkamp was coordinating a team of volunteers, who had already started to scan and transcribe them, and soon they would digitize them. Although they contained rich textures of the war, some of them were illegible or indecipherable.

“I see researchers coming in here and they’re excited to read these diaries,” he explained. “But you see after one hour”—he mimicked a person’s eyes drooping—“And then another hour”—he pantomimed a head nodding, falling to a desk. “It’s tiring to read someone else’s handwriting.”

Many of the diaries had been photocopied and the copies were poor, on cracked old mimeograph paper. Others had been preserved only on rectangles of microfiche, white text on a black background that could make one dizzy. Sometimes the copies were so small that they required a magnifying glass. By transcribing and digitizing them, NIOD was salvaging them from obscurity.

I could only stand and marvel. I felt that I had been introduced to a trove of writing that would give me direct access to the war period and an understanding of not only the facts—the what, where, and when—but also the how and why. How it felt to live through it, through the eyes of individuals from every walk of life.

It was neither the story of the Jews of the Netherlands, nor the history of their persecutors, nor exclusively the resistance story. It was all of them. Each of their voices was represented here, potentially offering perspective on the entire war generation. These diaries might be another way for me to read history forward, as Cohen had suggested, day by day, moment by moment, just as we all live our lives, without knowing what comes next.

Were these ordinary diary writers people like my grandfather, Emerich, facing the unknown, day to day? Would I be able to find him, somehow, here, amid all these pages? Or could I, at the very least, somehow use this material to get closer to his story?

Most important, was I allowed to read all these? And if so, how soon could I get started?

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