The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

  • By Nina Siegal
  • Ecco
  • 544 pp.
  • Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
  • February 20, 2023

Collaborators and resisters chronicle life in Nazi-occupied Holland.

The Diary Keepers: World War II in the Netherlands, as Written by the People Who Lived Through It

In the vast sea of books documenting the civilian horrors of World War II, the plight of the Dutch — the Jewish Dutch, specifically — is often overshadowed by atrocities in the Eastern European theater. But in The Diary Keepers, journalist Nina Siegal corrects this oversight in a deeply personal account that weaves her own family’s history with that of numerous “diary keepers” in the Netherlands during World War II.

Siegal’s grandfather Emerich Safar was a Czechoslovakian Jew who survived the Holocaust, but many of her other relatives did not. When inquiring about their fates as a child, she was often told they had “perished in the war.” Still, as Siegal begins her wondrously constructed book of personal reflections and archival research, “what I felt without any doubt, was that something profound had occurred to my relatives, something that was in certain ways unspeakable. When it was spoken, it came out in a deranged form, like a demented, ratty doll popping out of the Jack-in-the-Box.”

After moving to Amsterdam in 2006, Siegal continued to probe into her heritage but also the Jewish experience at large in the supposedly progressive realm of the Netherlands. While viewing an art exhibition displaying objects looted from Dutch Jews by the Nazis, one fact shook Siegal to her core: Of the estimated 140,000 Dutch Jews in the Netherlands in 1940, only about 35,000 survived the war.

This appalling statistic eventually led Siegal to the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam to view their “below sea level” archives that contained more than 2,100 diaries written by ordinary citizens during the war. Here, The Diary Keepers was born as Siegal sifted and selected the pieces to help “read history forward” through the eyes of those who lived it.

The Diary Keepers of the book’s title are the journal-writing Dutch collaborators, resisters, and persecuted whose troubles began on May 10, 1940, as Luftwaffe paratroopers descended on Dutch soil like a “sudden rain of sea anemones.” Elisabeth van Lohuizen (“Bets”), a 48-year-old store owner who “cut an unlikely figure for a resistance fighter,” put her Liberal Dutch Reformed Church faith into practice by hiding and housing Jewish refugees. In an entry dated September 25, 1942, she chronicles some of the daily horrors she witnesses firsthand:

“The terror continues in Amsterdam. A Jew who fled was shot dead in the street, and his body lay there for several hours before it was taken away. They probably left it there as an example. A Christian who made a remark against the SS was beaten to death. They’re dragging Jews from their homes.”

An example of the good in humanity, van Lohuizen’s diary entries are juxtaposed with those of Nazi collaborators like Douwe Bakker, a Dutch police detective who welcomed Hitler’s invasion of his homeland. His entries begin with quotidian weather observations before descending into some truly diabolical ravings. On May 21, 1940, shortly after the invasion, he writes:

“GERMAN TROOPS ARE ON THE CANAL…The verdict on the accursed plutocrats has been delivered. There have been a great number of suicides among the guilty Jews and anti-Fascists, including a member of parliament…Lie and deceit, Judaism and capitalism are going to get their comeuppance. The genius of Adolf Hitler will crush them.”

One of the most powerful and haunting diaries follows respected Jewish foreign correspondent Philip Mechanicus, arrested in September 1942 and sent to the first of several “work” camps because he appeared in public sans a yellow star. Siegal’s choice to include him is a boon to readers and students of history, as “his work goes beyond testimonial reportage, and moves to the level of sociological analysis,” with his sharp insights into “the social and class divisions within the camp.” Mechanicus’ observant, almost philosophical prose functions like a latter-day livestreaming of the suffering. Indeed, he took his diary writing as a duty, feeling like “an unofficial reporter of a shipwreck.” In one longish, searing entry on June 20, 1943, he writes:

“While people manage to forget their personal tragedies for a moment…and engage in amorous chitchat in the sun, a new tragedy is unfolding: Others, torn from their foundations, robbed of their property, destitute, degraded and humiliated, arrive in animal wagons. It is a familiar scene and people have witnessed it before, time and again. A seemingly endless chaotic procession of evacuees, like nomadic gypsies. Men, women and children, loaded down with all the baggage they can manage to carry. The tragedy has been accepted; it has lost its original grandeur, its coarseness. It no longer seems shocking.”

Siegal masterfully organizes her eloquent diarists to paint a holistic picture of a nation torn between collaboration and resistance. She also asks tough questions about how much ordinary people knew about the mass incarceration and slaughter of their Jewish neighbors. In the chapter “What Do You Have to Know to Know?” she engages with what Holocaust scholars call “the knowledge question” and analyzes Dutch historians’ contributions on the question, contextualizing them with the diaries themselves to “see how people made choices that had an ethical and moral dimension, living history forward, within a vast sea of uncertainty.” 

The Diary Keepers is an important addition to WWII and Holocaust studies. It reveals, through the words of the people who were there, how any one of us might respond to unprecedented calamity. And its coda is the unsettling reminder that nobody knows the ultimate ending to their story until it comes.

Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher education IT nonprofit association by day and major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.

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