Count­ing Lost Stars: A Novel

  • Review
By – October 1, 2023

The title of Kim van Alkemade’s nov­el, Count­ing Lost Stars, seems like an oxy­moron, jux­ta­pos­ing loss and beau­ty. Why did she choose it? Per­haps because dur­ing the Nazi regime, per­se­cut­ed Jews were forced to wear yel­low stars that dis­tin­guished them from their non-Jew­ish neigh­bors — and because vic­tims of the Holo­caust have since been analo­gized to shin­ing stars. But who is count­ing them? How exact­ly were they lost? Can they be redeemed from their annihilation?

Van Alkemade’s nov­el relates how the Nazis used com­put­er codes to help track down their Jew­ish prey. With small holes punched into card­board, they count­ed out the Jews — not only in Ger­many, but in all the coun­tries they con­quered, includ­ing Hol­land, where the heart of this book lies. As the author shows, the process of doc­u­ment­ing Jew­ish peo­ple, down to the last infant, relied on the col­lab­o­ra­tion of Dutch cit­i­zens, many of whom enabled geno­cide through this sim­ple use of punch cards. Van Alke­made com­pares the pro­ce­dure to the country’s ear­li­er use of elec­tron­ic tab­u­la­tions to count live­stock, and to orga­nize busi­ness­es in which items” need­ed to be account­ed for. But here, of course, the items were human beings, reduced to a small hole in a piece of paper. These peo­ple, the Jews of Hol­land, were sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camp of West­er­bork, and then on to the far more dead­ly Auschwitz, where most of them died.

Dif­fer­ent columns on the cards denot­ed not only Jews them­selves, but also the man­ner of their dis­ap­pear­ance,” which, for pur­pos­es of main­tain­ing Nazi aes­thet­ics (anoth­er oxy­moron), was nev­er actu­al­ly called death.” One hole would be punched for dis­ease, anoth­er for the gas cham­ber, still anoth­er for sim­ply col­laps­ing. Anne Frank and her sis­ter Mar­got, who both suc­cumbed to typhus, would have received the same hole-punch, heaped with a trag­ic mean­ing that wouldn’t be leg­i­ble to the layperson. 

Like Anne her­self, the main char­ac­ters in this nov­el are unfor­get­table. Espe­cial­ly salient are Cor­nelia, a Dutch punch-card oper­a­tor who helps her close Jew­ish friend sur­vive, and her rules-bound father, who assists the Nazis as a means of sur­vival all while refus­ing to acknowl­edge that he is an accom­plice to mass mur­der. In a plot that occurs fif­teen years after the war, van Alke­made intro­duces Rita, a Jew­ish Amer­i­can woman. Edu­cat­ed at Barnard and then in Columbia’s Wat­son com­put­er course, her grow­ing knowl­edge of cod­ing enables her to find the lost names and faces that those cryp­tic dots intend­ed to conceal. 

Sev­er­al years ago, a well-regard­ed book, IBM and the Holo­caust, revealed the extent to which this ubiq­ui­tous, seem­ing­ly harm­less com­pa­ny was com­plic­it in the mur­der of mil­lions. Unable to trade with Ger­many direct­ly, IBM sent essen­tial mate­ri­als to Switzer­land instead — and from there, these insid­i­ous tech­no­log­i­cal machines trav­eled to Hol­land and all over Europe. Van Alke­made, born to a Dutch father and a Jew­ish Amer­i­can moth­er, does not mere­ly repeat these shock­ing facts. She brings them to life, putting faces to the actors who reduced mil­lions of Jews (and oth­er so-called unde­sir­ables”) to mere sta­tis­tics. She also casts light on heroes who sought to reveal the truth, prov­ing that it is nev­er too late to seek justice. 

Kim van Alke­made is her­self a hero. In her illu­mi­nat­ing book, stars are count­ed and stars are lost. But they are also immor­tal­ized and redeemed.

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

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