Care­ful­ly, I hold the edge of the opaque green cur­tain against the wall and use my fin­ger to cre­ate a small crack, only to grow rigid with fear. On the podi­um below me, between the pews of the elders and dea­cons, there are two Grüne Polizei search­ing every­thing. And then comes the stage of paral­y­sis, the sense that all is lost.

My grandfather’s words fill my head as I stand alone in the organ loft of the Breeplein Church in Rot­ter­dam, pulling back the heavy cur­tain to look down into the nave where my grand­fa­ther saw the Ger­man police.

I won­der whether there’s any point in climb­ing back into the hid­ing place. Now the super-heavy lad­der still has to be raised. One slip and that’s the end, for the Ger­mans are already below me in the foy­er, from which we are sep­a­rat­ed by thin slats of wood. I close the trapdoor.

I let the cur­tain fall and climb the lad­der to see the hid­ing place where my grand­par­ents Chaim and Fifi de Zoete sur­vived the Holo­caust. Below a steeply pitched roof, the attic’s brick and cement walls are win­dow­less, and there is no floor, only joists; one must step from beam to beam to avoid falling through the ceil­ing below.

I imag­ine how they wor­ried for their eleven‑, ten‑, and nine-year-old daugh­ters: Mir­jam (my moth­er), Judith, and Hadas­sah. They were hid­den with oth­er fam­i­lies, sep­a­rate­ly, to increase their chances of sur­vival, their long braids were cut and Jew­ish Stars removed.

Judith wrote about the day they went into hiding:

We, Hadas­sah and me, regard­ed this as some kind of adven­ture, but for our par­ents it prob­a­bly was one of the hard­est things they ever did in their whole life. Our par­ents told us, Go to Uncle Kees. But before you reach his house, make a stop and go under one of the bridges on the way, and take off your jack­et and leave it there.” (My Jew­ish Star was sewn onto a jack­et, which we put on top of what­ev­er we were wear­ing.) Once you reach his house, he will take care of everything.”

My vis­it to the church in 2006 was the begin­ning of a deep and emo­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into my family’s wartime experience.

While in the Nether­lands, my moth­er, Mir­jam, and her sis­ter, Judith, told us about the par­tic­u­lars of their expe­ri­ences as onder­duik­ers (peo­ple in hid­ing) and shared sto­ries of oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers hid­den through­out the Nether­lands: Chaim, Fifi, Hadas­sah, David (Mirjam’s hus­band and my father), and Nathan (Judith’s hus­band). I observed that no per­son had the com­plete sto­ry because secre­cy had been para­mount. Every­one knew only his or her own expe­ri­ence but were unaware of relat­ed details, parts too painful to tell, or mem­o­ries lost over time. More than six­ty rel­a­tives did not sur­vive to share their own accounts. In Rot­ter­dam, I under­stood that the sto­ries I thought I knew were broad­er and more inter­con­nect­ed than I had real­ized, and that the sto­ry-hold­ers were aging. My cousin Sharon (Judith and Nathan’s daugh­ter) and I made plans to piece togeth­er the his­to­ry of our fam­i­lies dur­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the Netherlands.

Back home in Con­necti­cut, my moth­er sur­prised me by lead­ing me to an antique desk and slid­ing open a bot­tom draw­er packed with jour­nals and papers. Inside this draw­er lined with beau­ti­ful paper (which became the end­pa­pers of my book), she had put every­thing Holo­caust relat­ed. When I called my cousin Sharon in Israel to tell her the news, she exclaimed that, amaz­ing­ly, her moth­er Judith had a Holo­caust draw­er too. The quan­ti­ty of mate­r­i­al that sur­vived in these draw­ers — until then unknown to us — is remark­able. We found our grand­par­ents’ per­son­al and offi­cial doc­u­ments that were cre­at­ed dur­ing the occu­pa­tion and short­ly after; we dis­cov­ered our par­ents’, aunts’, and uncles’ accounts and inter­views, in which they reflect­ed back on their expe­ri­ences over fifty years later.

We dis­cov­ered Judith’s Jew­ish Star, Chaim’s and Fifi’s jour­nals and let­ters, and — a mir­a­cle —a forty-nine-page mem­oir writ­ten by my pater­nal grand­fa­ther, Erwin Geis­mar. He began writ­ing it on July 21, 1943, in the Ams­ter­dam apart­ment where he was hid­den, two days after he had sent his thir­teen-year-old son, David (my father), to a safer address. Erwin metic­u­lous­ly doc­u­ment­ed the occu­pa­tion, his work for the Jew­ish Coun­cil, and his dis­tress over the fate of his fam­i­ly and all Jews. Six weeks lat­er, he was cap­tured by the Ger­mans and, on Novem­ber 19, 1943, mur­dered in Auschwitz:

How shall I begin to record the things that occu­pied me dur­ing the last three and a half years? Why do I begin just on the 21st of July? On a day that brings me par­tic­u­lar dis­ap­point­ments because I have received no news about my son, who left me two days ago to go to a dif­fer­ent place in Hol­land? There, he will wait for the end of this awful situation.

Why begin today, when wor­ries plague me, wor­ries about fam­i­ly and human life? Wor­ries about my father-in-law, whom I’ve been able to keep in the West­er­bork tran­sit camp for three and a half months, who now most like­ly will be sent on the next trans­port day to a death camp, because they want to annoy, deport, and mur­der not him, but sim­ply all Jews.

As Sharon and I orches­trat­ed the slow process of trans­lat­ing Dutch and Ger­man doc­u­ments from our moth­ers’ Holo­caust draw­ers, our search turned up oth­er trea­sures. I learned that my grand­fa­ther Chaim was one of the first Jews to ask Yad Vashem, the World Holo­caust Remem­brance Cen­ter in Israel, for com­mem­o­ra­tions for those who helped his fam­i­ly. Chaim sub­mit­ted twelve let­ters. Each is a sto­ry of its own, with specifics of hid­ing address­es, cir­cum­stances, names, occu­pa­tions, and moti­va­tions of those who helped. With this infor­ma­tion, I was able to cre­ate a map of my fam­i­ly mem­bers’ hid­ing loca­tions across the Netherlands.I also dis­cov­ered a thin sheet of paper, writ­ten on both sides in Fifi’s hand­writ­ing, dat­ed April 23, 1943, the day that all Jews in the Nether­lands liv­ing out­side of Ams­ter­dam had to report to the Vught con­cen­tra­tion camp.

We dis­cov­ered Judith’s Jew­ish Star, Chaim’s and Fifi’s jour­nals and letters…”

My moth­er trans­lat­ed it on the spot:

April 23, 1943: Today is the last day that the Ger­mans are tol­er­at­ing Jews in the Nether­lands. Does every­one have to go to Vught? My hus­band and I won’t go. We’re stay­ing with Jew­ish friends who until today had an offi­cial stamp. Tonight we have no prospect of a roof over our heads.

In her diary, Fifi goes on to tell of meet­ing Rev­erend Bril­len­burg Wurth, who spon­ta­neous­ly arranged for them to hide with one of his parish­ioners. This was Chaim and Fifi’s eighth hid­ing address. When they had to move again six weeks lat­er, Chaim wrote:

Rev­erend Bril­len­burg Wurth again came to our aid by offer­ing Fifi and me a hid­ing place in his church. The place between the ceil­ing and the roof of the church was so gloomy that he thought we could stay no longer than sev­er­al weeks, but we remained there [for two years] until the end of the war. The sex­ton of the church, Mr. de Mars, was tak­en into con­fi­dence by Rev­erend Bril­len­burg Wurth, and it came out that Mr. de Mars was already hid­ing four Jew­ish peo­ple under the church roof. Anoth­er hid­ing place was con­struct­ed on the oppo­site side of the church at the height of the organ’s wind work [for us].

As our archive turned into a book, Judith revealed that she had left out a part of her sto­ry that was too dif­fi­cult to talk about. When we real­ized that our book might be pub­lished, Judith decid­ed that it was impor­tant to share the painful truth of her com­plete sto­ry with the world. Judith sent me a pho­to­graph of the fam­i­ly she hid with for the last two years. On the back she wrote, He is the one!” Oth­er hand­writ­ten notes describe the crimes com­mit­ted against her by the father and his two sons. Judith wrote about this in a sealed let­ter, orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed for her daugh­ters to read after her death:

The last fam­i­ly I was hid­ing with was where it hap­pened. The father and two of his sons, six­teen and sev­en­teen years old, abused me. There was noth­ing I could do, and nobody I could go to.… I nev­er told my par­ents.… Years after, Pap­pie [sub­mit­ted] their names to the Right­eous list in Yad Vashem. And some­time lat­er, they sent us a let­ter with pic­tures of the cer­e­mo­ny in the Israeli Con­sulate, where they got a medal and a cer­tifi­cate, and trees plant­ed in their name for sav­ing a Jew­ish life.

In what would be the final phase of our research, Sharon and I unit­ed to col­lect the miss­ing pieces and to vis­it some of the loca­tions on our map of fam­i­ly hid­ing address­es. In April 2016 I went to Israel and met with the direc­tor of the Right­eous at Yad Vashem to see my grandfather’s let­ters and, hav­ing learned Judith’s full sto­ry, to ask them to remove a name from the Righteous.

Sharon and I next flew to the Nether­lands. We vis­it­ed a his­tor­i­cal soci­ety in the Dutch town of Gendt to pick up a pho­to­graph of Theo van Dalen, a police offi­cer ded­i­cat­ed to sab­o­tag­ing the Ger­man war effort. Theo and his wife, Bet­sy, hid Sharon’s father, twelve-year-old Nathan, with his entire fam­i­ly, as well as Allied pilots whose planes had been shot down by the Ger­mans. Nathan’s account reads like an adven­ture story:

The Ger­mans shot down bombers and fight­ers over Hol­land. Theo must have had good con­tacts with the Dutch under­ground, because that win­ter he had more guests — Cana­di­an, Eng­lish, and Amer­i­can pilots on their way back to Eng­land.… I prac­ticed my Eng­lish and my chess on the poor downed air­crew mem­bers.… We also kept war maps which we pre­pared our­selves, first trac­ing them from the world atlas, and then enlarg­ing them by scal­ing.… we had two dif­fer­ent lines of pins [for Rus­sia], some­times hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters apart — one where the Ger­mans said the front was, and one where the BBC said the front was.

Ten years after the vis­it to the Breeplein Church, we decid­ed we had all that we need­ed to bring the sto­ries togeth­er into a book. In read­ing and reread­ing the let­ters, diaries, inter­views, and doc­u­ments, I under­stood that my rel­a­tives — the Geis­mar, De Zoete, and Cohen fam­i­lies — offered dis­tinct per­spec­tives on a shared story.

As I rumi­nat­ed on how to con­struct the book, I exper­i­ment­ed by print­ing out, cut­ting up, and then sequenc­ing all the text in the archive, arrang­ing it so that my fam­i­ly mem­bers were speak­ing to one anoth­er. I could see that, when woven togeth­er, their sep­a­rate voic­es formed a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. It was then, while sit­ting at the kitchen table to read their inter­wo­ven accounts, that the heart­break­ing hor­ror of their col­lec­tive expe­ri­ences hit me, and I put my head on the table to weep.


More than fifty sources com­pose the nar­ra­tive mosa­ic of Invis­i­ble Years: A Family’s Col­lect­ed Account of Sep­a­ra­tion and Sur­vival dur­ing the Holo­caust in the Nether­lands. All excerpts in this essay are from this narrative.

Daphne Geis­mar designs books on art and his­to­ry for major muse­ums. Her involve­ment in pub­li­ca­tions that use art and lit­er­a­ture to edu­cate, began with her the­sis at Yale on Direc­tion mag­a­zine (19371945), in which artists and writ­ers speak out against fas­cism. Geis­mar devel­oped a pho­tog­ra­phy and writ­ing pro­gram for teenage moth­ers and teach­es design at universities.