Last week, Diet Eman—whose incredible time in World War II as a member of the Dutch Resistance included rescuing Jews, gathering intelligence, and surviving stints in concentration camps and as a fugitive herself—died at age 99. My fellow 12er, Jim Schaap, helped Diet write her deeply moving story, Things We Couldn’t Say some twenty years ago. It is still well-worth reading—and if you haven’t read it, you must get a copy today. Her obituary in the Washington Post, excerpted in newspapers all around the globe, gives a taste of why her life is so extraordinary and so worth celebrating.

I was extremely privileged to hear her story many times because Diet was a friend who generously visited my first-year composition class again and again. Humble about her achievements, she was simultaneously one of the feistiest people I’ve ever met. Her bravery and intelligence were both fierce. My father, who made a career in military intelligence, was awed by his conversation with Diet about her WW2 abilities, telling me later that from a professional’s assessment, she was a real pro, too. That pleased Diet when I told her. The first time she visited my class, I called and asked her (out of respect for her age) if she wanted a reserved parking spot by the door. She quickly dismissed me, amused, and reminded me that she had just returned from going with the Luke Society to South America, where she had hiked and paddled and all manner of other thing to get to remote communities and provide medical care. She parked on the very opposite side of campus.

On her visits, she would bring a few items from her time in prison: a metal cup, some of her identity papers, and a piece of rope.

I think of that rope often.

Diet had made the rope in a concentration camp, where one of the prisoners’ jobs was to take long shreds of paper and weave them into braided cords. But this one was a little different: on the strips of paper, Diet wrote down the names and addresses of all the women in prison with her, before she wove the strands together. She swore that, when she was released, she would unravel the rope and go to each address to give their families an update. Until she was released, however, she wore the rope as a belt, telling the guards (I always thought, in her typical, cheeky way) that she needed something to hold up her underwear.

Diet never undid the rope.

Because she had memorized every name and every address. And she visited every family, as she had promised, to deliver her news. The words of Proverbs 3:3 come to mind: “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

For many years after the war, Diet resisted telling about her harrowing wartime experience. It was simply too painful, too wrenching. But when she discovered that a segment of the population did not believe that the Holocaust had happened, she spent the next almost 30 years of her life speaking out about those things that had never been erased from her heart’s tablet.

Her challenge to my students was always personal:

  • What injustice today needs your sacrificial involvement?
  • What will you tell your descendants when they ask you what you did in the face of this injustice?
  • How will you live with yourself if you were unwilling to act at all?

And every time she came to my classroom, there was an answer: Diet brought herself and every one of those women who had suffered with her, bound in that convicting rope of testimony.

May we honor her life by being people who bind things together ourselves, both in our own acts of service and in the stories of the mighty acts of God’s people, including beloved Diet, that we gather and weave together into chords that can never be broken.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

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