This book opened my eyes to the horrific experience of Jews, and especially Jewish children, in World War II Holland. We have all read The Diary of Anne Frank but this book puts the context of Occupied Holland into place, the big picture, the role of the churches, the police, informers, and the resistance.
The very fact that 80% of Holland's Jews were murdered, more than any other European country including Germany and Austria, is staggering. The vulnerability and loneliness of children whose parents had to do the hardest possible thing, give them away to save their lives because they knew they'd likely lose their own lives sooner than later, is in some ways, even worse than the stories of Barnardo children, many of whom were orphans living in poverty, not a loving extended and immediate family. Most of these children were ripped from loving homes and hidden in claustrophobic attics and cellars and rooms which were glorified cupboards. They were taken away by incredibly courageous Dutch people who relied on their trusted networks of fellow university students or Dutch Socialist Party (somewhat like the Labour Party in the UK or the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner to the New Democratic Party in Canada) members or their professional associations to help with transportation and hiding places. Informers were everywhere and were being paid the princely sum of 7.50 guilders per Jewish person to bring them to the attention of the Dutch police.
The story is beautifully written by a professor of English literature at Oxford, Dutch by birth, whose own family hid Jewish children and adults during the war, as many farmers did. Farmers could grow food and could manage to feed people even as their supplies were regularly ransacked by the German army. The structure of the book may challenge people who need a straightforward linear sort of book but for me, it greatly enriched the story. I learned about Lien, a beautiful and bright child, who was spirited away when she was eight years old. Her education is interrupted, her hiding places and friendships and personal growth stop and start and block and blossom. She learned to numb herself after crying many, many tears because she missed her mother and father so much. The book follows Lien's journey, from catching tadpoles in the stream with another little boy to being over-worked and underfed by an awful family and even worse. The ending is hard-won and happy, I can say without it being a spoiler, because this is not escapist fare. Keep reading!
Lien's chapters are interspersed with chapters about the author's method of conducting research, going to all the buildings and all the villages where Lien was hidden. Other chapters detail the role of the "blindly co-operative Jewish Council" who handed over their register of all Dutch Jews and their addresses to the Nazis and of the Dutch Reformed Church who sat on their hands and were utterly complicit with the Nazis whereas the Catholic Church made a public statement to all their church-goers decrying the rounding up and transportation of Dutch Jews including many who were actually among the congregations as they'd switched over a century earlier. So, history, research and Lien's story are woven together to create this book and it is hard reading (my mother was Dutch) but the humanity shines through. Lien becomes a wonderful human being, despite it all, a lesson to us all.