When I was nineteen, I spent two days in Amsterdam. I was on an art history trip with eighty classmates (my university had a study abroad program in the Netherlands, and during our semester, we took two trips as a group – one to Paris and one to Amsterdam). It was late September, and we hadn’t been in Europe long. While I made use of the fact that the drinking age was lower than at home, I had no interest in seeking out any of Amsterdam’s seedier attractions, and a few friends and I happily spent our time at the Van Gogh Museum, renting bicycles (completely in awe of such a bike friendly city, having come straight from Boston, where cyclists must be at least half mad to compete with traffic), and standing in front of the Anne Frank House. I remember the keen disappointment mixed with relief that the museum was closed for repairs. I desperately wanted to see it, but I also remembered how sobering it had been a year before when I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC on spring break with the very same women standing beside me.
I’ve always found World War II to be a fascinating period of history. My grandfathers both fought – my mother’s father, a firebrand even onto his death at 90, told me about being a part of the liberation of Dachau, of how he carried chocolate bars to give to the children there (it only occurred to me recently that he must have left out many details too horrific to relive, or to speak aloud to his granddaughter), while my father’s father, always a gentle and courageous man more comfortable behind the scenes, found his place teaching others how to parachute out of planes. When I was in school, WWII was a topic covered in history every year, and yet it’s only as an adult that I’ve read and learned the stories that have sunk into my heart and haunted me.
This book, borrowed from my best friend, a passionate Jewish woman who has, since we were ten, been teaching me to examine the world from uncomfortable and worthwhile perspectives, is one of the stories that will hover just outside my conscience for the rest of my life. The story evokes Amsterdam – an Amsterdam before the death of 100,000 of the 140,000 Jews who lived in the Netherlands – with such prismic clarity that I was transported. It was such an exquisite city when I visited, and yet the world as Dingee Fillmore creates it is infinitely more special.
Her heroine, Rachel Klein, is so similar to the girl I remember being when I walked the streets of Amsterdam. She was carefree, a good student, surrounded by loving friends, and anxious to have a boyfriend. She is a good daughter not because she has to be, but because she loves and respects her parents, and their opinion of her matters. She exists in a bubble that every teenager deserves to experience – one where the most exciting and important things in her life are tantalizingly out of reach – but in a present that is still sweet and special and intoxicating.
The Rachel we meet at the beginning of the story and the one we leave at the end are hardly the same person. She is a woman who has watched as one by one, her rights and opportunities have been stripped away, leaving her with nothing but memories of friends and neighbors being beaten and stolen and tortured for the amusement of others. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, after Rachel has just barely escaped yet another belligerent encounter with the Dutch police, she has a moment of bitter insight:
If she had been alone in the world, Rachel would have leapt at him and hit him the way Joost had taught her. They would have locked her up as another crazy Jewish terrorist. Yes, terrorist, she thought, the more they brutalize and go after us, the more they accuse us of being the aggressors. And a terrorist is someone every civilized person is authorized to hate. (p 147)
When I finished this book, I immediately called my friend to let her know how heavy my heart was, how it felt as though it were straining to take in so much sadness, and how it was desperate for fresh air and bright skies. She and I talked, as we have a few times before, about how different a book like this is for each of us – for her, hearing the voices of her people silenced in a number so staggering as to be as incomprehensible as the stars, and for me, buried in guilt wondering if I would have resisted, if I would have helped to save my neighbors, or if I would have stayed safe.
When I was a kid, another dear friend’s mother had posted this quote by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant minister, on her refrigerator, and I remember staring at it every time I was in her kitchen:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Back then, the part that chilled me was the idea that no one would be left to stand up for me, but as an adult, it is the sick fear that I might not do so for my neighbors. The world we share is not so different from the one Dingee Fillmore paints – the gap between privilege and oppression is as razor thin as it was in 1940. The resistance people like Rachel were brave enough to put up is viewed differently in hindsight than it is in any given moment. Those who are comfortable will always be made nervous by upheaval to the status quo, and those who ignore hatred in its many forms will always be caught unaware when the day of reckoning arrives.
It frightens me anew to read about how insidious and normalized oppression can be, how it slips through cracks until it has wound itself into and around everything, choking out reason and freedom. Dingee Fillmore includes certain details – the purchasing of Stars of David, the signs forbidding Jews from entering shops, the loss of access to bikes and public transportation – as almost an afterthought, as surely they must have seemed to many people at the time. When rights are taken away gradually, people accept the new normal much more willingly, even though to us, it’s obvious what it was – a chilling shift in political perspective. Instead, the moments seared into Rachel’s brain, as they undoubtedly would have been for most people, were seeing a friend’s home ransacked, or listening from behind closed curtains as families were dragged into the street in the middle of the night, or watching as her parents argued and grew thin under the occupation.
This book is truly a love story between a young woman and Amsterdam. It is about her incredible resilience and the undeniable horror she had to face. Rachel is just one woman, but her experiences remind me of all the untold stories – the victims and persecutors, those who were complicit in their silence, and the ordinary people who lived and fought and died, transformed into heroes through their willingness to risk everything for justice and freedom.
To read more from Mary Dingee Fillmore, head here.