BY EDITH VELMANS, VIKING, pounds 14.99
FACED WITH the publication of yet another testimony from a Holocaust survivor, my heart sank. "There's no business like Shoah business": Christopher Hitchens's remark rang in my ears. Indeed, after the terrible acuity, even lyricism, of masters such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Jorge Semprun, much Holocaust literature by lesser writers has come uncomfortably close to kitsch.
None of these fears was borne out by Edith Velmans's book. Both memoir and meditation, it is moving and wise, and for once the cover does not lie. It depicts a pretty, well dressed girl of 13 or so, striking an irresistibly confident pose, chin up, arms akimbo. The title refers both to the diary Edith began in 1938, and to the book that grew out of it more than 50 years later.
Edith Velmans was born into a privileged, progressive and remarkably happy family in The Hague in 1925. Her mother was German, her father a former trained artist, who became the European executive of an American timber company but remained a devoted painter, sculptor and photographer, corresponding with artists such as Kathe Kollwitz. Edith's glamorous, passionate mother was also a talented musician, who often played and sang duets with her husband. Family life revolved around art, literature and music, which were shared as sources of play and pleasure. Edith and her two elder brothers were encouraged to be creative as their fancy dictated.
In 1938, Edith's German Jewish grandmother arrived as a refugee from persecution. More German refugees passing through their house, Hitler's invasion of Poland, building a bomb shelter in the garden, the German invasion of Holland, and the early days of occupation - the teenager's diary registers these events, but they make little impact on her happy- go-lucky existence.
Later in 1941, Nazi restrictions on Jews begin to bite. When Jews are banned from ordinary schools, Edith discovers who is, and is not, Jewish among her friends. Before, it had never mattered. Nor had it been much of an issue in Edith's own family, which was highly assimilated. For Edith, being Dutch rather than German had been the salient fact.
Not until summer 1942, when Jews could barely go out and mass deportations were well under way, did Edith go into hiding. She was taken in by Tine and Egbert zur Kleinsmiede, Calvinist friends of her boyfriend's parents, in Breda. With a new identity as Nettie Schierboom, Edith spent the rest of the war as a mother's help and companion to the zur Kleinsmiedes' daughter. Both her parents were in different Dutch hospitals, where her father eventually died of cancer of the jaw. Edith's mother and grandmother were gassed at Sobibor. Her brother, Jules, also went underground, hoping to escape to England, but was betrayed and died in Auschwitz.
Edith's account of her life in Breda is the most vivid evocation of the experience of Nazi occupation that I have read. It is not based on her diary - keeping one was too dangerous because, if discovered, it would compromise others - but on memories and letters, primarily between Edith and her parents. The latter not only share their daughter's literary gifts, but their writing conveys a love, understanding and stoicism which sustain Edith - through the risks of capture or betrayal which make it impossible for her to be herself, through the strains of her dependence on her hosts' family, through the suffering and death in her own. She develops from a slightly dippy, self-absorbed child into a tolerant and compassionate adult who confronts suffering without self-pity or bitterness and devotes herself to working for the future.
Of course, Edith was very lucky. Less than one in five Dutch Jews survived. Of the 24,000 Jews who hid in Holland, 8,000 were betrayed. Tine zur Kleinsmiede became a second mother to Edith. When she was honoured in Israel in 1983, she said "Anyone would have done the same thing, in my place. Any decent person, that is."
The others are thin on the ground in Edith's Book. When, years later, a friend has to remind Edith of two classmates who became Nazis and turned on her, she is forced to acknowledge that her recollections are "skewed towards examples of loyalty and courage shown by friends and strangers. If something did not fit in with this glowing picture of my fellow countrymen, I refused to process it."
Edith's Book is neither sanguine nor sentimental about the Holocaust and man's capacity for evil. It shows that a belief in goodness, which also turns out to be a religious (in Edith's case Jewish) belief, is the key to living well with such a past. It is a marvellous corrective not only to the cult of Anne Frank, but to the modern appetite for victimology.Reuse content