Edith's Story Courage, Love, and Survival during World War II
By Edith Van Hessen Velmans
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 31, 2002
When most people think about the plight of the Jews in Holland during World War II, their mind is naturally drawn to the dairy of Anne Frank. She was 13 when she started keeping a diary, and she treated it as a friend, confiding her thoughts and her observations of life. Unintentionally, she recorded the growing restrictions on the Jews after the Nazi occupation of Holland, the horrific events of the war, and her families efforts to hide from the Nazi's. Her diary entries end abruptly in August 1944. An informer had revealed the family's whereabouts to the Nazi's, and the family was arrested and they were all sent to various concentration camps. Anne was only fifteen when she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. After the war, her father, the only member of the family to survived, had Anne's diary published. It has since become well-known all over the world.
Anne Frank was not, however, the only Jewish girl in Holland to have kept a diary during the war. Edith Van Hessen, who was fourteen years old when the German's invaded Holland in 1940, also kept a diary. Like Anne, Edith was forced to hide from the Nazi's. However unlike Anne, Edith hid in plain sight, pretending to be a Christian. And, unlike Anne, Edith survived the war, although most of her family did not.
Decades after the war ended, Edith embarked upon the task of telling her story. The end result was this book, Edith's Story: Courage, Love and Survival During World War II. This book is based upon her diaries, and is enhanced by her own memories and the memories of other survivors, as well as by letters from family members that she saved. She has combined this information to create an intense and very personal account of her life during the Nazi occupation of Holland.
Because the Anne Frank's diaries are so well known, it is impossible not to compare Anne and Edith's writings. Both girls wrote about their most intimate thoughts, and candidly wrote about their feelings, both positive and negative. In Edith's case, some of these personal reminiscences include her first kiss, her laziness when it came to doing chores, the heartbreak that she experienced when she was separated from her parents and her two brothers, and the fears over what would happen if she was captured. She also offers a comparison of what life was like for Jewish children versus non-Jewish children under the occupation. Throughout, this story is infused with the retelling of momentous, and chilling events, such as when she had to turn in her bicycle to the authorities because Jews were no longer allowed to ride bikes. Edith also discusses the end of the war, something Anne could not do because she did not live long enough to see it.
Edith describes her first thoughts when the Allies liberated the part of Holland she was in, and her desire to help others who had suffered more than she. She candidly discusses the feelings she had as she found out who had survived, and more often, who had not survived the war. In addition, Edith talks about her life after the war, including her marriage and the birth of her children. With candor she describes the difficulties in accepting the fact that, after the liberation, that she was 'free' and could again use her real name without the fear that doing so might result in her death. She also talks about the friendship that developed with Miep Gies, after they met in a maternity ward. Gies had helped to hide the Frank family, and she had preserved Anne's diary after the family was captured.
Edith's Story is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The circumstances that she was forced to endured were horrific, but she was also fortunate to be surrounded by loving and caring people who risked their own lives to save hers.
This narrative offers a unique glimpse into the plight of those Jews who attempted to hide from the Nazi's by taking on a new identity and hiding out in plain sight. Not only did Edith, and others like her, have to be excellent actresses, but they were also besieged by constant worries and unending stress. For example, what would happen if they said the wrong thing, or did something to displease someone who knew their real identity? This moving account is a must read. Not just for those interested in Holocaust studies, but for anyone who would be interested in a fascinating account of human endurance and the courage that so many exhibited during the Nazi's barbaric reign of terror.
Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, by Lyn Smith.
This book contains short narratives by more than 100 contributors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, about their experiences during the Holocaust.
Fragments of Memory: From Kolin to Jerusalem , by Hana Greenfield.
A chilling memoir of Greenfield's horrific experiences during the Holocaust, that found her in Terezin Ghetto, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and working in Hamburg, Germany as a slave laborer. Also chronicles the fate of the Bialystock children.