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A Hidden Life: A Memoir of August 1969

A Hidden Life: A Memoir of August 1969

by Johanna Reiss
For years, Johanna Reiss’ American husband, Jim, encouraged her to return to Holland to chronicle the two years, seven months, and one day she had spent hiding from the Nazis in rural Usselo, Holland. In 1969, she finally made the trip.

Accompanied by Jim and their two young children, Reiss intended to spend seven weeks researching the book that would


For years, Johanna Reiss’ American husband, Jim, encouraged her to return to Holland to chronicle the two years, seven months, and one day she had spent hiding from the Nazis in rural Usselo, Holland. In 1969, she finally made the trip.

Accompanied by Jim and their two young children, Reiss intended to spend seven weeks researching the book that would eventually become The Upstairs Room, her Newbery Honor–winning account of her time hiding in the attic of a farmhouse in which for a time a contingent of Nazi soldiers was billeted.

But unknown to the millions of people who went on to read her beloved classic, behind the dark and painful story of the book was a still darker tale: Reiss’ husband returned to America early and committed suicide at age thirty-seven, leaving no note.

For Reiss, an ongoing reckoning with universal tragedy becomes particular: she is forced to reckon, too, with Jim’s death—and explain it to her children. Subtle and disturbing, the book is a powerful consideration of memory, violence, and loss, told in a stunning and sparse narrative style.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

"Like so many Holocaust survivors, Reiss was emotionally crippled. Then another darkness fell... [a] searing journey."
—Leslie Garis, The New York Times Book Review

"A beautifully-written memoir … one of the most moving books I have read."
—Lucy Kavaler, author of The Astors: A Family Chronicle of Pomp and Power

"A state of memory, a day-to-day account of the limbo one is left with when one's life is snatched away.... Reiss is again seeking and questioning a larger force."
—Lizzie Skurnick, Chicago Tribune (front page)

"A Hidden Life is a compelling and chilling memoir about the tragic, far-reaching effects of world history on personal history. Writing in the sparest and most self-effacing prose, Joanna Reiss manages to break the reader's heart."
—Hilma Wolitzer, author of Summer Reading and Hearts

"In A Hidden Life, Johanna Reiss weaves two great misfortunes into a brave and beautiful story. As we read, we rush back and forth between 1940s occupied Holland and 1960s New York, searching for the pieces of the puzzle that might lay bare her husband's—and her own—story. This book brims with courage and compassion. It will make you want to hold your own family closer."
—Kristen den Hartog, co-author of The Occupied Garden

"Johanna Reiss wrote one memoir, then discovered another hidden underneath.... A Hidden Life is that second story, moving between 1940s Holland and 1960s New York City. 'How do you tell children,' she thinks, 'that life is one continuous goodbye, that with each day the end comes a little nearer . . .; how do you explain that people you're close to, or thought you were, can just vanish?'"
—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“[A Hidden Life] explores memory, violence and survival—and how well we can ever really know another person. [Johanna’s] story is so sad, her hurt so palpable, it will take your breath away.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"As compelling and readable as a traditional mystery..."
Jewish Exponent

"...beautifully expressed attempt to put life’s unruly events into order."
—Jewish Book World

"A touching and tragic story that is bound to impress."

Algemeen Dagblad

"A Hidden Life shows that working through traumas can lead to a moving literary work."

Leslie Garis
Reiss handles this difficult material by probing her memory for clues, putting facts and suppositions together in feverish prose, jumping back and forth in time…driven by feelings so intense that at times it seems she is tripping on her mind's own acid. This searing journey reads like the author's desperate last chance to discover Jim's secret self.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Reiss and one of her sisters were hidden during WWII with a family of Dutch farmers, and at the urging of her husband, Jim, an American Jew, she returned to Holland with her daughters in the summer of 1969 to steep herself in the war she had survived. The trip resulted in her 1972 bestselling memoir, the Newbery Honor book The Upstairs Room. Jim, too, visited Holland and met the people who had sheltered his wife, only to return to New York before his wife and daughter, and commit suicide at the age of 37. As Reiss wrestles with the notion that life is "one continuous good-bye," where loved ones can just vanish, she weaves together memories of her uneasy postwar relationship with her saviors, uneducated, often slovenly peasants who repeatedly boasted about their heroics; of Jim's tortuous relationship with a mentally unbalanced mother who conceived him to save a failing marriage. This is a ruminative, plaintive cry by a Holocaust survivor who wonders if her own childhood anguish desensitized her to her spouse's suffering. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This is a recounting by Reiss of how her return to Holland in 1969 (to research and write what became her Newberry Honor book, The Upstairs Room, a fictionalized account of her Holocaust experience) intersected with new personal and global tumults. During her return to Holland, her husband committed suicide in New York, without leaving a note. For Reiss, many seering and unresolved issues intersected, making for sobering reading.
—Frederic Krome

Product Details

Melville House Publishing
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.94(w) x 5.72(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Hidden Life

A Memoir of August 1969

By Johanna Reiss
Melville House Publishing
Copyright © 2009

Johanna Reiss
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933633-55-8

Chapter One THE WAR that was never going to be followed by another one had been over for almost twenty-five years. In many parts of the world, plans were being made to commemorate the event, a speech here, a parade there, and "It Shall Never Happen Again" in places in between.

In New York, protests against the war in Vietman bounced off buildings and some people burned themselves alive, an act, said Jim, that showed how deeply they felt about the war. Not so, I said in the safety of my living room: "They're using the cause: They're sick."

In Holland, as an early anniversary present, the Dutch minister of justice suggested the release of the last three war criminals still in jail. "Why keep them any longer?" he said. "It's costly, inhuman, they're old, no longer well. Let's send them back."

"Don't!" people who had gathered in The Hague, the seat of government, screamed. Sini screamed too, and fainted. She said so in a letter that I read in my living room in New York. "Don't ... remember what happened with the one that was let go because of some incurable disease the doctor said he had? Once across the German border he all but strutted out of the ambulance and was given a hero's welcome."

Had I already been in Holland I wouldn't have taken to the streets, nor joined in the shouting. Encouraged too much by Johan, the man in whose house, room, bed I was saved. "Annie,"-my nickname as a kid-"Gives you no trouble, a good thing, too. I'll tell you why, I don't know exactly the, what-d'you call-'em, ins and outs, but some Jew had to be shot by the people who took'm in. He always wanted something, and complained if it didn't come quickly enough. They couldn't take it any more."

1969 had been a year of unrest everywhere. Holland too had protesters against the war in Southeast Asia. Those born after the Americans did their liberating paraded about, buttons on denim shirts and in outfits their parents had discarded as soon as stores carried wearables again. Wrong is wrong: Buttons and throats yelled "Yankee Go Home!" It was also the year in which tour buses, shiny and bearing names like Reiselust and Lebensfreude, fanned onto Dutch roads. Buses filled with middle-aged Germans, men in stiff blue caps, loudly pointing out guck mal-"look"-where they had done their fighting.

These same roads were also crowded with caravans, filled with Dutch people meticulously in something the Americans had invented: clothing that wouldn't wrinkle, no matter how long you'd sit in it. And sit they would, all the way to Normandy, to the cemeteries where Allied soldiers lay buried. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Sure, it was not a cheery thing to be doing for their vacations, but this was a special occasion, exactly twenty-five years after D-day. Just think, all those young men who had been told to cross the ocean-a lot of them surely had not wanted to-and face the enemy so Europe could be free again. With them they carried candles and jars to put flowers in, once they got there.

I know, my own trip, I keep pushing it away-I'm getting there.


Excerpted from A Hidden Life by Johanna Reiss Copyright © 2009 by Johanna Reiss . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

JOHANNA REISS is the author of the classic young adult book The Upstairs Room, which Elie Wiesel praised in The New York Times Book Review as an “admirable account . . . as important in every respect as the one bequeathed to us by Anne Frank.” She is the winner of the Newbery Honor, the Jewish Book Council Children’s Book Award, and the Buxtehuder Bulle. She lives in New York City.

Author website: johannareiss.com

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