Life & Culture

In honour of real Dutch courage


My children Nathalie, Nicky and Alex, grew up with exciting stories about the fun-loving witches Molly and Bolly, who travelled from London to the Lake District sowing mischief wherever they worked. Blonde-haired Molly and black-haired Bolly were the creatures of my imagination. My husband, Oded, would even tiptoe into the children's bedroom and listen to the stories, spellbound. Eventually, he persuaded me I had to write a book about the escapades of the naughty pair.

But I always felt that if ever I did get round to writing a book, it would have to first be about my mother's life as a child in wartime Holland. So instead of a children's book about naughty witches I found myself writing a children's book about the Holocaust.

Until my thirties I had barely read any Holocaust literature. I could not face the fact that a few decades earlier, my fellow Jews had been barbarically rounded up and massacred wholesale throughout Europe. Yet I had enjoyed a peaceful childhood in the safety of a quiet London suburb. I blotted the subject out my mind. This was easy to do as my mother never talked about her wartime experiences. Yes, we knew she had been hidden by a kind, childless, Christian couple, but she never spoke about it and we never questioned her. It was a convenient arrangement that protected our peaceful childhoods.

This all changed ten years ago when my son, Alex, was born. I took him to my great aunt Fay in Tel Aviv. As we got talking she confronted me with some family history I had never suspected. When my mother was reunited with her parents after the war, she had effectively become a Christian and was happy to remain with her foster parents. Her mother, Cilla, had to deal with a traumatic and sensitive problem - removing her four-year-old daughter from a loving home and guiding her sensitively back to her Jewish roots.

It suddenly felt time to start exploring my mother's story through the writing of a book, Two Prayers Before Bedtime. The title came to me instantly and the dramatic opening rose immediately before my excited eyes: the scene where my grandmother Cilla takes her 20-month-old daughter Renata (my mother) to a local park to hand her over to strangers from the Resistance to save her from the Nazis. The young woman of the Resistance cannot tell Cilla where they are taking the child or to which family. In a flash, her daughter is gone. She notices little Renata has dropped her teddy bear on the gravel path and picks it up - the last link with her daughter. She goes home, where she must now send her young son into hiding before she and her husband go on the run.

As the mother of three young children, I imagined the searing heartbreak and pain of Cilla's agonising situation. This scene reduced me to tears - and I knew that the story could only get worse. I felt it was impossible for me to continue so I stopped. I simply could not bring myself to write another word.

Fast forward seven years and my 15-year-old daughter Nathalie could not believe I had not advanced on the opening scene I had written all those years ago. "Mum, you do realise that at the rate of one page every seven years, you won't finish the book in your lifetime."

That was the reality check I needed. In the summer of 2013 I finally embarked on the story. I travelled to Amsterdam to trace the footsteps of my grandmother and her family. Cilla Schiff had come to Amsterdam from Czechoslovakia as a young orthodox woman. She chose this city of culture and religious tolerance that had also attracted many German refugees with the promise of a decent life. She married my grandfather Eugen Bitterman in 1935 and settled in an idyllic Amsterdam suburb, surrounded by parks, cafés, a theatre and a zoo.

I knew from the story of Anne Frank about the Nazi invasion of Amsterdam in May 1940 and the rounding up of the Jews, but little else. During my research I was shocked by the irony of the situation: a city which had had firm Jewish roots for centuries had turned its back on its Jewish citizens. I could not believe how close Cilla's quaint apartment on Plantage Parklaan was to the places just around the corner, where atrocities were being committed.

As early as February 1941 more than 400 young men had been dragged out of synagogues and their homes in the Jewish quarter and rounded up next to the magnificent Portuguese Synagogue built in 1675. They were ordered to squat for hours with upraised arms in Jonas Daniel Meijer square - ironically named after the first Jewish Dutch lawyer, who was known for his battle for legal emancipation of the Dutch Jews in the 1800s. From there, the men were deported to concentration camps - Buchenwald in Germany and Mauthausen in Austria, where they perished.

Cilla's home was also around the corner from the Hollandsche Schouwburg Theatre, a striking classical building converted into the horrific round-up centre for thousands of Jews, crammed like sardines till they were taken to Westerbork Transit Camp, where, ironically, German Jewish refugees had originally disembarked, to find a welcome in this country. And from this same place they were deported to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor and Thereisenstadt. I was horrified to discover that five out of seven Dutch Jews were murdered, making Holland the country with the highest proportion of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

My mother was saved by the courage of a wonderful couple, Aad and Fie Versnel. They hid her in their home in Wormerveer, just ten miles outside Amsterdam, for two years. They became very attached to the little girl and shaped and influenced her early years. Giving her back to her birth parents was especially painful for them as they had no children of their own.

I have just now discovered that Aad was one of four brothers. Another brother also hid a Jewish child and the third brother was a lithographer who owned a studio, and helped the Resistance by forging identity cards and food stamps. He was arrested in 1944 and tragically died in a German prison just a few weeks before the end of the war. My family now want to ensure that these great people should be recognised as righteous gentiles.

My original intention was to write a simply told, semi-fictionalised story for my children and for other children. I wanted to highlight the history of the Dutch Holocaust, in the wider context of the war. I also wanted to confront the fear so many Jews faced on the run in hiding from the Nazis, and the trauma survivors faced after the war as they tried to rebuild lives.

I did not realise at first how critical the timing of the book's publication was; it coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of the War. The spotlight is on the Holocaust this year. Children are interested and want to know more, and as the survivors die we must keep their stories alive. My mother and I have been invited to speak at events and at schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, even as far as the US. Holocaust education is particularly strong in American Jewish schools and I am privileged by the knowledge that my book has made its way into some of these schools as part of their "recommended reading".

But, surprisingly for me, the book has resonated well with adults too, who can only imagine the trauma and suffering with which Cilla had to contend. In particular, mothers and daughters share an emotional bond forged from the sadness of the story.

For my mother, it has been an intensely emotional experience and I feel guilty for prompting this. She kept this part of her early childhood closed and private for so very many years and now it has been exposed in public all at once. It means suddenly confronting her past and having painful thoughts about what she and her mother experienced. She also has flashbacks, remembering things that had lain dormant for so long - like hiding behind the curtains as the Nazis marched past the window, or how much comfort her dog Kees provided in those difficult days. Most difficult for her is that it has led to frequent dreams about her dead mother. In a sense she is confronting the loss and separation all over again. The first time was in 1942, when she was taken into hiding as a little girl. After they reunited in 1945 they were able to rebuild a very special mother-daughter rapport, making up for the lost early years. But there was loss again when my mother was 33 and her mother, Cilla, died of colitis at the age of 61, her condition exacerbated by the tulip bulbs she was forced to eat in the last phase of the war. Although she died 40 years ago, my mother remembers my grandmother more vividly now than ever before. In a sense it feels as if she has lost her for a third time.

On the plus side it has been a great bonding experience for my family. My children and their cousins have read the book and have learnt so much about the life of their grandmother, her family and the war in Amsterdam. It is no longer obscure or a mystery or something that happened in another era to another family. The children are inquisitive and curious and can finally discuss their family history with honesty. It's no longer taboo.

And now, two years on, I have surprised myself by becoming a Holocaust-literature addict. From someone who barely opened a Holocaust book because it was too painful, I find myself drawn to the personal testimonies and memoirs of survivors, feeling obligated to read them more than ever before. And after all the research I did on the Dutch holocaust I have been compelled to write another book about this period. This time it's specifically for children. It's the story of a young girl, Lara - the sister of Lilly in Two Prayers Before Bedtime - growing up in an idyllic childhood in Amsterdam before the outbreak of the war. After the war the grief-stricken girl moves to London in 1948, just before the Olympic Games. She falls in love, and struggles to try and move on with her life after all she's been through. But can she?

And after that book? Well, I still hope to satisfy my family by writing the Molly and Bolly story my children are still clamouring for.

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