Edith's Story

Edith's Story


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When Hitler invaded Holland in 1939, Edith van Hessen was a popular Dutch high school student. She also happened to be Jewish. In the same month that Anne Frank's family went into hiding, Edith was sent to live with a courageous Protestant family, took a new name, and survived by posing as a gentile. Ultimately one-third of the hidden Dutch Jews were discovered and murdered; most of Edith's family perished. Velmans's memoir is based on her teenage diaries, wartime letters, and reflections as an adult survivor. In recounting wartime events and the details of her feelings as the war runs its course, Edith's Story ultimately affirms life, love, and extraordinary courage. "The most vivid evocation of the experience of Nazi Occupation that I have ever read." - The Independent (London)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780983550563
Publisher: van Horton Books
Publication date: 08/01/2014
Pages: 276
Sales rank: 774,903
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Pear Tree

My grandmother, Mina Weil Wertheimer — Omi — came to live with us in 1938. She came from Sinsheim, a village near Heidelberg in Germany. Having lost one baby in childbirth and another to childhood illness, she had the misfortune of losing her husband — my grandfather, Gustav Adolf Weil — when her two surviving children were very young. The biggest tragedy of her life, however, was the death of Julius, her only son, who was drafted into the Kaiser's Imperial Army in 1914 at the start of the First World War. I remember the photograph on Omi's desk showing a handsome, proud Prussian officer with a thick moustache and a spiked helmet. Next to the photograph was displayed a small iron cross, with '1914—1918' emblazoned in the centre. This was the Ehrenkreuz (Cross of Honor), awarded to all 'heroic mothers' who had sacrificed their sons for the Vaterland.

    My mother, Adelheid Hilde, was the only child left, and Mina's only consolation: a dutiful and loving daughter. She had just graduated from school when the First World War broke out, and she spent the war nursing wounded soldiers returning from the front. It wasn't long before the end of that war that she fell in love with David van Hessen, a visiting Dutch businessman thirteen years her senior. In 1918, when Germany had been vanquished, Father brought Mother home to Amsterdam.

    I have only vague memories of my grandmother's house in Sinsheim. Behind the main house there was a separate building housing the laundry. This must havemade quite an impression on me, because what I remember most vividly are the strong, red, bulging arms of the plump, motherly maid who boiled bedlinens in a large pan while scrubbing pillowcases and featherbed-covers on a metal washboard. I also remember the fragrant smell of apples lined up on slatted open shelving stacked high in the laundry attic. And I remember helping Omi pick redcurrants in the garden and then licking out the pan in which the jam had been made.

    By 1938, the year my parents finally managed to persuade Omi to leave Sinsheim, she had been stripped of her German citizenship. She was Jewish; in other words, no longer acceptable. Her neighbors in Sinsheim avoided her, and even good friends regarded it as too risky to acknowledge her. Even so, she found it hard to tear herself away. My parents talked her into leaving her home by assuring her that nothing like this would ever happen in Holland.

    Mother went to help Omi pack her belongings and 'sell' the parental home, although for all intents and purposes the house was confiscated. Someone had offered Omi a pittance for it, and Mother had been told it would be dangerous to refuse, or to haggle over the price. Mother reported that one or two 'Aryan' neighbours had sneaked in under cover of night to say goodbye. They told Omi they were sorry they couldn't visit her openly or even nod to her in the street. After all, fraternizing with Jews was now forbidden.

    Omi was the first of a stream of refugees, many of them relatives on my mother's side, who found a warm welcome in our home, and often financial support as well, before going on to England, the United States or South America. Some of them even considered remaining in Holland. Naturally I thought this the best decision. Surely no other country in the world was a better place to live in than ours. After all, Father had told me that during the war of 1914—18 many refugees had found a safe haven right here in the Netherlands. When I was much younger, if I didn't finish the food on my plate, Mother would tell stories about the war years in Germany, when they had had little or nothing to eat. She was always talking about her 'entrance into Paradise' when she came to Holland as a bride and could suddenly get anything she wanted, even chocolate and oranges.

    Well! That settled it, for me. It proved that our country as preferable to any other country on earth. Imagine living in a place where they didn't have any chocolate! Holland was a neutral country, that's why we had not participated in the Great War of 1914—18, even when some of the most deadly battles had been fought just across the border, in Flanders. If, as Father thought, Hitler tried to start something, we'd surely be safe here.

    The German relatives caressed me, they pinched my cheeks and debated heatedly whom I resembled most. Their sentimentality was alien to me. In Father's family everyone was very sober, undemonstrative and down to earth. The van Hessens came from Groningen, in the north of Holland, where they had lived, first as cattle merchants, then as respected shopkeepers and businessmen, for generations. I felt slightly superior to these poor, deferential refugees who had lost everything and were facing an unknown future. I was secure in my happy, comfortable life in The Hague. I was proud to be a student at the Netherlands Lyceum, a prestigious private school.

    Omi cried often, and I sensed that suffering meant a lot to her. Her departed ones were very much a presence in her life. She often stayed in bed with cold compresses on her head, for she had recurring headaches. I felt she used the headaches to manipulate my parents whenever she thought she was not getting enough attention. Mother spent a great deal of time tending to her; consequently, I grew resentful that I always had to share my mother with Omi. It also bothered me that since Omi's arrival, German was heard so often in our Dutch home. I hated that language, and like most people I knew, I disliked Germans. Even though I excluded Mother's relatives from my prejudice, I absolutely refused to identify with them in any way. I was Dutch and so was Mother. I wanted her to speak Dutch all the time — she spoke it flawlessly, without an accent.

    I must confess that I often wished that my mother was different. I wanted her to be more ordinary, more unobtrusive and more like the mothers of my friends. I cringed when Mother came to the Lyceum in high heels, sporting the latest hat from Paris, a fashionable fur coat flung over her shoulders. I wished I had a mother who arrived on her bicycle, wearing sensible flat shoes and an Egyptian cotton raincoat belted at the waist.

    When Omi wasn't competing for Mother's attention, she was a lovely grandmother whom you could tell your secrets to, and who was always generous with advice and special treats. When she came to live with us, it was she who brought me the little gold-trimmed leather book which was to become my diary. At first, I used it as a scrapbook, carefully pasting into it photos of my favourite film stars cut out of magazines. But soon I was passionately recording my daily thoughts and doings:

6 February 1939 I've had enough of pasting pictures in this album. So I've decided to begin a diary. I hope to illustrate it as well — whether I will or not is another story. I think it's a little risky to record my deepest secrets here, because you never know into whose hands this may fall some day.

    Maybe it was the fact that my mother suddenly had less time for me that made me turn to my diary. Or perhaps it was because, being the youngest, I felt I wasn't always taken all that seriously by my family. At dinner, there would be animated discussions on subjects that I knew little of, and my big brothers would ignore me when I tried to say my piece. When I finally piped up, wailing, 'Not fair, I never get a turn!', Father would hold up his hand, and tell the boys to be quiet. Then, making a great show of looking at his watch, he would say, 'All right, Edith. You have exactly two minutes to talk. Ready — set — go!' Stammering foolishly in the unfamiliar silence, I was unable to remember what it was that I had wanted to say — until my time was up. In my journal, however, I could chatter away to my heart's content, leap-frogging from one thought to another with no one to answer to but myself.

24 February 1939 Today I finished my geometry — not too well, I think, I'm not sure though, it could be good. Tomorrow we're going to a youth concert. I'm looking forward to it. Because I'd so like to learn all about music, I mean classical music, so that I could understand it and appreciate how beautiful it is. I'd like to really be able to enjoy that kind of music. Now I enjoy the lighter kind of music. Piano — I love it. I wish I could play the piano. Jazz, too — piano jazz. I like it for a while, but then I've had enough. I have a new plan for my future. I want to be an architect, or something to do with children. I want to help sick children or poor children — give them a lovely holiday. I want to have a house in the country, and have children come for vacations. I hope in any case that some day I'll have my own house, with a good man and sweet kids. I hardly ever dare to express my feelings, in speech or here, on the page. But this kind of feeling isn't really that intimate. I mean, most girls hope for the same kind of thing. I have to study my French. I'd better not say anything about the hockey match against Hudito — except to say we lost 5—0, just as we did on Sunday.

    Within three and a half years I had filled seven notebooks, and I was hooked for life.

My father's name was David van Hessen but he was known to his friends and family as 'Dago'. His parents had agreed to let him train as an artist on condition that he learn a trade as well. The business Father went into was timber: he was the European representative of the Ritter Lumber Company of Columbus, Ohio. He used to tell us that he was happy with the choice he had made. Rather than devote his life to art (and risk us all starving in a garret), he had vowed to be a good provider for his family. He used to say, 'I'd much rather be a first-class amateur than a second-rate artist.' Art did remain an important part of his life, however. At home he was never without his sketchbook or his paints. He had converted a WC on the third floor into a darkroom for his photography; a corner of his study was his sculpture atelier. It was one of my chores to keep the clay on the revolving pedestal behind his desk moist when he was away. His work was sometimes shown in group exhibits, and business trips abroad enabled him to cultivate acquaintances and exchange ideas with artists such as Käthe Kollwitz and Paul Prött.

    It was on one of those business trips that he had met Mother, at a friend's wedding. Mother claimed she knew immediately that this tall handsome Dutchman was the man she was going to marry, but it took a second chance meeting in the streets of Heidelberg, some months later, to convince Father. He said it was the best decision he had ever made in all his life, to take for his bride the striking, dark-haired young woman, who lit up his formerly taciturn and stolidly middle-class life with color and breeziness and passion. After the war they set up house in Amsterdam, and in 1920 my brother Guus was born. Two years later they moved to The Hague, where my other brother, Jules, arrived in 1923, followed by me, the only girl, in 1925.

    My mother had a good voice and played the piano, my father played the violin and the guitar, and together they would sing sentimental ballads like two lovebirds, to our great delight. Father enjoyed reading poetry to us, or stories by his favourite authors, O'Henry and Mark Twain. My brothers and I were encouraged to be creative. Guus loved to paint windmills and often went on landscape-painting expeditions with Father, armed with his own little paintbox and easel. Jules fixed up boats and made all sorts of vehicles using salvaged materials. (One day, intending to take my dolls for a walk, I discovered the wheels of my doll carriage missing. They turned up on one of Jules's ever more ingenious go-carts.) I tried my hand at everything, from the accordion to cartooning.

    Even though it was said that it had taken some adjusting for my aunts on Father's side to adapt to their exuberant and decisive sister-in-law, I remember warm and harmonious family gatherings. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries, especially, were celebrated in grand style. There were always poems, speeches and tributes composed in flowery language, expressions of love and admiration, as well as the occasional joke or sly caricature sketched by Father.

    When Mother turned forty, Father gave her a gramophone record on which each of us in turn read a poem, or a little speech. It included a song composed by Father, which ended, '... and when we are very old and we have come to the end of our life I hope I'll be able to say to you, "Come, Hilde, come, we haven't lived in vain ...'"

In 1939 Father was fifty-eight; I had three years of high school left, and my brothers had not yet started university. As he did not have a pension, Father did not see himself retiring until his three children had finished their studies. Whenever I saw a worried look on his face, I imagined it was all because of me. I was growing so rapidly that I was constantly in need of new clothes or new shoes. I told Mother that I'd do anything to make him cheerful again — I'd even return the new skirt we had bought, or wear my old shoes even though they pinched. But Mother reassured me that there were other things bothering him, and my rapid growth had nothing to do with it.

    I was thirteen and my head was full of school, friends and fun. My friends were everything to me, and I had many of them. So did Jules. I was a little shy around my brothers' friends, because they were older than me. That did not stop me, however, from tagging along whenever they would let me. One of Jules's schoolmates was Loet Velmans, whom I remembered from summers at the beach when we were little, chiefly as the most agile and tanned of all the children swinging on the monkey-bars.

    I was in the eighth grade when I first met Miep Fernandes at the Lyceum's rowing-club. She was as immediately convinced as I that we would be friends for life. Miep was older than me and in the ninth grade; she and her family had recently returned to Holland from the Dutch East Indies, where her father, an ophthalmologist in the army, had been stationed. The family was originally from the West Indies. After hearing each other's stories and meeting each other's families, Miep and I decided that our parents were sure to become friends if we introduced them to each other, because they had so much in common. Sure enough, our parents did become good friends, and other friendships developed, most notably between my cousin Paul and Miep's older sister Nina.

    Miep and I decided to write a comic opera together, a cabaret-like farce that took place in a beauty salon, complete with funny lyrics set to popular melodies. It was to be performed by our drama club at a special theatre-and-music evening before the entire school.

    But another piece of excitement eclipsed even the writing of a comic opera: we were about to take possession of a new sailboat! We named it De Doolaard, which means 'wanderer' and was the name of a popular Dutch author. Every chance we got, my brothers and I would be down at the dockyard admiring our new boat. We were all avid sailors, including Father. Summer was for swimming, rowing and sailing; winter was for skating. Politics meant nothing to me. I remember Jules sprawled on the floor, leaning on his elbows with his feet waving in the air, reading the newspaper spread in front of him. I never asked what it was all about. I was too busy to care.

    A sense of foreboding hung over my life, however. Once, during dinner, the telephone rang. Father got up to take the call, and I caught Mother watching him with a worried expression. Then Father turned his back on us, bending his head and pressing it into the earpiece as if to hear better, and Mother exchanged a concerned look with Omi. I knew something was terribly wrong. But Mother reassured us, saying we shouldn't worry. We protested that we didn't want to be treated like little children. When Father put the receiver down, I implored him to tell us what happened. Father finally said, 'My brother — your uncle Leo — just died.'

    'Oh, is that all?' I thought, relieved. I had been expecting to hear something much worse, although I didn't know exactly what.

    In my diary, I wrote down a poem of which I was rather proud:

* * *

Threatening clouds hang over the ocean
Swarming with birds, flying along in motion
Here it comes
Here it comes
It's dark over all the world.
The people take cover
In terror at this malice unfurled.
Now it bursts,
A flash of fire,
A thundering knell
Rolls over houses, fields and woods,
Lights up the trees down in the dell.
Then, at the climax of its force,
Explodes again, unleashes the worst
A bang! and then a creaking,
A blinding ball of fire streaking
And then suddenly all is still,
It's over,
And everyone who can thank God, will.

    By September 1939, it was impossible not to notice that scary things were happening. After Germany had invaded Poland, I couldn't help hearing Adolf Hitler ranting and raving whenever the news was on the radio, nor could I help seeing his moustached face in the paper. I knew that Hitler hated Jews. Britain and France declared war on Germany, and Holland's military forces were mobilized — just in case.

    This held an unexpectedly exciting consequence for us children: my parents decided, after much debate, that it would be a good idea to build a bomb shelter. The shelter was built at the back of the yard, where it took up an unreasonably large piece of the lawn. Our gardener covered it with grass sod, and Mother planted daffodils all round it. We furnished the interior with empty crates that served as tables and benches, with a few pillows thrown in to soften the austere atmosphere. To make it more homely still, books, ashtrays and a torch kept company with the gas masks Father had gone out to buy, and soon our shelter was the most popular spot in the neighborhood. We formed secret societies and played poker by candlelight, and sometimes my brother Jules and his girlfriends played other mysterious games in there, in which I was not invited to participate.

    Near the shelter grew a young pear tree that was Father's favorite. In the spring, when the tree was in bloom, Father would call me out to the garden to show me the beauty of the white petals with their rosy cheeks and long dusted stamens poking out of their centres. The stamens made me think of Betty Boop's eyelashes! This, he would explain, is where the fruit starts growing, '... and when they are ripe, Eetje, we'll have our own pears for breakfast!'

    Every morning before going to the office, Father walked down the steps of the terrace to study the plantings, touching a branch here, a stem there, as if to implore them to function abundantly. Every morning we received a report on the state of the pear tree. There were six, seven, eight young pears forming on the tree. 'Don't play ball in the garden,' we were told. 'Let's not spoil the harvest ...'

    Then, one morning, Father brought in three small, unripe pears, fallen too soon from their branches and half eaten by the birds. The next day two other pears were found lying on the ground. 'Why don't we just pick the others now?' I asked. 'No good, darling, they aren't ripe yet,' was the reply. I couldn't wait — the suspense was killing me!

    Finally came the big day. There was only one pear left. We all trooped down to the pear tree, where Father, following Mother's directions, picked the fruit. In his hand was the biggest, fattest pear I had ever seen. He carried the precious harvest into the dining room, the rest of us following solemnly in procession. With his silver fruit knife Father cut into the pear.

    Flawless as it was on the outside, the pear was rotten to the core inside. Father looked up at us with a rueful grin. 'We have waited too long, I guess ...'

Table of Contents

Author's Notexiii
1. The Pear Tree7
2. The Passports19
3. The Invasion23
4. Dick van Swaay29
5. Skating36
6. Jews Not Welcome Here43
7. A Heart Full of Love54
8. Banishment61
9. The New School70
10. Fran's Jacket77
11. The End is Near86
12. Diving Under93
13. Herr Niemke102
14. Helping Jews111
15. The Messengers121
16. A Visit to Father137
17. Stranded149
18. Jules154
19. Mother166
20. Father178
21. Father's Shoes187
22. Crazy Tuesday195
23. Liberation199
24. Peace220
25. Picking up the Pieces232

What People are Saying About This

Ruth Rendell

One of the best and most moving memoirs I have ever read.

Roy Blount

Edith's Story , the memoir of Anne Frank who lived, reminds us all the more effectively by not being a horror story. Evil and grief, without being scanted, are outshown by sweetness, freshness and pluck.

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Edith's Story 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Anne Frank who lived to tell the tale... The story of a hidden child who also kept a diary. Beautifully written, moving and inspiring.