Inside Story

Remarkable acts of courage

Two books about the second world war show that humans are capable of lifting ourselves out of the mire

Sara Dowse 31 July 2014 2657 words

Outsider: André Trocmé (left), shown here with his assistant pastor Édouard Theis (right) and school principal Roger Darcissac, during his brief confinement to the Saint-Paul d’Eyieaux internment camp. Photograph collection Roger Darcissac, courtesy Lieu de Mémoire, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

It’s been almost forty years since I began a serious, if self-directed, course in Jewish history, and the number of texts I’ve read on the single subject of the Holocaust is but a drop in a roiling sea. I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to catch up and, if truth be told, by now what books I have read tend to blur into one another.

Except the first one – that one I’ll never forget. It was Terrence Des Pres’s The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, a book that did much to send me on my autodidactic search. I don’t know the circumstance of Des Pres’s death, other than that he took his own life eleven years after he saw his classic in print. He was not the first writer whose grappling with such inhumanity led to suicide – Primo Levi preceded him by seven months. A close knowledge – in Levi’s case, too close – of the premeditated, condoned and bureaucratically implemented murder of six million civilians, still within living memory, can be far too heavy a weight to bear.

Based, as the texts mostly are, on the testimonies of survivors and witnesses, The Survivor focuses on the shame the SS and other guards deliberately inculcated in their victims. What Des Pres homed in on was the shit that was everywhere, in the freight cars in which hundreds were crammed without sufficient facilities, then in the camps where the same lack applied, and finally in the Zyklon-B “showers” themselves. It was as if the whole horrific journey was a sewer in which the victims were forced to travel, trudging through the Dantesque hell of their own excrement.

Here was both fact and metaphor, and Des Pres’s empathetic rendering of it did more than just about anything else to establish the means by which the Nazis set out to persecute and then eliminate (yes, the word is carefully chosen) my people. Murder on such a scale is almost impossible to grasp, but human shit – the smell and inescapable pervasiveness of it – certainly is.

Appearing in 1976, The Survivor was an early entry into the mass of Holocaust literature published in English. I had read Anne Frank’s diary soon after the English edition came out in 1952, but this was written while she was in hiding, before her death from typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The English translation of Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (If This Is A Man) appeared in 1959, bearing witness to his year in Auschwitz,T but his was a relatively lone voice then. It took a while for the Holocaust to sink in after the war, largely because of an understandable reluctance on the part of survivors to revisit the horror they often felt guilty about escaping; and the fledgling, macho-Jewish state of Israel actually shrank from the shame of it, Yad Vashem notwithstanding. But then came 1985’s Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half hour documentary recording the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators, most aptly described as an “act of witness.” Shoah changed things. By the time it appeared, Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike were prepared to digest this pogrom of all pogroms in our tragic history.

Alongside these developments, a kind of sub-genre evolved. These were books designed to show that not all German or French or Polish or Dutch were complicit in Hitler’s barbarism, and that many of the “righteous” non-Jews subsequently honoured in Israel were willing to risk their lives and those of their families to harbour Jews and help them escape certain doom. We in Australia know most about this through Thomas Keneally’s Booker Prize–winning Schindler’s Ark and the Spielberg movie made from it, but the first was arguably Anne Frank’s diary itself. For three years before they were betrayed, the Frank family were hidden behind a bookcase in the Amsterdam building where Anne’s father worked.

But those were complicated times. Before 1942, when the “final solution” was adopted and the Franks were forced into hiding, the Nazis themselves facilitated emigration out of Europe for Jews wealthy enough to pay for it, or those helped by Jewish philanthropic organisations, including the ones operating under the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There were even negotiations between the Nazis and the Jewish Agency for exit visas to Palestine. But after the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 the cooperation ended. The Nazis may have wanted a judenrein Germany, but as the majority of Jews could only get as far as mainland Europe, most of which was then Nazi-occupied, extermination seemed the only expedient. Or so the grisly logic went.

Like the Franks, Gertrude Cohn was a German Jew who ended up in Holland, in her case after the outbreak of the first world war had cut short her stint as a social worker in England. In Amsterdam, Gertrude embraced Zionism, and by 1917 she was running the Jewish National Fund’s Commissariat there. Three years later she married Jacques van Tijn, a Dutch mining engineer and thus acquired her invaluable Dutch citizenship.

With Jacques offering his services as a travelling exploration geologist, the van Tijns spent several years out of the country. When they returned in 1932 they set up house in a wealthy, slightly Bohemian suburb just outside Amsterdam, where Gertrude raised her two children and entertained a wide range of visitors. But five years on, as the Nazi crackdown on German Jews intensified, Gertrude’s husband, always a bit of a womaniser, finally left her. A broken Gertrude threw her considerable energy into helping more of her fellow German Jews across the Dutch border and then sought to find them refuge in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and Palestine, or wherever else she found places that would take them.

Because of her native German and fluency in Dutch and English, van Tijn was able to negotiate with the Nazis while maintaining contact with the Americans and British. One very important interlocutor operated from Geneva; she also had French and Zionist contacts. Secretary to two Dutch Jewish committees, she developed a well-functioning network for dealing with the flood of refugees pouring out of Germany. After the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, others began arriving from Eastern Europe. Van Tijn was instrumental in setting up a farm, or werkdorp, on the outskirts of Amsterdam where young refugees could be housed and trained in agriculture. Her most urgent task was saving Jewish children through the famous Kindertransport.

But her work became next to impossible after Germany invaded Holland itself. Soon enough, her committees were disbanded and the Germans created a Judenrat, or Jewish Council, in their place. Believing that getting Jews out of the Netherlands was more crucial than ever, she continued to work for the Council, but only as a volunteer. She refused to join the Council, and had a tense relationship with David Cohen and Abraham Asscher, its two leaders. What little income she had came from the United States and some of the international relief agencies. Finally, like Anne Frank, she was sent to Bergen-Belsen, but despite an ongoing heart condition she miraculously survived.

After Germany’s defeat, Cohen and Asscher were formally charged by the Jewish community with collaboration, and though she was never charged herself, the very fact of her having worked for them meant that Gertrude was tainted. Indeed, we might never have known her story, or her intricate footwork of survival during the Dutch occupation, but for the fact that, apart from a voluminous correspondence and her report to the Dutch government on her wartime activities, she wrote a memoir with the aim of setting the record straight.

According to University of Chicago historian Bernard Wasserstein, author of The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, that memoir is a rare and impressive document, not only because it is one of the few to record Holland’s experience of war and occupation, but also because Gertrude is unusually frank and critical of herself and so – unlike so much autobiographical writing Wasserstein read, and David Cohen’s in particular – it is not at all self-serving.

Having refused refuge herself when it was offered many times, and despite the hardships she endured and the risks she took with her life, van Tijn lived into her eighties. By then she had settled in Portland, Oregon, to be close to her children, from whom the war had separated her for years.

For readers now, especially here in Australia, one of the most significant insights to be gleaned from Wasserstein’s account is how similar the arguments against accepting refugees in van Tijn’s time were to those shaping policy today. Refugees weren’t escaping persecution but merely seeking a better life; transit and receiving nations didn’t have the capacity to absorb them; their arrival in too great numbers would inflame racial prejudice – and, in the case of Palestine, would cause the Arabs to riot. Unscrupulous smugglers operated as well, charging high fees to guide people over borders. Many refugees were deemed to be “illegal,” entering without papers or using papers that were forged. There were several instances, too, of boats being turned back. (It was the turning back of the St Louis, with its Jewish refugee passengers, after it had docked in Havana and its passengers were refused entry to the United States, that eventually led to the adoption in 1951 of the current UN Convention.)

The specific question of forged papers neatly segues into Peter Grose’s A Good Place to Hide. Peter Grose is a former Australian journalist, literary agent and publisher living off the coast of France, where he came upon the story of how the French Protestant community of the Haute-Loire Plateau, a part of France with a history of Huguenot resistance, played a critical role in saving Jews after the June 1940 Nazi invasion. Grose’s previous books, An Awkward Truth and A Very Rude Awakening, cover Australian war subjects – the 1942 bombing of Darwin and the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour – and here too he reveals his journalist’s nose for remarkable events.

Unlike Wasserstein, whose focus in The Ambiguity of Virtue is on a single brave woman, Grose writes about a whole community. Still, it’s inevitable that certain players stand out. Oscar Rosowsky, for instance. Clearly one of Grose’s favourites, Rosowsky arrived on the Plateau as a seventeen-year-old boy with his mother, Mira, in late 1942. His father had already been arrested and the two of them, mother and son, had been separated. After hair-raising escapes from the Vichy authorities, they both ended up on Le Chambon sur Lignon, the principal village in Grose’s story. The boy was already launched on his career as a forger, having produced false identities for himself and for his mother. Not until the war ended did the inhabitants of Le Chambon come to know that the two were even related.

Grose describes Rosowsky as “one of the finest – and most spectacular – forgers in World War II history,” and shows the importance of what he did:

By early 1943, [Rosowsky’s] forgery team had become a key element in the rescue operation. Looking back on it now, it seems incredible that this onerous and crucial burden rested on the skinny shoulders of an eighteen-year-old Latvian Jew with no experience of or contact with the dark underworld of criminal forgery, and whose frustrated ambition was to become a doctor.

Happily, Rosowsky’s ambition was realised, and he eventually became president of the General Medical Council of France.

Not so fortunate was André Trocmé, Le Chambon’s pastor for the war’s duration. In many respects, Trocmé’s story parallels van Tijn’s. Trocmé, too, was an outsider. From northern France, near the Belgian border, and with a German mother, he was fluent in that language. Like van Tijn, he came from a wealthy family, and was the family “firebrand” and not a little stubborn. Two traumatic events transformed him into the unwavering pacifist he became. Like van Tijn, he suffered the untimely death of his mother, and he was forever marked by what he saw at close quarters of the gruesome butchery of war:

The River Somme, scene of the most terrible trench warfare of World War I, flows through the middle of Saint-Quentin, so the worst of the carnage took place nearby… [F]or two and a half years André witnessed at first hand the streams of bodies being brought back through the town from the front line. He could smell the gangrenous flesh, and see for himself the bitter consequences of war.

The Trocmés were forced to billet a young German officer, a man André assumed might one day kill his brother Robert, a French army captain. The German convinced him that, as a Christian, he had arranged with his superiors that he would not carry a gun and would serve as a telegraph operator instead. André took him to a meeting of young French Christians who, after a momentary pause, accepted him as a fellow Christian and pacifist. This is what clinched it for Trocmé, and eventually sustained him throughout the dark days when he led his parish in the dangerous business of harbouring refugees and smuggling them over the border into Switzerland.

But late in the war Trocmé’s pacifism worked against him. The Resistance was gaining strength on the Plateau and the maquisards were in fierce combat with the Germans, holding out until the Allied invasion. Now, they became the heroes of France’s struggle. A pacifist was not only irrelevant; there was also the very real chance that Trocmé might be seen as a collaborator. A big enough cloud of suspicion hung over his head that he was forced to resign as Le Chambon’s pastor.

Trocmé spent most of his remaining life in Geneva working with the international peace movement. He was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and was named as one of Israel’s Righteous Among Nations, but he refused that honour unless it was bestowed on all of Le Chambon. He also received the Rosette de la Résistance for “remarkable acts of courage that contributed to the resistance of the French people against the enemy.” As Grose observes with irony, he was “surely the only high-profile pacifist to ever receive it.”

Of the two books, Grose’s flows better – which is quite an achievement considering the number of characters he juggles and the many connections welding together his story. The son of another of Le Chambon’s resisters made a documentary of their exploits, Weapons of the Spirit, the title of which was taken from Trocmé’s joint declaration with another pastor on 23 June 1940 – the sad day when the armistice between France and Germany was signed. The full text of the declaration is included in A Good Place to Hide, along with a précis of Huguenot resistance and other valuable appendices. The one thing missing is an index.

I was most grateful to Wasserstein for providing one. For neither his nor Grose’s book is what you would call an easy read. Nor do I think they should have been. The subjects they tackle are among the most serious of our time. None of us can be certain that we will act with honour if circumstances demand. But for all the ambiguity that’s mixed up in virtue, as it is practised in the all-too-material world, it’s a comfort to know that we humans are capable of lifting ourselves out of unspeakable mire, and risking our imperfect selves for a higher good. •

The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews
By Bernard Wasserstein | Harvard University Press | $45

A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives in World War II
By Peter Grose | Allen & Unwin | $32.99