As those who celebrated the construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. worked hard to make clear, we are reaching an important point in the history of the world - there will soon be no survivors of the World War II period left alive. The commentary on the presidential elections in France mentioned that this is the first set of candidates for the high office with no experience of the war. This same situation is true for those who experienced the Holocaust, in its various dimensions - there will soon be no one left alive to tell the story directly. In a world where Holocaust denial ebbs and flows, this becomes a problem. Projects such as Mark Klempner's `The Heart Has Reasons' are truly important, in helping to keep alive the memory of those who had direct experience.
Most people in the Western world are familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank, but fewer are aware that there were many stories of heroism among the Dutch during the war. However, the overall survival rate of Jews in Holland was among the lowest in occupied Western Europe. There were people who helped hide and shelter Jewish people, at tremendous risk to their own lives. `Those who decided to help Jews in Holland had to be willing to disobey the Nazi measures and resist the Nazi machinations to relegate Jews to subhuman status. They had to cross the line from being law-abiding citizens to enemies of the state. They had to act from the heart, come what may.' This book is about ten different people who took it upon themselves to come between the Nazi efforts and those who would be victims.
Mark Klempner is listed in the credits as a folklorist and oral historian. Given that narrative theology is a particular interest of mine, his background and method of development fits with my own ideas of how to develop history into a memorable and lasting element of culture. It was also an important development for Klempner. The final paragraph of his introductory piece speaks to this: `Spending time with the rescuers was, for me, a transforming experience. They welcomed me into their homes as though I were someone special - a characteristic inversion - and showered me with hospitality and kindness. I soon was looking at them not only as people who had made history, but also as people who could teach me a different way to live. I've come to think of them as radiant specks around the black hole of the Holocaust, and they've become a radiant presence in my own life as well.'
Klempner presents, after his personal introduction, a chapter on the background of the history, which includes both general history of the development of the Holocaust as well as specifically Dutch history - the NSB (Dutch Fascists), the piece-by-piece encroachment on Dutch rights and Jewish rights during the occupation, and overall development of a resistance to the oppression. The heart of the book, however, is in the ten stories of those who put security, family and life on the line to help those in need.
The names are important, for the Holocaust gets lost in the abstraction of numbers. But all stories are personal. Heiltje Kooistra found inspiration for her actions in her own religious faith - `If you love Jesus, how can you not love the people and tradition out of which Jesus came forth?' Rut Matthijsen was a behind-the-scenes operator in the resistance, who looked past the discrimination: `Years later, when I went to Israel to receive the Yad Vashem award, I was asked, "Why did you help the Jewish people?" The emphasis being on the word Jewish. But that was Adolf Hitler's emphasis. I helped them because they were people.' Hetty Voute spent years in prison for her efforts, as did her friend Gisela Sohnlein. Clara Dijkstra ended up being the second mother to a girl she rescued, a relationship that continues to this day. Some, like Kees Veenstra, are very private about their actions, preferring to consider himself an ordinary person. Janet Kalff tapped into her Quaker background for strength, whereas Mieke Vermeer drew from a Calvinist background. Pieter Meerburg's actions came out of a humanism not borne of religious conviction, but out of respect for life. Theo Leender's relationship with God can sometimes be stormy, but his faith in doing what is right did not falter.
These are not people who looked for personal reward - in fact, just the opposite is the case for several of them. Many remained generous beyond their wartime efforts; Klempner mentions one man who had a stack of fund-raising letters from charities, who always found time to help even the smaller causes with a little bit, saying, `Even a small donation can give a lot of encouragement to people doing good work.'
This book was a gift to me, both spiritually and literally. I was offered the chance to read it months ago, and it took a long time. The stories could not be rushed through as if it were one more text to read; I found myself with tears of anger, frustration, and occasional joy throughout many of the stories (and it is hard to read through tears). Klempner has given rare insight into a side of the Holocaust little known but very important, and very powerful witnesses who give hope to the future.