Jan­ny Brillesli­jper, image cour­tesy of the author

When you have to fight, you have to fight. You can­not become untrue to your­self. You can­not fool your­self either. This is what we believed in. We did what we had to do, what we could do. No more and no less.” ‑Jan­ny Brilleslijper

It’s a real­ly old house, you do real­ize?” The real­tor looked at us with raised eye­brows, a fru­gal smile on his lips. We stood in the orchard and looked around, in awe. We were locked in by nature in full bloom. On one side the dense for­est, with a nar­row path lead­ing straight to the sea. On the oth­er side wild heath­lands, cov­ered with a pur­ple glow as far as the eye could see. We nod­ded and smiled at the estate agent walk­ing unsteadi­ly through the grass, his suede shoe squash­ing an over­ripe pear; our eyes were fixed on the house behind him, which rose out of the land­scape on a hill. It was made of robust stone, with a thatched roof and oxblood red shut­ters flank­ing its windows.

It was the sum­mer of 2012 and — togeth­er with our three small chil­dren, a Ger­man Shep­herd, three cats, and two guinea pigs — we moved into The High Nest in Naar­den, a small vil­lage just twen­ty kilo­me­ters away from Amsterdam.

The fam­i­ly Brillesli­jper, 1920

We restored walls, sand­ed stairs, peeled off the car­pet, and removed pan­els that exposed ceil­ings with inge­nious beams; in almost every room we dis­cov­ered shut­ters in the wood­en floors and hid­ing places behind old pan­el­ing. In these secret cor­ners we found can­dle stubs, sheet music, old resis­tance news­pa­pers. And so began the recon­struc­tion of the his­to­ry of The High Nest.

In the under­ground, The High Nest was soon known as the safe haven in the for­est where many Jew­ish artists and resis­tance fight­ers and their fam­i­lies hid.

An aston­ish­ing his­to­ry, it turned out, cov­er­ing a part of a wartime past that was unknown to the pub­lic. The High Nest was an impor­tant hid­ing place and resis­tance cen­ter at the height of the Sec­ond World War, when trains were head­ed for con­cen­tra­tion camps at full capac­i­ty and the Endlö­sung der Juden­frage (Final Solu­tion to the Jew­ish Ques­tion) was suc­cess­ful­ly tak­ing shape all through­out Europe. It was run by two fear­less Jew­ish sis­ters, both young moth­ers in their twen­ties: Jan­ny and Lien Brillesli­jper. From all over the coun­try, Jan­ny and Lien took in des­per­ate Jews; the house was inhab­it­ed by a core group of sev­en­teen adults and chil­dren, which grew to more than twen­ty and some­times thir­ty people.

In the under­ground, The High Nest was soon known as the safe haven in the for­est where many Jew­ish artists and resis­tance fight­ers and their fam­i­lies hid. Resis­tance papers were being print­ed, opera nights and Yid­dish class­es were being orga­nized, and Jew­ish cul­ture flour­ished, at a time when 75% of the Dutch Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion was sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly being mur­dered — the high­est num­ber of West­ern Europe. All under the nose of Nazi sym­pa­thiz­ers and nation­al social­ists, like Nation­al Social­ist Move­ment (NSB) founder Anton Mussert, who lived around the cor­ner with his mistress.

Lien and Eber­hard, 1939

On July 10 1944 the worst hap­pened: The High Nest was betrayed and its res­i­dents were cap­tured by infa­mous Jew hunters. The entire Brillesli­jper fam­i­ly was deport­ed to camp West­er­bork, where they met the Frank fam­i­ly, who had just been uncov­ered in their secret annex in Ams­ter­dam. Sis­ters Anne and Mar­got Frank were ten years younger than Jan­ny and Lien. While the Allies were advanc­ing and the lib­er­a­tion was approach­ing, the Frank and Brillesli­jper fam­i­lies were deport­ed togeth­er, on the very last train to Auschwitz on Sep­tem­ber 3, 1944. From then on there was only one goal: stay togeth­er and sur­vive. Jan­ny and Lien signed up as nurs­es and man­aged to with­stand the dread­ed selec­tions of doc­tor Men­gele. When they were deport­ed to Bergen-Belsen in Novem­ber 1944, they thought it meant their escape from the gas cham­bers. But Bergen-Belsen had sunk into a pitch-black chaos of dis­ease and star­va­tion, dead bod­ies piled up all over the camp grounds. Jan­ny and Lien left their fam­i­ly behind in Auschwitz — just like the Frank sis­ters — and they cared for the teenage girls until Mar­got and Anne suc­cumbed to typhus. Just a few weeks lat­er, on April 15 1945, British forces lib­er­at­ed Bergen-Belsen. To their aston­ish­ment, they found 13,000 corpses and 60,000 ema­ci­at­ed pris­on­ers on the camp site — two of whom were Jan­ny and Lien. They made it.

Lien and Kathin­ka, June 1943

After six years of research I man­aged to piece togeth­er this incred­i­ble sto­ry of two Jew­ish sis­ters in the resis­tance, The Sis­ters of Auschwitz: The True Sto­ry of Two Jew­ish Sis­ters’ Resis­tance in the Heart of Nazi Ter­ri­to­ry. It is a sto­ry about how ordi­nary peo­ple behave in excep­tion­al sit­u­a­tions — some with courage, oth­ers with silence or cru­el oppur­tunism — and includes the events that occurred at The High Nest dur­ing Nazi occu­pa­tion, from house con­certs to theft to murder.

The chil­dren that went into hid­ing at The High Nest are now in their sev­en­ties and eight­ies. They came to vis­it us from all over the world and wit­nessed our chil­dren play­ing in free­dom where they had played dur­ing the war. The desk where my book orig­i­nat­ed is right above the hatch in which all iden­ti­ty papers were hid­den when the Jew hunters sur­round­ed the house. It’s a dai­ly reminder that the true ren­o­va­tion of The High Nest was not in the restora­tion of the walls, but in the recon­struc­tion of the excep­tion­al events that took place here.

The Sis­ters of Auschwitz by Rox­ane van Iperen

Rox­ane van Iperen (1976), is a for­mer lawyer, inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and author. Her debut nov­el was award­ed a lit­er­ary prize. Her sec­ond book is based on the sto­ry of two Jew­ish sis­ters head­ing a safe­house dur­ing WWII: The High Nest. In 2012, Rox­ane moved into The High Nest, and embarked on a six-year inves­ti­ga­tion, lead­ing to The Sis­ters of Auschwitz.