Stuck

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 4.36.32 PMLike 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!”

3 thoughts on “Stuck

  1. Myriam says:

    I have postponed commenting and now Arnoud-Jan has said most of what I wanted to, in better words than I could.

    One important thing for historians is to reserve judgement. An example: Carol Ann Lee’s research about Otto Frank. It looked sensational to discover that Opekta, Otto Frank’s firm had delivered goods to the Wehrmacht. This caused quite a stir. But it is far less sensational than it looks. At that time Otto Frank had already been put aside and the responsibility for who the clients would be was in the hands of a German.

    Something similar applies to your grandfather: at the end of 1940, his firm was in liquidation and by the beginning of 1941, a German had forcefully been made CEO. Moreover, he got to work for the Dutch authorities, who were managing the Netherlands for better or worse. But then those authorities had to comply to Germans orders and help looting their own country.

    Before the Second World War, the Netherlands were neutral. So doing business with Germany was at that time official policy, just as it was for the US.
    Perhaps not so different from doing business with Putin’s Russia at the moment.
    We can perhaps learn more about interpreting the dilemmas around the German occupation of the Netherlands by looking at what is happening now rather than the other way round.

    I am quite confident that you are increasingly understanding those intricacies and that deeper knowledge of the background will help you to give depth to the storytelling.

  2. Heidi Fishman says:

    Arnoud-Jan –
    Thank you so much for the vote of confidence. Your words really help as I am muddling through all the twists and turns of this process. I understand your point of leaving the questions unanswered, and yet, that doesn’t work so well in the creative non-fiction format of story telling that I am attempting.

    I think what I will need to do is write something that covers most of “the facts” and then add some footnotes or authors notes to explain just what you did here. Maybe I will even quote you quoting Mendelsohn.

    Heidi
    P.S. – “The Lost” is sitting on my nightstand – I hope to get to it soon!

  3. Arnoud-Jan Bijsterveld says:

    Dear Heidi,
    if I were you I wouldn’t alter a word to what you wrote in your last post and include it as such in your book. It is wonderful and telling as it is! What you are describing is exactly what most historians go through while trying to reconstruct the past. You too now experienced history is not math…
    I learnt this lesson long ago and was reminded of it again when reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s, The Lost. In Search for Six of Six Million (New York 2006). At p. 486-487 he writes:

    ‘I did and do believe … that … if you look for things, if you search, you will, by the very act of searching, make something happen that would not otherwise have happened, you will find something, even something small, something that will certainly be more than if you hadn’t gone looking in the first place … There are no miracles, no magical coincidences. There is only looking, and finally seeing, what was always there. … … For everything, in time, gets lost: the lives of peoples now remote, the tantalizing yet ultimately vanished and largely unknowable lives of virtually all … who ever lived …
    But for a little while some of that can be rescued, if only … somebody makes the decision to look back, to have one last look, so search for a while in the debris of the past and to see not only what was lost but what there still is to be found.’

    And I would add: Whether the things one finds are always accurate and complete? Not necessarily. But the looking is more important than the finding.

    I don’t see a way either in which you could make match all the things you found. But that’s part of doing history and a good lesson too: the past is a mess, it’s ambivalent and contradictory as life itself. There is no neat storyline, as there was no storyline for your grandfather either.

    So just describe the ambivalences and contradictions and be frank about it. Maybe someday THE document explaining everything turns up, but I wouldn’t count on it. Daniel Mendelsohn went through the same thing when trying to reconstruct the fate of his relatives.

    But… I last week got a document telling the story of Bobby’s attempted escape, told by somebody in a letter of 27 January 1945 (that fateful day…). I got it from Connie Victor Polak, Bertram’s sister. I met her in Israel, where I visited the Polak family and gave a talk and showed the film at Yad Vashem! I’ll send you an e-mail with the translation of the letter’s content. It was written by the late Ernst Elzas, who in 2003 was the first to tell me the story. The circle is closed and I now need to start writing!! So do you!

    Hartelijke groeten
    Arnoud-Jan

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