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It was never an easy thing to do. . .heroic?—yes, but never particularly easy. Even though they had no idea where it was they were going when they left, what they clearly sensed was that having been demanded to meet in a city park at some unearthly hour and having been told to take with them just one little suitcase—no more!–they knew very well it was not going to be a joy ride. So they chose, when they could, to hide, to be hidden instead of being taken somewhere they were sure they didn’t want to go. They wanted to stay home. They didn’t want to move. They didn’t want to be hauled away.
Some few were lucky–the Dutch lost a higher percentage of their Jewish population than any other occupied country in Europe–but some few lucky ones got stolen away by daring friends or operatives who actively opposed what they couldn’t help but see as the horrifying injustice Dutch Jews were suffering under the rotten Huns.
Some got themselves transported out into the country, to farms and rural villages where before the war very few of the locals had ever seen a Jew. But then, I suppose, later most rural folks didn’t see a Jew out there when they were hidden away either, afraid not only of the SS, but also the much-hated Dutch Nazis, who were as bestial or more so than the Germans who ran things. The Dutch Nazis knew very well that if-and-when they could find those Jews secreted away, the betrayers would be recipients of the farms where Jews had been hidden. Those brave folks who did the hiding risked a great deal—even their lives. NSB-ers, not to mention plain old profiteers, had lots to gain by turning in host families and their Jewish refugees.
What people don’t talk much about is what kind of emotional burden it was for some Dutch families, as well as bachelor farmers, to hide Jews. Sharing a home wasn’t particularly easy. Host families risked their lives and often enough their wits. Most Jews in the Netherlands were city-dwellers, some had been so for generations. To conservative folks in the interior, Dutch Jews were citified, sophisticated, highly educated, and, often enough, well off. Dutch farmers or sailors, the kind of people from whom I come, were a foreign legion to sophisticated Jewish city-dwellers—as were the Jews were to the boers.
Everyone assumed the war wouldn’t last all that long. A number of weeks maybe, if that, and the whole business would be settled and over with. “Can these people I know move in with you for a while?”
Mark Twain spoke the truth when he claimed that guests, like fish, take on appreciable odor after three days. Consider this: lots and lots of rural folk had houseguests who didn’t leave for four years, despite the fact that hosts and guests didn’t get along all that well, and didn’t much like each other right from the get-go. Diet Eman used to say that a huge problem in taking care of the Jews they had hidden in all those farms and villages was what we might call “interpersonal”: hosts and guests, all Dutch and sharing a common language and enemy, but in many ways not at all alike. Regardless, there they were, jammed together, the Jews hidden away so that they never, ever saw the light of day, the whole business hair-raising. There were no choices. The guests couldn’t leave without everyone being in danger.
Albert VanderMay’s When a Neighbor Came Calling tells dozens of stories of ordinary people getting taxed by grating personalities, by the almost natural aversion we sometimes create between ourselves and others over incidentals—how to set the toilet paper or squeeze the toothpaste. Would that such things could be avoided, but it seems they can’t.
And there are stories of sheer exploitation too, stories of abuse, stories of unrighteous acts. Heroism is heroism, even if it’s not angelic.
Last night a news program featured the warm reception of a schoolroom full of elementary-aged Ukrainian kids being welcomed—actually applauded– as those children walked into what was for them a brand-new school in a wildly foreign place, in Italy. The Italian kids, or so it appeared, made the guests feel warm and beloved. Brought tears to my eyes.
But I remember hearing about the understandable complications that occurred in occupied Holland during the war, hosts and guests padlocked together even when they found it impossible to live with each other without, well, bitching.
Four long years.
In many countries of Europe today, thousands of families have strangers beneath their roofs and upstairs in the kids’ bedrooms, maybe for the first time, moms and kids who don’t speak their language and have no more to their name than what their hosts can spare from their own closets and cupboards, people who have no idea how long they’ll be there or where they’ll be a month or even a week from now, people who torturously miss home.
Bless them, Lord, bless them all with courage and patience and a helping of your own divine will. Bless them with peace and a wide open heart that simply won’t fill up or shut down.
Bless ’em all, Lord. Bless ’em, every one.