Debut author Nussbaum, with Kirtley (co-author: Alma Rosé, 2000), considers the work of a German lawyer who helped Jewish people escape the Holocaust in this mix of biography and memoir.
Hans Calmeyer may not be a household name like Oskar Schindler, but through his work as a lawyer in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, he was able to save several thousand people from concentration camps. The Nazis ordered all Jewish people to register their grandparents’ religion, and Calmeyer—whose job was to interpret German registration laws in the Netherlands and decide who’d be considered Jewish, half-Jewish, or “Aryan”—used considerable discretion to label as many people Aryan as possible. These fortunate ones included the author and her parents, whose new, “Aryanized” designation allowed them to live out the war in their Amsterdam home—even as their friends and neighbors, including Anne Frank and her family, were forced to go into hiding. With this book, the authors seek to tell the story of the little-known Calmeyer, whose early career included involvement with a student militia during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, which transformed his political views. They interweave his story with that of Nussbaum’s family and of her future husband, Rudi Nussbaum, before, during, and especially after the war, when the extent of the Holocaust became clear. A group portrait emerges of ordinary people attempting to survive however they could and of small decisions that reverberated for decades to come. The prose is crisp and full of wonderful, small details: “Since my mother had been part of the Wandervögel (birds of passage) movement as a teenager in Vienna, she was quite progressive with regard to girls and boys going on weekend hikes together in the countryside.” Calmeyer comes across as a very human figure, which makes the significance of his work all the more striking. The inclusion of Nussbaum’s family’s story only highlights the importance of Calmeyer’s actions, as does the fact that so much of the book is set after the war rather than during it. The result is a narrative that eschews hagiography in favor of reportage.
An affecting, well-constructed account of an undercovered aspect of history.