Life & Culture

‘An entire world in one album’

A young girl's 'friendship book' was one of the only things saved when her family was murdered by the Nazis. She and her friends would have been completely forgotten - but writer Claudia Carli vowed to uncover their lost histories


Alida Lopes Dias, had a gift for her 10th birthday, a ‘friendship book’. Her friends, her teacher, some of her family wrote poems in the book over the next few years. It should have been a sweet keepsake — something she could look back on over the years.

But Alida never got to look back on her life. She was born in Amsterdam, in 1929. She died at the age of 12, murdered by the Nazis at the Sobibor extermination camp. Of the 19 girls who wrote poems in her album, only six survived the war. Her entire family was murdered, apart from her sister Gretha. The family home was taken over, with a neighbour saving a few photographs and papers. Among them was Alida’s friendship book.

The album is now the basis of an extraordinary book by Claudia Carli, a former television producer. She spent years scouring the archives to trace every single one of the people who wrote in Alida’s book. She was determined to recreate as far as she could, the brief life of this little girl and the world around her. The result is vivid, and heart-breaking. Carli’s aim is to “present a picture of the world these girls lived in, so that no one will forget they were here.” The friendship book, she adds, is “an entire world in one album.”

Carli first met Alida’s older sister Gretha when she was a child and Gretha already seemed to be an old lady. Carli’s stepfather had a martial arts school and across the street lived an elderly couple Gretha and Ari. They became friends of the family — Ari had been a successful boxer, he got on well with Claudia’s stepfather. Claudia and her sister would walk Gretha’s little dog.

Gretha wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, but she liked the girls. Sometimes the sight of the two sisters together would prompt Gretha to show them a picture of her own sister, Alie. The sisters knew that Gretha had been in a place called Auschwitz during the war. “We didn’t know what it meant, but we knew it was very bad. And she would get very sad, and we just didn’t ask.”

Carli always felt an affection for Gretha, and liked her sense of humour.“I felt like she was misunderstood. She had a really, really hard life… When you see pictures of Gretha before the war she was this fun girl with beautiful eyes, beautiful hair, big smile. And then she went to Auschwitz.”

Gretha didn’t talk much about the past. But then news broke that a book was going to be published in the Netherlands, listing the Jewish children killed in the Shoah. Claudia’s family asked Gretha if she would like Alie’s name to be in the book, and she said she would. “And from then on, we dared to ask more questions.”

She opened up especially to Carli’s stepfather, who became almost like a son to the couple. “I always asked him, please ask her this. I would call and say, could you tell more about this? And that’s how I got to know all about this story.”

When Gretha died in 2011, she left Alie’s friendship book to Carli’s stepfather. Reading it, Carli felt “I had a treasure.” She was moved by Gretha’s message to her sister, written after her return to Amsterdam: “ Although you are dead, I will never ever forget you. You will always remain in my heart. As long as I shall live, I will keep this album.”

Anne Frank, the teenager who hid from the Nazis in her father’s office on the Prinsengracht in central Amsterdam has come to symbolise all of the children murdered in the Shoah. Millions flock to view her hiding place every year. But the paradox of her fame is that in some ways it can obliterate the stories of other children who died — especially those who also lived in Amsterdam. “Anne Frank was very special,” says Carli, “But what about the girls who nobody knew about? The ordinary girls. People should know that Alie existed, that she was there before them.”

The book paints a picture of the lives of Jewish children, living in the Pijp —‘the Pipe’ — a district of Amsterdam around the popular Albert Cuyp street market, named for its long, thin streets. Now much of it is hip and gentrified, then it was for working class people, and there was much poverty. Alie and Gretha’s parents sold flowers. The parents of their schoolfriends were cobblers, tailors, machinists, warehousemen. For Carli they represent the Dutch Jews that were deported and who died “just because they didn’t have means to go underground to go into hiding. The ordinary people.”

The first half of the book tells the story of Alie’s last years, reconstructed by Carli’s painstaking research. Conversations have been invented, but the details and events are all true. Alie suffers bullying from local non-Jewish children, her world shrinks as she’s banned from the park, the market, and sent to a special, Jewish school where — chillingly — children begin to disappear. The family try to make the best of things, and investigate whether they can somehow take Portuguese citizenship to escape — the Lopes Dias family having arrived in Amsterdam in the 17th century.

The second part of the book tells the story of all the people who wrote in the album. At first Carli’s research was very sad — girl after girl, all dead — but then she was able to find the four survivors. Each one had a story that could have made a book on its own. Take Mimi de Leeuw, who was transported first to Westerbork and then to Belsen where her sister starved to death and she survived typhus. Mimi is the only one still living in the Netherlands.

“So many things came together when I interviewed all the other girls, the women,” says Carli. “They would give me details on how class was done. How the school classes got emptier. Who was friends with whom and what the teacher was like.” Much of her research was done by Skype and phone. “Now I think, why didn’t I just get on a plane?”

She was able to find out the devastating story that had made Gretha the misunderstood ‘difficult’ person she had known. Gretha, Alie and their mother were together in Camp Vucht in the Netherlands but then Alie and their mother were sent on the ‘children’s transport’ to Sobibor and Gretha to Auschwitz. There she was given a choice — to work or take part in medical experiments. She knew that many were starving and being worked to death, so she chose the experiments. She and hundreds of other women had formalin injected into their wombs, giving them excruciating pain and making them infertile. She was never able to have her own children.

Gretha survived a ‘death march’ and was liberated by the Americans in 1945. She had to walk much of the way home to the Netherlands, and when she reached home she found that a strange man had taken over the family home. Every day she went to Central Station to check the lists of survivors from the camps. But eventually she learned that her mother and Alie — along with 3,000 others on the same transport — had been gassed on arrival at Sobibor. Gretha’s first husband Berry — a happy, cheerful young man before the war— was never seen again. Thirteen members of his family died, only one brother surviving by hiding at Amsterdam’s zoo.

Carli is not Jewish, but felt strongly that this was “a family story, that needed to be told. And Gretha had no family. She had no one left. So I did it for her and for Alie.”

She now works for a project entitled ‘The War in our Neighbourhood’ which takes schoolchildren around their area and tells them about its history. She shows them the houses where Alie and her friends lived, and explains how their lives changed. “They are just amazed,” she says. Some of those schoolchildren are from immigrant families themselves — there is social housing alongside the hipsters in the Pijp.

In every Shoah book we read, there is a feeling of this could have been me, my children, my friends, but this one grabbed my heart even more than usual. I lived in Amsterdam for eight years, my daughter was 11 when we left. She still has her friendship book, and sometimes looks back through it to remember her friends from primary school. Last time we visited we ate with friends in an Israeli restaurant in Olympiaplein — where Alie and Gretha’s parents once had a flower stall. The next day we went to the Pijp for dinner with another couple at their home in the Govertflinckstraat — the street where the Lopes Dias family lived.

But the strongest resonance comes not from Amsterdam but from my own childhood. When I was growing up our neighbours were called Lopes Dias. We were the only two Jewish families in our cul-de-sac.

They are still our close friends today — more like family. Their ancestors came from Portugal to Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, and from there to London. It is almost definite that they were related to Gretha and Alie.

In a few weeks, all being well, I will attend the wedding of Emma Lopes Dias, a young woman who is beautiful and talented, a singer and actress. And as we celebrate, I will remember — thanks to the devoted research of Claudia Carli — the very different fate of two other Lopes Dias girls.


As Long As I Hope to Live by Claudia Carli, translated by Laura Watkinson is published by Hodder

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