Countless books have been written about the Holocaust — about victims, survivors, Nazis, the compliant nations who did little to stand in their way, and the Jewish partisans who did but were ultimately martyred. To Die Beautiful is different. Buzzy Jackson’s novel opens the door to a world in which ordinary non-Jews, often in the first flush of youth and promise, risk their lives, refusing to let evil continue. Though vastly outnumbered, they defy the Nazi bullies who have overtaken their peaceable Holland, their actions ranging from leaflet distribution and petty vandalism to bombings and assassinations. Given the option of complying with Nazism, they choose instead to stand up.
Hannie Schaft, the first-person heroine of the novel, is one of these heroes. Born into a middle-class Dutch Christian family, and about to enter law school, Hannie is ordered to sign a loyalty oath to the new regime. She leaves and shelters her two Jewish friends, Sonja and Philine. Still a teenager when she commits her first defiant acts, she is not much older when she begins to assassinate Nazis and their sympathizers. With curly red hair and lips painted crimson, she lures pompous men to assignations. These end at first embrace, when she draws her gun.
Soon Hannie becomes known as “The Girl With Red Hair,” with rumors of her seductive daring allegedly reaching the ears of Hitler himself. But Hannie is no slick Mata Hari. Even as she undertakes increasingly dangerous missions, she retains a sense of childish innocence and moral purity. To simply let Jews die at the hands of monsters is inconceivable to her. What matters most in life, she tells us, is to never lose one’s sense of goodness. After a café conversation with another young girl in the Resistance, Hannie sees her take pains to be honorable:
A few steps from the table, Truus found a twenty-five-cent
coin on the sidewalk. A treasure. I was about to tell her it
was a good omen, but she had already turned, jogged back,
and set the coin down on the saucer next to her coffee cup,
to pay for mine. She saw me watching.
“Blijf altijd menselijk,” she said, by way of explanation.
The words mean “Always stay human.” With razor-sharp authenticity and basic tenderness, Buzzy Jackson restores our own sense of humanity.
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.