Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
October 21, 2016 by Eleanor J. Bader
When writer Mary Dingee Fillmore arrived in Amsterdam for a six month stay in 2001, a photograph she happened upon in the city’s Jewish Historical Museum startled her. The picture showed a favorite landmark (De Waag) near the apartment where she and her partner, astronomer Joanna Rankin, were staying, cordoned off by barbed wire.
“I realized that we were living in the Jewish Quarter,” she explains. “My neighbors had been rounded up just a little over 60 years before. Suddenly, the question of what I would have done during the war became very real to me. Would I have helped them and resisted, or joined the colluders and collaborators?”
For the next 13 years, Fillmore wrote and studied, reading every Dutch Holocaust memoir and non-fiction account of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands she found. She also visited archives and museums and spoke to a few survivors and their progeny. Her efforts resulted in a novel called An Address in Amsterdam, published by She Writes Press in early October.
The book has already garnered rave reviews. Redbook Magazine called it “the biggest literary event for the historical fiction genre this year.” Buzzfeed put it at the top of its “choices for historical fiction to curl up with” and notable feminists have sung its praises. Scholar Joyce Antler:“gripping, intricately detailed”; professor emerita and Amsterdam native Laureen Nussbaum: “a rich tapestry of sights and sounds”; and Our Bodies, Ourselves collective member Jane Pincus: “deeply imagined, well researched.”
From her home in Burlington, Vermont, Fillmore spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about the novel, the research and writing process, and the current political climate.
EJB: A photo you saw at the Jewish Historical Museum influenced your research. What compelled you to take it further and write a novel?
MDF: When I visited the Anne Frank House, I saw pictures of people being rounded up right below the apartment where we were then living. But another really important thing happened before I even got to Amsterdam. The week before I arrived in 2001, I went to visit a close friend, Eliane Vogel Polsky [1926-2015], who revealed to me for the first time that, during the war, she had been hidden in plain sight in Belgium. Her story made the Holocaust much more personal to me. She was one of my main informants, and her experience of being hidden in a convent as a 15-year-old student introduced me to many aspects of the deep fears and anxieties people felt at that time, as well as the many ways resistance occurred. Eliane eventually became an eminent labor lawyer; her advocacy and litigation led to women in Europe earning equal pay for equal work. Sadly, though, her survivor guilt never left her.
EJB: The city of Amsterdam is essentially a vividly described character in the novel. Can you say more about the process of recreating everyday life under occupation?
MDF: I spent days in the Dutch Resistance Museum, which plunged me into the questions I was asking and gave complex responses. I still learn whenever I go there. In terms of process, I started by reading a basic text, Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry by Dr. Jacob Presser. He was a Dutch historian and history teacher before the war and taught in the Consolidated School where all Jewish children were herded after the occupation began. I went through this book five or six times. Another more recent book, The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands, 1940-1945, by Bob Moore was my second point of departure.
As I was reading both texts I noted addresses, among them, the nightclub that was raided; the office of the bounty hunters; the place where a bomb went off and destroyed a Nazi officer’s club. I would spend mornings and early afternoons reading and then walk around looking for these locations. Sometimes there would be a plaque on a building but often there was nothing. I’d stand there, close my eyes, and travel back in my mind.
I also visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and spoke to a few survivors when I came across them. Unfortunately, this is a subject many people don’t want to talk about so I depended heavily on memoirs and written work. However, Professor Laureen Nussbaum, who lived through this time, generously vetted the entire manuscript for historical accuracy not once, by twice.
I further benefitted from photos stored at the Amsterdam City Archives, some of them sanctioned by the Nazis and some of them taken illegally. When I went into the Archive I felt like I had double vision, seeing things as they are now and as they had been decades before.
EJB: Speaking of photos, who is the young woman depicted on the book jacket?
MDF: Hannelore Cahn. She was a performer in the cabaret at the Westerbork Transit Camp. Thankfully, she survived the war. An excellent film about her, Westerbork Girl, portrays her complex life.
I spent two weeks in Amsterdam going through historic photos in early 2016. When I saw Hannelore’s picture in the Jewish History Museum, I was incredibly moved She looks just how I imagined Rachel Klein, the novel’s protagonist, would look. Hannelore’s courage, as well as the openness of her face, struck me and I knew she would be the perfect choice.
EJB: As you were doing your research, did you discover anything that surprised you?
MDF: Yes. I found a picture of two little kids grinning from ear to ear. The girl was about 10 and the boy looked about six or seven. Both were wearing the yellow star. Before I started my research, I’d assumed everything about the time was terrible, that there were no positive stories or happy moments and I discovered that this was untrue. There was joy and pleasure in the way people sustained themselves despite the miserable circumstances.
EJB: What do you hope readers will learn from An Address in Amsterdam?
MDF: There are several things. First, what I find so alarming is that the Netherlands had been a sanctuary for Jews since the Inquisition. How did the situation change so fast in the world’s most liberal city? I want people to understand how quickly a place can transform. The injection of hatred at the state level, and the ways a hate-filled discourse can be made acceptable, can cause a shift to happen virtually overnight. I want the story to serve as a warning of that.
Then there is the idea of resistance. After the first roundup of 425 Jewish men in Amsterdam in 1941, the Communists organized a general strike and street demonstrations. More than 300,000 turned out. Some of these protesters had a close association with Jews, some hated the Germans, and some hated the occupation, but whatever their reasons, they united to stand beside the Jewish population. The Nazis didn’t expect this. They thought that their Aryan brothers and sisters would stand with them. When many didn’t, the Nazis cracked down hard and fast, causing the resistance to go underground.
The book covers a lot of their activities: The artists turned forgers; the librarian who became a resistance leader; the people who hid whole families in cellars and attics; and those, like Rachel, who delivered false documents and more to those in need. Many resisters, particularly couriers, were women and they have never gotten the attention they deserve for their everyday work. This work was the communications lifeblood of the movement.
I wanted to make the many women who contributed to the underground visible but, at the same time, not turn them into superheroines. They were regular people and, if they could do so much, then surely we can take action now.
EJB: You said that you began working on the book in 2001. How many drafts were there?
MDF: At least 12! I was in a bad accident in 2010 and got a series of intractable infections in the hospital. As I was fighting for my life, the thing I most wanted was to finish the book. During my convalescence I was able to read. I fact checked. Was it still possible to buy fish at that particular time? What did the ration coupons look like? Were Jews still able to walk in the parks during the fall of 1942? Were the names I gave the characters typical of the era? Were unmarried people sexually active?
EJB: There are several sexually explicit scenes in the novel. What do you want readers to take from them?
MDF: These are people for whom everything had to happen in the moment. Sexuality was one of the places they could go to obliterate what was happening around them and feel some temporary pleasure and deep human connection. When Rachel and Michiel break the “rules” about sex before marriage, I gave her real agency. This is not a situation where a man is taking advantage of a woman. I see her as a young woman with a passionate and romantic life. Sexuality was also one way her parents coped. Their love for each other makes the situation more bearable.
EJB: Did the fact that you are not Jewish impact the project in any way?
MDF: I had the advantage of being a little bit outside the story, so that however pained I felt, the atrocities did not happen to my people, to my grandmother or grandfather. Still, since my closest friend, Eliane, had at least one very close call with a Nazi officer, I did feel it deeply. For reasons I still don’t completely understand, I felt the loss and absence of my Jewish neighbors. Their stories somehow felt like mine. Anyone who has ever felt hatred can connect to them. I think that’s why the Anne Frank story has such persistent appeal.
EJB: Although the book is not at all didactic, do you think the situation it documents has implications for today’s politics?
MDF: We are in a moment, no matter who wins the Presidential election, where huge divisions have been opened in our society, whether it’s hatred of Mexicans, or refugees, Jews, Muslims, African Americans, or the LGBTQ community. The pitting of one part of society against another is always dangerous. I hope people will see that and read An Address in Amsterdam as opposing prejudice in all its forms. I also hope they’ll be inspired by how one brave young woman found the courage to resist. The book sounds a warning, but it also gives us a push toward resistance in our own time.