Like many writers, I have hit a spot where I am stuck. This isn’t writer’s block. It isn’t due to a lack of imagination or time or effort. I am stuck because I can’t quite fit together the pieces of history that I have unearthed.
I have my mother’s memories and the stories she has told me many times. I have my great grandfather’s diary. And I have several primary source documents. Each one tells a piece of the story. I know somehow they fit together, and yet, I can’t quite get all the pieces into a sequence that makes a cohesive picture. I feel like I am doing a jigsaw puzzle without the aid of the picture on the box, and to make it a little harder, there are pieces missing, and, just possibly, a few pieces that actually don’t belong.
Here are some of the facts:
- My mother’s family was interned in the prisoner barracks at Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands late October 1943.
- They were released late November 1943.
- My grandfather helped set up the metalworks at the camp before he was imprisoned there – most probably in late september.
- He was re-interned in February 1944. This time in the “privileged barracks.”
- At some point the family was in hiding in Amsterdam for about one month.
- And a less reliable source says that the family was arrested on September 5th while in hiding.
From my research I know that you don’t get put in the prisoner barracks for nothing. Usually it is because you are either found in hiding or you didn’t report when you were supposed to. It makes sense that if my grandfather was in hiding and therefore reported late, he would have ended up in the prisoner barracks. However, how could he have been setting up the metalworks whilst in hiding? I can’t seem to fit that piece of the puzzle into the sequence of events.
I find myself spending time wondering about late fall 1943 and what my grandfather was facing. His parents and his in-laws were in the camp. He wanted to save them from deportation to the east. Helping to make the camp “useful” by turning it into a work camp could save them and many more. He had so many decisions to make, and I am sure that he knew that a wrong decision would lead to death.
I may be stuck with the writing, but more importantly, my grandfather was stuck too. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Helping to turn Camp Westerbork into a metal sorting operation for the Nazis could save his parents, his children, his wife and himself. It would keep hundreds of Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. On the other hand, sorting metal for the Nazis so that they could use it to build war machines could help them win the war and murder more innocent people.
So many people faced similar dilemmas during the war. Save yourself or somebody else? Hide or report? Fight or flight? Some of the decisions were agonized over for many days or weeks, while others were made in only a fraction of a second. Many people who survived felt guilty about living. They knew that they did things along the way that the weren’t proud of. Things happened that they wished they hadn’t done. They are left with survivor’s guilt. The thoughts of “if only I had done x” or “why did I do y?” haunt them. I want to tell them all – “you didn’t know. You didn’t have a choice, or the choice you had was untenable. There was no perfect solution. There was no way out that guaranteed a positive outcome for all who deserved it. You were stuck!”