Michal Citroen about Jewish people in hiding: ‘The blow could come at any time’

Michal Citroen about Jewish people in hiding: ‘The blow could come at any time’

When Michal Citroen moved to New York with her parents as a nine-year-old, she ended up at a public school in The Bronx, where part of the class, like the teacher, was Jewish. The children crowded around her because they thought she looked so much like Anne Frank. In An address, her new book, she writes about it: ‘They clearly all thought it was very important, so I could hardly say that I had not read the book and had to go home and ask who exactly Anne Frank was.’ Her parents were amazed. Anne Frank’s diary was not on their bookshelves.

Of An address Citroen has written a new standard work on Jewish people in hiding during the Second World War. Anne Frank is of course mentioned, but mainly to explain that her story, although world famous and iconic, is not representative. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was wealthy, well informed, and not isolated – he had non-Jewish employees who helped him. However tragically it ended for the Frank family, it was even more difficult for many Jewish Dutch people to go into hiding.

An address is an impressive anthology of stories from hiding that Citroen collected in archives, books, and, especially, during her long career as a journalist for the VPRO radio program OVT. Based on these stories, she shows how some people decided to go into hiding and others did not. And the enormous tensions people in hiding were constantly exposed to, not only because of the fear of being discovered, but also because they were exploited or abused by people in hiding. Even if the relationship with people in hiding was good, it was an enormous task to be locked up with others for months or years. “It was always complicated,” says Citroen. “Imagine. You have to adapt, adapt, adapt. Find every joke funny. Accept any irritation immediately. Do not move. If you live in other people’s homes for three years, let’s be honest, at some point you start to hate each other.”

An address is also, although the vast majority of the more than 600-page book is about others, a personal book. Citroen does not devote many words to her own family, but when she does, it produces compelling passages, such as this one, about her father: ‘He has been in hiding on a farm somewhere and has been asked or forced to go out as a courier for a resistance group. Along the way he was caught, held for a while, beaten up and released again. […] My father was often in bed with complaints and the order was to be quiet, leave him alone and above all not to ask about it. Of course, as a child I knew never to wear boots, never to stamp or scream, never to make sudden movements near his head, and not to expect him to ever carry me or shoulder me. When I reached the age to understand all this, my mother became ill and died. Two years later, my father was admitted to an institution for months and I heard about KZ syndrome for the first time.”

Michal Citroen worked intensively on the book for three years, sometimes twelve hours a day. Before the conversation, she warned that once she starts talking, she will be difficult to stop. She is still full of the stories she wrote down – how could it be otherwise, they are moving stories. During the conversation she regularly refers to a person in hiding from her book. To Eli Asser, for example, whose father, when the family had the opportunity to go into hiding, said: “I don’t want your death on my conscience.” Hiding was dangerous. Anyone who was caught went to a camp as a punishment. Only after the war did it become clear to everyone how dangerous not was to go into hiding.

Fifi de Zoete is also discussed, who was in hiding with her husband and two other couples in the Breeplein Church in Rotterdam. Her three daughters were housed at other addresses. Once a week, her daughter Hadassah came to the church service with the family she was hiding with. Afterwards she was always taken to the garden of the parsonage to admire the chickens and rabbits there. “She didn’t understand why that was necessary, because she didn’t think those animals were that special. No one could tell her the real reason yet. From a high window in the church overlooking the garden, her parents could see with their own eyes that their daughter had made it through another week safely.”

An address tells the story of the hiding from the perspective of the people in hiding. This shows that the mental pressure to which people in hiding were exposed was unimaginably great. “They were constantly afraid of being caught,” says Citroen, “because the blow could come at any moment. Afraid of footsteps in front of the door, of a truck stopping. And afraid of betraying themselves in some way, by talking too loudly or doing something wrong.” And, as a GP who himself went into hiding explains in the book: people in hiding had 24 hours a day to worry.

In your foreword you write that you did not think long when you were asked to write this book, because ‘writing about the Holocaust is a duty’. Why did you feel that way?

“First of all, I think that all those people in the book deserve a voice. That is important and it is only becoming more important. The younger generation will no longer hear these stories from their parents and grandparents, because the survivors will soon be gone. Secondly, I spent a large part of my working life interviewing people about the war, because I wanted to make a good radio program out of it. Sometimes I was the first to whom people told their stories. And then it took them maybe weeks, months to push everything back into place because of what I had loosened. That creates an obligation.”

You write about the ‘hierarchy of suffering’, in which the survivors of Auschwitz and Sobibor were at the top. Then people from the other camps came, and only then the people in hiding. Does that also apply to your own family?

“Naturally. As a child I was only interested in my grandfather, who had been to Auschwitz. From New York I took the plane to the Netherlands alone because I missed my grandfather so much.”

Your grandfather was your hero.

“He was so sweet, always interested, always had time. We walked together for hours, talking about what we saw, the birds, the trees. As a grandparent you simply have a different relationship with your grandchildren than with your children. I now see that with my own grandchildren. When I worked in radio I was always in a hurry. If I go to the zoo with my grandson and he wants to spend three hours looking at the polar bears, that’s fine with me. Of course, my grandfather also knew that things were complicated with my father at times.

“My father was a wonderful man. He gave me an enormous love for music – if we were driving somewhere and there was something on the radio that we wanted to hear, he would pull the car aside. But when my mother died, he was no longer able to support himself. I never realized it that way, but now I think: it might have been very annoying for my father that I was always so busy with my grandfather.”

After Dutch people were called up en masse for the Arbeitseinsatz in Germany in 1943, the resistance arranged hundreds of thousands of hiding places, including ration cards, for people who wanted to avoid it. Suddenly a lot was possible, but for most Jews it was too late. Does that say something about how anti-Semitic the Netherlands was at the time?

“It mainly says something about how pillarized the Netherlands was. The entire care for the vulnerable was entrusted to the column. But the Jews only had the Jewish Council. What happened in 1943 can also be seen as proof of the opposite of anti-Semitism. Because when the resistance set up a network for people in hiding, the Jews who were still there could simply participate.”

Historians don’t like what-if questions, you write. But what if the Jewish Council had previously called on Jewish Dutch people to go into hiding?

“It’s not about the Jewish Council! They are not responsible. It starts in the beginning: after the departure of the government and Queen Wilhelmina to England in May 1940, the highest officials, the secretaries-general of the departments, decide to cooperate with the Germans ‘in the most loyal manner’. The standard reflex is: prevent chaos. Ensuring that the economy stays running, because that is in the interest of the entire population. It is a Dutch official who writes to the police at a ministry somewhere that if there is a commotion because officers do not feel like picking up families with babies, orders must be followed.”

You write that in London in 1942 it was known that Jews were being murdered en masse. Do you blame Wilhelmina for not warning bluntly about what was happening?

“Don’t you think it would have made a difference if she had ended her speeches for Radio Oranje with: ‘And make sure that the Constitution is not violated in the treatment of the Jews.’ Not that all Dutch Jews would have been saved. But you bet it would have mattered. Coincidentally, I recently looked up what Willem-Alexander said a few years ago about his great-grandmother.”

Citroen picks up her phone and reads: “Fellow people felt abandoned, insufficiently heard, insufficiently supported, even if only in words.”

Lemon: “Even if only in words. I am not a fan of the royal family, but he says it very precisely in nice words.”

What did working on this book give you?

“Someone I know, who didn’t know I was working on this book, had ordered it. A few weeks later she said: ‘I read a real history book for the first time in my life and suddenly I was standing among those people.’ If it gets me anything, I hope it is that people will never again think that what happened to Jewish Dutch people was their own fault, because they did not put up enough resistance.”

And what has it brought you personally?

“Do I have to say that I have learned to understand my father better? As a child I was just too young to really understand everything. You can’t really understand something if you haven’t experienced it yourself. You can imagine it better, and therefore have compassion. I think my father knew that I loved him very much. But he must also have felt that he was falling short. If I could speak to him now I would say: I’m sorry, if you ever felt like I was blaming you.”