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Once more, the Eman story

By August 13, 2021 6 Comments

And this, you have to believe, was one of the grandest moments of her life, the day that Dutch royalty–King and Queen–visited Michigan and called on Berendina Eman, an occupation-era hero both here and in her native Holland. Together, they walked, arm in arm toward Meijer Gardens.

I remember asking her to explain to me, an American, this rosy fascination, this idol-worship that she and other Europeans had toward their silly royalty. I didn’t understand it.

She’d come to that moment in her story when the Queen had left occupied Holland, quite early, for England. Queen Wilhelmina’s leaving made her furious. “She was our mother,” Diet told me. I couldn’t help but thinking such affection ridiculous. “She was our mother and she’d left us behind,” she said.

But soon enough she and her countrymen and women learned their Mother’s leaving was for the best because she could much better play the role she’d gained when she wore the crown, if she were away from the Nazi occupation, safely stowed in England.

The roles seems reversed in the photograph, don’t they? King William Alexander and Queen Maxima, hold tight to Diet as if she were their mother. What they know is that, given her role during the war, she, well, was–and is. And Diet?–at that moment I swear I could hear her joyful heart three states away.

Tonight, we start rehearsing Things We Couldn’t Say, a readers theater presentation of the book by the same name, the biography of Diet Eman. I wrote them both a quarter century ago at a time when the world was looking back fifty years to commemorate World War II, both it’s horrors–Hitler’s insane “final solution”–and its joys, unimaginably selfless heroism.

“Things” first played in public at a conference of AADAS, a Dutch-American historical group, who staged it in the Fine Arts Center of what was then Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI.  I don’t remember how it had happened, but somehow the word got out and Diet already had a presence among many locals. Shockingly, at least to me, the place was full. 

Writing, my old friend Fred Manfred used to say, requires paying close attention to your “IC,” your “internal commentator,” the voice that emits unsparing truth unfettered by custom or reputation. Every good writer has to listen to the voice of the “IC” if he or she is going to write, Manfred used to say, an inner voice that won’t be bothered by conscience or political correctness. Whether or not that voice speaks in the writing is of marginal importance, but it must operate in the way information–in this case, a woman’s war-time experience–is heard or experienced or regarded.

I say that because when I remember the very first performance of the readers theater version of Things We Couldn’t Say, what I remember best was being blind-sided afterward. Diet was an emotional wreck, tears abounding. 

I assumed those tears were drawn from the success of the whole production–a full house, a standing ovation for her, unending lines of people wanting to shake her hand, to hug her.

But that wasn’t it. She was broken by a public rehearsal of a life she’d only rarely spoken of, a life–and a death–she’d suffered during the war fifty years before in a campaign she fought so valiantly from within the renegade Dutch Resistance. And she’d suffered–two concentration camps, a dangerous hearing, the death of the man she loved more than almost anything.

When she had told me her story–it took a week of interviewing–she’d opened up all of that in a way she never had before. I’d taken it all in, worked on putting it all together chronologically, tried to keep her voice in telling it, then spun it out in a manuscript that at that time was not yet published, as well as this readers theater presentation we debuted that night in a sizeable recital hall full of people. 

What she saw and heard before her that evening was a portrayal of what she’d not regarded as secret, but a story so heavy with emotions that it had always seemed to her unexplainable. She’d left so much of her heart behind in those war years that when her story replayed in front of her as it had never had been before, it seemed wrong. She told me, in tears, that she’d cried all the way through because intimacies of her experience were so vividly on display.

The IC in me loved her story, and I wanted, like nothing else, to tell it, to share it, to make others see the immensity of both her suffering and her faith in the God she and her fiancé worshipped. It was for His dear sake that they’d taken on the resistance work. But I’d not considered what the experience of the play on stage might do to her. My IC was roaring, but my conscience had left the building, never even made an appearance.

She was angry. She couldn’t help feeling this writer she’d come to know was putting her out on display.

Her life mattered–all lives do. They require respect.

Diet Eman is gone now, died two years ago, close to 100 years old. This performance we’re doing will be the first time it goes up when she’s not around. 

I have a small part, maybe a half-dozen lines, because the play is a dramatization of what I experienced when she told me the long story of her life.

I gave myself only a few lines, so, like always, I’ll watch the story unfold once again, and see her cowering somewhere out there in the dimly-lit crowd, as emotionally fragile as she was that first night she saw herself and her fiancé up in front, and listened to someone else tell and show her story to house full of eager eyes.

She’ll be there, royalty herself, and I’ll remember those tears so many years ago.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you. Much here.

  • mstair says:

    … a story that should be told, that must be told, yet too private to be told to the teller…
    Even our most intimate experiences belong to Our Lord – and He does what He Wills with them…For His Glory

    • Carol A Gootjes says:

      My husband, Dick Gootjes, an accomplished organist and pianist himself as a child lived through the occupation, played the Dutch National Anthem at Diet’s funeral. A truly robust singing at the close of her funeral and so memorable.

  • Verla Blom says:

    My head and my heart go back to your presentation of this Reader’s Theater at Southwest Christian High School in Edgerton, MN. My Mom, Nellie Christians, was there. Years later, she and Diet Eman sat together on the farmhouse porch at Frederick Meijer Gardens, spoke Dutch and recalled loyalty to “their Queen.”
    Thanks, James Schaap, for resurrecting those memories just as you resurrected painful and powerful memories for Diet.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    There are more of us who hold very difficult stories and wonder about the telling of them. Communities are sustained by memories and are diminished when memories die. These stories express truths that could enliven the wider community, and yet there is a price to pay, always it seems a price to pay.

  • Henry Baron says:

    That photo brought back vivid memories of that day at Meijer’s Garden with the King and Queen.
    Diet Eman – yes, royalty indeed!
    She’s one of those unforgettable friends who touched your life and blessed it.

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