- The Curtain: Witness and Memory in Wartime Holland
In the 1950s, Henry G. Schogt and his wife were reluctant to speak about their experiences during the Second World War. Schogt experienced the war as part of a family that hid Jews; his future bride spent several years of the war in hiding. Immigration did not alter the couple's reticence. Only in 1988 did he publish 'Remembering Alex' in Dutch; the story now appears as the first of the seven interrelated accounts that compose The [End Page 424] Curtain: Witness and Memory in Wartime Holland. Intended to 'give some idea of how Dutch people lived, and of the sorrow and suffering inflicted by the Germans on innocent people,' The Curtain challenges the simplistic postwar picture 'of a heroic people standing firm against the mighty enemy.' Like Primo Levi, he describes a grey zone Schogt believes Canadians barely know.
Certainly those familiar only with the celebrated passage from Anne Frank's Diary - 'I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart' - and with the Canadian role in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, may be surprised by Schogt's non-heroic discourse. Small details make all the difference; neighbours who tap electricity enable his mother to save the life of a Jewish baby that she hides. But the triumph of the baby's survival is muted when we read that the survivor later committed suicide. Aware that no single memoir can give a complete picture, Schogt questions his own memories and acknowledges its gaps. The seven episodes are selective, highlighting memories that in hindsight stand out. Objecting to Bruno Bettelheim's criticism of the Frank family ' s behaviour, he is sceptical about survivor accounts that declare 'that the will to survive was the key to success.' He also problematizes our desire to speculate about wartime choices. What if the persecuted had fled to England, been more careful, not registered? What if 'the overwhelming majority of so-called "good" Dutch people had taken a firm, principled stand against the Germans and their Dutch accomplices'? Speculation is useless 'and yet one wonders.'
In 'The Curtain, 1942-44,' Schogt foregrounds his inability to fill in the gaps about the final years of his wife's parents. Aware that his in-laws were captured in January 1944, sent to Westerbork and then to Theresienstadt, he does not know why they were not immediately deported to Auschwitz as was the norm for those caught in hiding. Schogt's speculations are cut short by the bleak admission: 'In retrospect it does not matter and it did not make much difference.' Only in 1986 did Schogt learn from a relative who witnessed his in-laws' deportation from Theresienstadt that she once saved them by hiding them behind a curtain and offered to do so a second time, but they declined. How could they know 'it was the last big transport to leave Theresienstadt for Auschwitz'? Would it have made a difference? The memoir's final words - 'the curtain behind which [they] might have been hidden' - acknowledge that speculation is both useless and inevitable.
In recording his and his wife's experiences, Schogt writes not just to inform Canadians but also to test his own memories, as when he writes about his classmate Alex 'in order not to lose what is still left ... and above all, to protect, for [himself], the authenticity of [their] friendship against unsettling doubt.' Suspicious of retrospective readings, he often depicts himself as childish and incredulous: 'Of the fall of 1942 I do not remember much, except the feeling that what happened around me could not be true.' [End Page 425] Unable to visualize certain events in the experience of his in-laws because 'vital details were missing,' he is equally uncertain about his own motivation both during the war and afterwards. Why after the war did he write letters to his Nazi-sympathizing aunt? Why did she save his letters when she disapproved of his Jewish bride? And why after his aunt's...