When my partner and I went to live in Amsterdam for six months in 2001, my first thoughts were of canals and museums and an open-minded society.  Within a few weeks, the Nazi occupation there gripped me.  First came the discovery that we were living inside the Jewish Quarter, and that 80% of its residents had been mass murdered.  While I was still reeling from that, the Anne Frank House revealed a photograph of a roundup happening right on our doorstep.  The Diary had gripped me as a child, but that photo chilled my adult heart.

A few days later, we attended the commemoration of the only general strike in Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people.  Shivering on that freezing February day, we watched survivors and others lay tulips and roses by the statue of the striking Dockworker.  Notes in spidery handwriting were attached to some bouquets, presumably addressed to absent family and friends. The Holocaust had never felt so close to me before, as a Gentile American/Canadian.  But it happened in my Amsterdam neighborhood.  Only an accident of time prevented me from watching Jewish people be herded beneath my window.  As a neighbor, what would I have done?

For the next 13 years, on repeated long visits, I learned whatever I could about 1940-45 in Amsterdam, going to museums and historic sites, reading extensively, and prowling around the canals to find the many (then) unmarked addresses relevant to my quest.  A creative process was kindled by the shock of discovering that Jewish people had been hidden in the attic above our 2002 apartment.  Perhaps because the facts were unknowable, I began to imagine the family who had lived there, and the circumstances which had brought them to that place.  A main character, Rachel Klein, formed in my mind:  an 18 year old Jewish woman in love who initially just wants her life to be normal, but who transforms herself into a resistance worker, both courageous and scared.

As I read about events like the February Strike, scenes came to me about how Rachel would have been part of them.  My years of research and writing created the historical novel, An Address in Amsterdam, published in 2016 by She Writes Press.  I was fortunate to have the involvement of two Jewish women who lived through this time, Profs. Eliane Vogel Polsky and Laureen Nussbaum, who checked the book for both emotional and historical accuracy.  It’s thanks to them that An Address in Amsterdam won the Sarton Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction, and was a Kirkus Indie Book of the Month.

Until the pandemic, I brought the book’s message to more than eighty audiences in four countries with titles like “Resistance Then and Now:  Learning from the Dutch.”

The excerpt which follows is the Prologue, set in July 1942 at the height of the roundups.  Rachel is delivering false papers to hidden Jews as a courier for the resistance.  The chapters which follow show how she became that person, and how she and her lover, friends and parents faced the Nazi Occupation.

Prologue:  July 1942

Rachel didn’t linger, in case she was being watched. The canal sloshed uneasily below her. Looking both ways, she slipped close to another house. Was this the address where she was supposed to deliver the envelope? Yes. The white number on the dark blue metal plate corresponded to the one she’d memorized. She knocked three times. The door opened the merest crack, with no light behind it.

One eye and a slice of a finely lined face. Rachel shrank back like the teenager she’d been before the Nazi occupation: a polite Jewish doctor’s daughter taught to be cautious of strangers. Then she squared her shoulders and steadied her voice, forcing out the prescribed words. “Is Uncle Harry here?”

“Yes,” came a whisper. “Come in.” Rachel took a quick breath and entered. Her hands still trembled a little. Deliveries were riskier today than a year ago. She made out the outline of the thin man who’d answered the door. He stepped past her to the threshold and listened, taut and alert. His house must have been raided before.

The man stuck his head partway out the door and looked up the slick street. He took one swift step back, then closed the door quickly and quietly.

“Downstairs,” he hissed, grabbing Rachel’s hand, yanking her along behind him. Her feet responded before her mind registered his urgency.  She sensed rather than saw the looming furniture in the dark hallway. If this address was a trap, what would he do to her?

“Wait,” Rachel said. She stopped short, jerking the man backward for a moment. He might be a collaborator. She’d heard so many stories, and she’d never delivered anything to this address before.  He pulled her arm hard enough that she was again forced to stumble along behind him.

“Shut up!” he spat between clenched teeth. She felt tears burning under her eyelids. She lurched along, fearing that he might dislocate her shoulder. He halted abruptly near the back of the house. A latch clinked as he shoved a door open. “Downstairs,” he commanded, pushing her ahead of him. The steps squeaked under her uncertain feet. In the darkness at the bottom, the ceiling was shorter than she was, so she hunched over, breathing in dank air. The door closed

above her. She heard the man’s steps shuffle softly, then felt his hands on her shoulders, steering her. He switched on a flashlight.

“Go left, about two meters.” He moved in front of her, and they crept along. When he stopped in front of a large storage wardrobe, he pressed his lips against the crack between the door and the frame to speak. She could hear the sound of his voice, but not the words.

A weak answer came from inside, as the door creaked open. How could someone breathe in there? So many people were crammed into attics and basements all over the city. At first, almost no one had taken the Nazis seriously. Like them, Rachel had believed the Netherlands would protect all of its citizens, Jews as well as Gentiles. It had been a sanctuary for the three centuries since her mother’s family had fled the Spanish in the 1600s. But everything had changed incalculably since the German Nazis swarmed over the Dutch border in 1940. Although only two and a half years had passed, the era before the invasion felt as distant as her early childhood.

“Get in,” the man ordered. She began to step inside, but drew back when she heard a soft cry.

“Be careful,” someone whispered. “There are six of us in here already.”

“What’s happening?” A man’s whisper, from a back corner.

The thin man said, “Five German Green Police. I saw them turn this way. They might have seen me. Or this girl might’ve led them to us.”

A sudden stillness fell. No one could step away from her, but everyone who was touching her stiffened.

From the front of the house came one crack, then three others. The wooden door finally splintered.

Article by Author/s
Mary Fillmore
Mary Dingee Fillmore’s life was changed when she discovered that her Amsterdam apartment was inside the Jewish Quarter where 80% of the people were rounded up and murdered. For 13 years, Mary researched and wrote the award-winning historical novel An Address in Amsterdam about a young Jewish woman who joins the resistance. Ever since Mary has spoken about “Anne Frank’s Neighbors: What Did They Do?” and similar subjects. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Tikkun, About Place, Atlanta Review, Wired, and other venues. She’s still trying to change the world.

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