Han­nie Schaft, Pho­tog­ra­phers Unknown, Both pho­tos most like­ly tak­en dur­ing her time as a stu­dent in Ams­ter­dam, between 1938 and 1943

In the win­ter of 2016 to 2017, my friend and I were at the Verzetsmu­se­um (Muse­um of the Resis­tance) in Ams­ter­dam. It was here I learned the sto­ry of Han­nie Schaft, a young woman who quit col­lege to fight fas­cism and became the Naz­i’s Most Want­ed Woman in the Nether­lands dur­ing World War II

My friend sug­gest­ed I write a book about Hannie’s sto­ry. As I stood in front of a small glass dis­play case I saw a pair of round, wire-rimmed glass­es, a bat­tered pis­tol, and a pho­to­graph of a young woman with a defi­ant look on her face. This was the Most Want­ed Woman in the Nether­lands in the 1940s. This was Jan­net­je Han­nie” Schaft. 

Han­nie joined the Dutch Resis­tance, leav­ing behind a qui­et life of study­ing law. She learned to use a gun and became a feared assas­sin, lur­ing Nazi offi­cers and col­lab­o­ra­tors into alleys with a wink and a smile, only to shoot them point blank in the dark­ness. She left no trace of her­self behind on these assign­ments. She was not Jew­ish, but she risked her life to defend and pro­tect Dutch Jews, two in par­tic­u­lar – her best friends Phi­line Polak and Son­ja Frenk. I found her sto­ry so inspiring. 

I want­ed to read Hannie’s biog­ra­phy but was astound­ed to dis­cov­er that no such book in Eng­lish exist­ed. Even in Dutch, there were almost no books about Han­nie Schaft pub­lished in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. My friend was right: I had to write the book myself

As a his­to­ri­an, there is noth­ing more thrilling than dis­cov­er­ing an over­looked hero. I believe Han­nie Schaft is one of the great over­looked heroes of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. I assumed I would be writ­ing a straight­for­ward biog­ra­phy of Han­nie. But as I got deep­er into the mate­r­i­al, I dis­cov­ered the lim­i­ta­tions of this approach. Although many aspects of Hannie’s life are well doc­u­ment­ed through the mem­o­ries of her friends, some per­son­al cor­re­spon­dence, and the records kept by the Ger­man occu­piers, there is one sig­nif­i­cant gap: the voice of Han­nie Schaft her­self. Resis­tance fight­ers knew bet­ter than to leave writ­ten evi­dence of their deeds and Han­nie was no excep­tion; she gave no inter­views and nev­er pub­li­cized her actions, since pro­tect­ing her iden­ti­ty was cru­cial to her safe­ty dur­ing the war. If she kept a diary, it was nev­er found. With­out Hannie’s voice in the sto­ry, I felt the emo­tion­al depth of her expe­ri­ence would be lost. I want­ed her sto­ry to feel as alive and pas­sion­ate as her actions show her to be. I began to con­sid­er telling her life sto­ry in the form of a novel.

Han­nie joined the Dutch Resis­tance, leav­ing behind a qui­et life of study­ing law.

It was a deci­sion I came to slow­ly. The his­to­ri­an in me wor­ried about telling the sto­ries of real peo­ple, some of whom were still liv­ing at the time I began my research. In the sum­mer of 2017 I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet with the daugh­ter of Tru­us Over­stee­gen, Hannie’s col­league in the Resis­tance and an incred­i­ble hero in her own right. With some trep­i­da­tion, I asked if she would be com­fort­able with me writ­ing a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of her mother’s sto­ry. I think you’d have to,” she said with a smile. I doubt any­one would want to read it, otherwise.” 

This response was cru­cial to my deci­sion to go forward. 

I was curi­ous how oth­er authors approached the issue and quick­ly real­ized the most obvi­ous exam­ple was sit­ting on my book­shelf: Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List. Many read­ers assume the book is non­fic­tion, but, in Kenneally’s words, it is a doc­u­men­tary nov­el,” a tale of fic­tion based on thor­ough research and as many sup­port­ing doc­u­ments as the author could find. It’s an approach to his­to­ry we take for grant­ed in oth­er media such as fea­ture films about his­tor­i­cal sub­jects. When we watch Steven Spiel­berg’s Lin­coln, for exam­ple, we know that the essen­tial sto­ry is true even though not every line of dia­logue can be foot­not­ed. That reas­sured me. Before fin­ish­ing the work, Ken­neal­ly him­self, who was not Jew­ish, freely admit­ted that he doubt­ed” he could write the book. I am Jew­ish, and the sto­ry of the Dutch Holo­caust res­onat­ed with my own family’s sto­ries of escap­ing Russ­ian pogroms in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Like Ken­neal­ly, I still had doubts, but I resolved to try. It felt urgent to me that Hannie’s sto­ry not be forgotten. 

I went on to make con­tact with more descen­dants of Resis­tance fight­ers, all of whom were gra­cious and gen­er­ous with their time, shar­ing mem­o­ries and fam­i­ly pho­tographs with me. I was also able to watch record­ed video inter­views with some of the sur­vivors, now held in the US Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, which helped me to under­stand their expe­ri­ences. I used some of their record­ed state­ments ver­ba­tim in the book, as a way to include their voices.

I nev­er expect­ed to write a nov­el. My goal was to pro­duce a por­trait of Han­nie Schaft that reflect­ed the woman as her fam­i­ly, friends, and coun­try­men remem­ber her: a brave, flawed, remark­able hero whose sto­ry has as much res­o­nance today as it ever did. I have been hum­bled by the descen­dants’ enthu­si­as­tic approval of the fin­ished nov­el, To Die Beau­ti­ful. All writ­ers have doubts about their own abil­i­ties and I did, too, but ulti­mate­ly I felt it would be wrong to allow that ever-present voice of crit­i­cism stop me from shar­ing Han­nie Schaft’s incred­i­ble sto­ry with the world. 

Read more on Buzzy Jack­son’s To Die Beau­ti­ful today!

Buzzy Jack­son is the award-win­ning author of three books of non­fic­tion and has a PhD in His­to­ry from UC Berke­ley. A recent fel­low at the Edith Whar­ton Writ­ing Res­i­den­cy, she is also a mem­ber of the Nation­al Book Crit­ics’ Cir­cle and writes for The Boston Globe and Booko­rum.