Of the many discoveries I’ve made about my extended family lately, one of the most startling was that several relatives spent the war in an attic in Holland. According to the Yad Vashem site, Johannes van den Berg and his wife, Anna, hid 14 people in their home in the town of Velp, Gelderland. Among them were Nina and Ferdinand Schmerling, their daughter, Stella Schmerling Beder, and her husband, Jack Beder. “The fugitives shared the two attic rooms,” the piece states, “and the Van den Berg sons found other places to sleep. Special hideouts were also constructed for use in times of emergency.”
Other Family Stories
I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Anne Frank, who detailed the experience in what became The Diary of a Young Girl, didn’t have a monopoly on hiding in Holland — or anywhere else. I just didn’t know that this was one of my family’s responses to the Nazi occupation.
When I thought about it, though, several ways that my relatives reacted to the Germans were new to me. I really only knew one attempted — and failed — escape strategy: By coincidence, both my mother and father were sent abroad from Vienna by their parents because the Nazis had confiscated most of their assets and there wasn’t enough money for passage for the entire family. The plan was for the children to wire money to their parents from America once they got enough. By another, even more tragic coincidence, both managed to scrape the required amount together — only to learn that the borders had closed. My parents met after they had this parallel experience; I always wondered if they found solace from having shared it or if it only doubled the couple’s pain.
But in the past year, I’ve learned about several ways my mother’s family dealt with the Nazi occupation: Some relatives fled to Shanghai together; others became Zionists and moved to Palestine, helping fellow Jews to leave Austria; one ended up in Jamaica, fighting with a Canadian unit against the Germans.
Bruno Bettelheim and Anne Frank
It was through Manfred Wolf, the nephew of the man in the Canadian unit — he wrote about a lead-in to that experience here — that I learned about a controversial essay by Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, perhaps best known for his Freudian analyses of fairy tales. Bettleheim, who survived Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, states a part of his essay’s thesis in its title: “The Popularity of Anne Frank’s Diary Denies the Real Lesson of the Holocaust.” [The essay is not available online unless you are a subscriber to Harper's Magazine; here's the link, if you want to spend $19.97. Note to Harper's: Making people subscribe to the magazine if they only want a single article is not a smart business plan; I would have happily spent a few dollars on it, but not $20. Instead, I got the essay from the library in a collection called Readings on Anne Frank.]
It is an onerous task to take apart so humane and moving a story… but I believe that its world wide acclaim cannot be explained unless we recognize our wish to forget the gas chambers and to glorify the ability to… [cling] to the usual daily attitudes even in a holocaust.
Bettelheim considers this attitude dangerous, even fatal:
While the Franks were making their preparations for going passively into hiding, thousands of other Jews in Holland and elsewhere in Europe were trying to escape to the Free World in order to survive or to be able to fight. Others who could not do so went underground — not simply to hide from the SS and wait for the day when they would be caught — but to fight against the Germans and for humanity.
Anne’s fate was not necessary, Bettelheim contends. Many Jewish children survived the war by being sent off to live with Dutch families. “But for that she would have had to be separated from her parents,” he says, and “the main principle of the [Franks'] planning was to continue as much as possible with the kind of family life they were accustomed to.” They refused to “accept that going on with life as usual was… sometimes the most destructive of all attitudes.” Instead of teaching typical academic high school subjects to his children, Bettelheim suggests, Mr. Frank’s time would have better been spent showing them how to make a getaway if the Nazis came. And instead of buying provisions to create a pretense of normalcy, he says, the Franks should have bought a gun or two.
Back to the family
Bettelheim describes one of the alternatives to what he calls the “surrender to the death instinct” or the “principle of inertia”:
Many Jews in Poland who did not believe in life-as-usual survived the second world war. As the Germans approached, they left everything behind and fled to Russia.
This brought to mind the fact that other relatives, the family of Ezriel Kornmehl, escaped to the USSR — even though Ezriel had fought against Russia on the side of Poland only a few decades earlier.
I thought again about the members of my family who hid in Holland. I have no details about their experience but know that, happily, all four Beders and Schmerlings survived, unlike the Franks. But here’s an interesting fact. According to Elaine Schmerling, Gustel Schmerling, the son of Ferdinand and Nina and brother of Stella “wasn’t in the attic hiding, because he had already gone to Israel and helped the Hagganah smuggle Jews in.” She adds, “Why his parents and sister didn’t go is beyond me….but I guess they didn’t want to go, as many others didn’t.”
That’s pretty much the same question that Bettelheim asks.
And then something else occurred to me. I’d always thought of my grandparents’ fate as pure tragedy — and of course the fact that they died in concentration camps, when they were on the verge of being saved by their children, is horrible. But I realize now that they made smart — and brave — choices, to split up their families and send their children abroad. If they hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.