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Learning from the Tragic Lessons of the 20th Century by Jonathon Van Maren

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Review

Learning from the Tragic Lessons of the 20th Century

There is a real possibility that My Name Is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück may be the last book of its kind. Selma van de Perre, born in Amsterdam on June 7, 1922, is now 98 years old. As we enter what scholars refer to as “the post-survivor era,” new memoirs from those who experienced the Holocaust and the cataclysms of World War II and the Nazi Occupation are increasingly unlikely. Selma is one of the final members of her generation, and with this autobiography she bequeaths her extraordinary experiences to us before she departs.

My Name Is Selma is a powerful, unpretentious book. It does not have the literary quality of Anne Frank’s Diary nor the moral force of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place; Selma spends little time grappling with what it all means. She simply relates what happened to her and to her family. Her father was murdered in Auschwitz; her mother and 15-year-old sister Clara were killed upon arrival at Sobibor from the Westerbork transit camp on July 2, 1943. Uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, a grandmother—all vanished into the gas chambers and mass graves and clouds of smoke billowing from crematorium chimneys.

Seventy-five years later, the destruction of her family still haunts her nights. “I have never recovered from that loss,” she writes. “There’s a devastating hole inside me that will never heal. I reconstruct what was inflicted on them in the most harrowing detail. I wonder whether Mams or Clara knew what was happening: those two sweet, innocent people who never hurt anyone. I wonder whether they held each other’s hands when they died, and I wonder if Pa thought of us in his final seconds or if he was in too much of a panic to be able to think anything at all.”

The scattered snippets of family history that Selma relates in the first chapter are a reminder that the Holocaust was designed to destroy more than people—it was intended to wipe out the very memory of a people. In some cases, the Nazis were successful. Whole families were wiped out; communities obliterated; entire societies reduced to ash. In the face of such an apocalyptic event, books like this one are still an act of historical defiance.

Even families who survived intact sometimes faced further tragedy. Selma writes that some Jewish children hidden with Dutch families became so attached to their foster families that they were traumatized when surviving family members came to retrieve them after the war. Some, to the great grief of surviving parents, chose to stay with those who had hidden them. Familial fractures and trauma lasted for generations.

After her family went into hiding after the invasion of the Netherlands, Selma joined the “TD Group,” a Dutch resistance organization. She worked as a courier across Holland, Belgium, and even France—in one harrowing instance, she exchanged envelopes with a contact inside German headquarters in Paris, smiling flirtatiously at the soldiers and pretending to have a great time. She delivered suitcases full of illegal newsletters, pamphlets, money, food stamps, and false identity cards (she herself was given the pseudonym of Marga van der Kuit, which she maintained throughout her eventual imprisonment).

The bulk of resistance work was securing and supplying the vast network of “onder-duikers”—those who “dove under” the surface of society, living hidden lives in attics, basements, and barns under immense psychological pressure and in a near-constant state of fear. In addition to Jews, many Dutch people attempting to escape deportation to Germany as slave laborers (as 500,000 were) also went underground. Those in hiding attempted to maintain their humanity however they could—they listened to the BBC in secret; they fell in love when it was ludicrous to do so; they prayed and clung to their beliefs. Resistance fighters like Selma fought to keep them alive.

Selma’s account is remarkably free of bitterness. She is even charitable to the informants who got so many of their countrymen killed, writing that they likely didn’t know that the Jews they turned in at seven guilders a head were being murdered. People were poor, she writes, and the temptation of reward money was too much for some to resist. Others made different choices, and split-second decisions frequently determined life or death—police officers who looked the other way; prison guards who told arrestees to destroy notes or diaries; thousands of tiny acts that made survival possible.

Many Jews joined the resistance, but because it was against their interests to be identified as such, most—including Selma—adopted Gentile identities. This is a key reason that the Jewish contribution to the resistance went unrecognized for so long. “People now think that the Jewish contribution to the resistance was very high relative to the size of the Jewish population before the war,” she writes. Her own memoir is a valuable contribution to this scholarship.

Selma was arrested on June 18, 1944 at the home of a resistance colleague. Her interrogators did not discover that she was Jewish, and thus she was sent first to the Vught Concentration Camp, and then on to Ravensbrück. Other members of her network were also arrested when her friend, who had refused to give up any information under torture, finally cracked when interrogators brought in a Jewish woman with two small children, gripped their arms, and threatened to snap them if he didn’t talk. After the war, he was tried for collaboration—Selma testified on his behalf and he was released. Wartime actions often defied easy moral categorization.

Selma was in one way fortunate. On December 7, 1941—the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—Hitler had issued his “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) order to suppress and discourage resistance in Occupied Europe. Political activists and resistance fighters vanished into a network of prisons and camps; if they died or were murdered, no notation was made of where they were buried—they simply vanished. Selma’s interrogators could not determine that she had worked in the resistance, and so she was not labeled Nacht und Nebel, and was instead sentenced to incarceration until the end of the war.

Ravensbrück was hell in the heart of Europe. Selma’s descriptions will be familiar to anyone familiar with Holocaust literature: the guards, the dogs, the sadism, the degradation, the casual cruelty. The camp, located a mere hour and a half drive from Berlin, hosted 132,000 miserable women and children; at least 92,000 died of starvation, sickness, and murder. Early on, babies were taken from their mothers and drowned, buried alive, strangled, or poisoned. Others were tossed in confined spaces to die. Little girls were sterilized. Children were forced to work; the labor usually killed them. Fifteen hundred women lived in barracks designed for 250, three or four to a bed. Selma was prisoner number 66947.

She was liberated on April 23, 1945, six days before Hitler blew his brains out in his Berlin bunker. The Swedish Red Cross picked them up, and Selma made her way to England, where her two surviving brothers lived. It was there that she met and married Belgian journalist Hugo van de Perre; they had one child, a son. For years after the war as she tried to track down friends and family and piece together the details of what they’d endured, Selma met people she thought were dead as they emerged from the night and fog of the Holocaust, human flotsam and jetsam on the tides of catastrophe. On June 29, 1983, she was awarded the Resistance Memorial Cross on behalf of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands by the Dutch ambassador in London.

Reading Selma’s memoir, I caught myself struggling again with the realization that the Greatest Generation is almost all gone. Those who remember the War as adults are in their late nineties now. Already the first decades of the twentieth century have been covered by impenetrable shadow; soon, when the last survivor leaves us, World War II and the Holocaust will also slip from memory into history. Without such survivors, I feel as if we are somehow lost, unmoored in a new century where all of the old certainties are gone. We are orphans, in some strange historical sense that I cannot quite articulate. I occasionally experience the distinct sensation of drifting out to sea, with the sight of land growing fuzzy and difficult to discern.

I grew up hearing stories about “the War” from my grandparents, all four of whom survived the Occupation of the Netherlands. Both of my grandmothers witnessed the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam: One saw the smoke and flames rising skyward from a distance; the other, who was older, was hidden in a basement with her family as their world immolated around them, emerging when it was over to view the rubble and the dead. Even events like these are being forgotten. A Dutch friend who frequently works in Rotterdam told me recently that several young German businessmen visited their office after seeing the sights and asked their flabbergasted hosts: “It’s a nice city—but where is the city centre?”

Both of my grandfathers are now gone. My paternal grandfather passed away this year at the age of 99, and I felt keenly the loss not just of a precious man whom I loved very much but of the opportunity for my two young children to hear firsthand what he witnessed and lived through. World War II will likely seem like ancient history to them. During Remembrance Day ceremonies in recent years, there have been only a tiny handful of wizened war veterans at the cenotaphs, most confined to wheelchairs. The last veterans of the Great War have been gone for years. When I was very young and they were very old, I remember seeing a few of them on November 11, carefully swaddled in blankets against the autumn cold. Their war belongs to the historians now. Soon, the Second World War will, too.

Some are especially conscious of this change. Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the top Nazi-hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has embarked on the final push to capture and try war criminals. They may be nearly 100 years old, but Zuroff believes that the trials themselves are an invaluable inoculation against Holocaust denial and historical amnesia. There have been recent trials of concentration camp guards from both Sobibor and Auschwitz, the camps where Selma’s family were murdered. “It’s about the trials,” Zuroff told me in an interview. “A trial is more effective than any history book.” Zuroff has been part of tracking 3,000 Nazi war criminals and is one of the last independent Nazi hunters in the world. After decades of relentless searching and historical detective work, his career will soon be obsolete.

As the eyewitnesses of the twentieth century’s catastrophes take their places in the cemeteries, memoirs such as Selma’s take on a special urgency. Our last chance to ask these men and women for their memories, their regrets, and their experiences is rapidly approaching. In May 2021, for example, the documentary Final Account was released to theatres. Director Luke Holland, whose grandparents were murdered in a concentration camp, spent ten years conducting more than 300 interviews with eyewitnesses, soldiers, guards, and ordinary citizens of the Third Reich. The result is “an urgent portrait of the last living generation of everyday people” struggling with “their memories, perceptions, and personal appraisals of their own roles in the greatest crimes in history.” Over a decade ago, the BBC aired their series “The Last Nazis,” and now Holland’s film is a potent and powerful postscript.

The twentieth century is rapidly fading into the rear-view mirror, especially as social media and the 24-7 news cycle traps us perpetually in the tyranny of the present. A generation born in this century rather than the last one will soon be driving elections, setting the agenda, and shaping the culture. Most of them will do so with virtually no knowledge of the past whatsoever. The great lesson of the twentieth century, historian Niall Ferguson told me recently, is that totalitarianism is the greatest man-made disaster we face. My Name is Selma reminds us of its cost—and the necessity of resistance. We should heed these voices while we still have them with us.

 

 

 

 

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.

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