The Diary Keep­ers: World War II in the Nether­lands, as Writ­ten by the Peo­ple Who Lived Through It 

  • Review
By – March 27, 2023

On March 28, 1944, while Dutch min­is­ter Ger­rit Bolkestein was in exile, he spoke to the peo­ple of the Nether­lands from Lon­don: His­to­ry can­not be writ­ten on the basis of offi­cial deci­sions and doc­u­ments alone. If our descen­dants are to under­stand ful­ly what we as a nation have had to endure and over­come dur­ing these years, then what we real­ly need are ordi­nary doc­u­ments — a diary, letters.

Among Bolkestein’s lis­ten­ers — hud­dled around ille­gal radios across the occu­pied Nether­lands — was the young Anne Frank. But she was not the only one to take this advice and write her expe­ri­ence down: in the weeks fol­low­ing the country’s lib­er­a­tion by Allied forces in May 1945, a cam­paign to solic­it sub­mis­sions from peo­ple across the small coun­try yield­ed more than two thou­sand accounts of life under Nazi occu­pa­tion between May 1940 and May 1945. Now housed in the archives of the Nether­lands Insti­tute for War Doc­u­men­ta­tion (NIOD) in Ams­ter­dam, these diaries, let­ters, and oth­er writ­ings and arti­facts doc­u­ment a spec­trum of expe­ri­ences shaped by the var­i­ous back­grounds, per­spec­tives, and sit­u­a­tions of the indi­vid­u­als who record­ed them.

A jour­nal­ist and researcher who has lived in Ams­ter­dam for more than ten years, Nina Sie­gal was drawn to the Jew­ish his­to­ry of her adopt­ed city where, despite its mon­u­ments to its Jew­ish past, Jew­ish life today is dif­fi­cult to find. She imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the impor­tance of the NIOD diaries to fill in the gaps in the pub­lic mem­o­ry, div­ing straight into this trove of first-per­son accounts of the war. 

In The Diary Keep­ers, Sie­gal deft­ly weaves togeth­er the voic­es of a hand­ful of those who, like Anne Frank, were inspired to record their every­day expe­ri­ences under the Nazi occu­pa­tion. Her selec­tion high­lights the Jew­ish per­spec­tives of a jour­nal­ist, a dia­mond cut­ter, and a sec­re­tary for a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion. Yet her work also accounts for a mem­ber of the Dutch resis­tance who saved many Jew­ish lives, a young fac­to­ry work­er, and Dutch sup­port­ers of the Nazi regime, includ­ing a police­man and a socialite mar­ried to a mem­ber of the Dutch SS

Sie­gal allows her cast to tell their sto­ry chrono­log­i­cal­ly, inter­spers­ing the excerpts with his­tor­i­cal and per­son­al ref­er­ences that pro­vide rich­er con­text. The var­i­ous com­men­ta­tors paint a nar­ra­tive tapes­try of events that illus­trates the col­lec­tive Dutch expe­ri­ence dur­ing the war and, at the same time, under­scores the stark­ly indi­vid­ual real­i­ties of each experience. 

This approach is insight­ful and reveal­ing, but, as Sie­gal right­ly cau­tions, the read­er should be aware that the writ­ers’ accounts may not be authen­tic. Diarists often adopt a per­sona that diverges from their own voice. This is espe­cial­ly true when they intend to share their com­men­tary with oth­ers, as was Bolkestein’s inten­tion when he called on the Dutch to record their experiences. 

Ulti­mate­ly, The Diary Keep­ers is a fas­ci­nat­ing read and a valu­able tool for under­stand­ing how ordi­nary” Dutch peo­ple nav­i­gat­ed the extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances of life under Nazi occu­pa­tion — all with­out the ben­e­fit of his­tor­i­cal hindsight.

Ingrid Wey­her is the Pro­gram Man­ag­er for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Denver’s Cen­ter for Juda­ic Stud­ies. She holds an M.A. in art his­to­ry and his­to­ry and spe­cial­izes in Holo­caust education.

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