A heart-rending biography of a young teenager who lived under Nazi occupation in the Netherlands.
Robbert Van Santen, a Jewish young man growing up in Amsterdam during World War II, presciently interpreted Kristallnacht as an ominous portent of what was to come. Soon afterward, the Germans invaded his town, quickly forcing the Dutch military to surrender. Van Santen, a social worker who was once a schoolmate of Anne Frank, was given an exemption by the Nazis from prohibitive rules that would have greatly restricted his movement about the city. In exchange for that measure of liberty, however, he was witness to the chilling depredations man can heap upon man. He saw his neighbors gradually vanish, shuttled to concentration camps to labor and die. He witnessed a pregnant woman being summarily executed in a movie theater for her hysterical expression of grief. Eventually, Van Santen’s home was raided, and he fled to a distant town, finally going into hiding, and then joined the resistance movement. But even before he took up arms against the Nazis, he staunchly refused victimhood. Despite his parlous circumstances, he still sought out romance, like any teenager, and briefly found it, but his young love, too, was captured and deported. This biography, which covers Van Santen’s adolescence from ages 14 to 19, is based on conversations that he had with Comstock, a veteran writer (Global Partners: Citizen Exchange with the Soviet Union, 1987, etc.). Comstock composes the whole account in the first person, describing the nature of his exchange with Van Santen and their friendship. He also addresses the sheer terror that the Jewish people withstood, a trauma that haunted them in a way that mere physical wounds could not: “Anxiety about being betrayed or otherwise discovered is so intense that some Jews may feel it is almost less stressful to be caught; at least it would relieve the suspense.” The result is a gripping testimony not only to the dormant darkness that can be awakened in the hearts of men, but also the ways such darkness can be transformed into redemption.
A moving, inspiring account of the indomitability of the human spirit.