Witness and Memory in Wartime Holland
Paper 144 pp.
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Henry Schogt met his wife, Corrie, in 1954 in Amsterdam. Each knew the other had grown up in the Netherlands during World War II, but for years they barely spoke of their experiences. This was true for many people — the memories were just too painful. Years later, Henry and Corrie began to piece their memories together, to untangle reality from dreams. Their intent was to help others understand what had happened then, and how it influenced and affected not only their lives but those of all who survived.
The seven stories in The Curtain reveal how two families — one Jewish, one non-Jewish — fared in the Netherlands during the German occupation in World War II. Each vignette highlights a specific aspect of life; all show how life changed for everyone, and forever.
Four stories are based on the author’s memories of his own non-Jewish family: Henry’s friendship with a Jewish teenager; the conflict of personal antipathy with the realization that help must be provided; the Schogt parents’ determination to do the right thing; the difficulties of coping with an aunt with Nazi sympathies. These are stories about the randomness of survival and the elusive nature of memory.
For the Jewish family, three stories drawn from the memories of the author’s wife and family demonstrate the bewildering situation of trying to make impossible life-determining decisions when faced with confusing and deceitful decrees. The family must struggle with the luck — or absence thereof — of finding refuge when forced from their homes, and with the perplexing inconsistencies of the collaboration of Dutch authorities and police with the Nazis.
The Curtain emphasizes the difference between the options that were open to non-Jews and Jews in the Netherlands. Non-Jews could freely choose whether to actively resist the Germans, collaborate with the Nazis, or just to do nothing, and try to live a normal life in spite of wartime restrictions.
Dutch Jews, on the other hand, did not have a choice — whatever they did, whatever decisions they made, they were doomed, and it often seemed, when someone survived, just simple luck. A short introduction about the war years and an appendix with a chronology of decrees, events, and statistics, provide background information for this haunting memoir of those disturbing years during the German Occupation in the Netherlands.
Henry G. Schogt was born in the Netherlands in 1927, just before the great Depression. His high school years coincided with the German occupation, growing material hardships, and the infamous extermination of the Jews. He is an emeritus professor of French at the University of Toronto, Canada.
“The Curtain challenges the simplistic postwar picture ‘of a heroic people standing firm against the mighty enemy.’ Like Primo Levi, he describes a grey zone Schogt believes Canadians barely know....
Small details make all the difference; neighbours who tap electricity enable his mother to save the life of a Jewish baby that she hides. But the triumph of the baby’s survival is muted when we read that the survivor later committed suicide....Objecting to Bruno Bettelheim’s criticism of the Frank family’s behaviour, he is sceptical about survivor accounts that declare ‘that the will to survive was the key to success.’ He also problematizes our desire to speculate about wartime choices....
Only in 1986 did Schogt learn from a relative who witnessed his in-laws’ deportation from Theresienstadt that she once saved them by hiding them behind a curtain and offered to do so a second time, but they declined. How could they know ‘it was the last big transport to leave Theresienstadt for Auschwitz’? Would it have made a difference: The memoir’s final words — ‘the curtain behind which [they] might have been hidden’ — acknowledge that speculation is both useless and inevitable....
However useless such speculation may be, the strength of The Curtain is its ability to make such questions a part of witness and memory.”
— Adrienne Kertzer, University of Toronto Quarterly, Letters in Canada 2004
Looking back more than half a century, this fine memoir describes episodes in the lives of two Dutch families, one Jewish and one Gentile, during the dark days of the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands. Vivid detail mixes with keen analysis, recreating the sometimes desparate Dutch part in a global drama. Henry Schogt recounts how people coped — caring for each other, hiding, dissimulating, enduring, accommodating, resisting, and in some cases succumbing to the Nazi tyranny. These pages are a memorial to a time and place that few of us have known directly, speaking to all who care about human suffering and rebirth.
— Michael R. Marrus, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies, University of Toronto
Henry Schogt’s gentle memoir of wartime Amsterdam explores the past through eyes of a sensitive child experiencing the breakdown of the safe and the familiar. His brave parents — “righteous Gentiles” who hid many Jews in their home at great risk to themselves — merit a place of honour at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
— Erna Paris, award-winning author of Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History
“Henry Schogt and his wife, Corrie, were only 12 and 11 respectively when World War II began. The Curtain is Schogt’s account of six difficult years for a Dutch boy and a Jewish girl in Holland.... Schogt portrays the reality of life in occupied Holland, with some working to oppose Nazi schemes for the Dutch Jews, some willingly assisting those plans, and many indifferent to anything but their own personal efforts to survive. His honest assessments make this book a powerful witness to a tragic time.”
— A.J. Pell, Canadian Book Review Annual
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