Sunday, June 21, 2020

Q&A with Daphne Geismar

Daphne Geismar is the author of the new book Invisible Years: A Family's Collected Account of Separation and Survival during the Holocaust in the Netherlands. She also produces and designs books on art and history, and she teaches book design at the University of Connecticut. 

Q: Why did you decide to write this book about your family history during the Holocaust?

A: In 2006, I discovered a treasure trove of letters, diaries, memoirs, and documents, from two generations of my family, about their experiences during of the German Occupation in the Netherlands. Their combined voices allowed me—for the first time—to really comprehend the evil and horror of the persecution. 

At the same time, I saw how one person can make a difference as I learned about the resistance workers who risked their lives to help. 

Most of my career has been spent designing books, so turning this archive into a narrative that is connected to photographs, artifacts, timelines, and history briefs was a natural way for me to share this important history with others.  

Q: How much did you know about your family history as you were growing up?

A: My parents, like many survivors, didn’t talk about this history until about 50 years later. I was a young adult before they started sharing the outlines of their own experiences. 

In 2006, I visited the Breeplein Church in Rotterdam where my maternal grandparents, Chaim and Fifi de Zoete, were hidden in an attic for two years. Until then, I didn’t know anything about my grandparents' experiences. After the church visit, my mother opened the "Holocaust drawer,” which was packed with my family history. 

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The biggest surprise was the discovery of a memoir that my paternal grandfather, Erwin Geismar, wrote while in hiding. My father never spoke about his father; I knew nothing about Erwin as a person or about his circumstances during the Holocaust, other than that he was murdered in Auschwitz. 

In his 49-page memoir, discovered in the Holocaust drawer, Erwin tells, in great detail, about the German occupation, about his work helping German-Jewish refugees, and about his concern for his family. 

Nine years after finding the memoir, I found the name of the woman who hid Erwin—Erika Heymann. I tracked down Erika's son, who told me about the informant who turned in Erwin, Erika, and others hiding in the apartment, and about their arrest.

The first thing I had to do was manage the translations of my grandparents' writings from Dutch and German. When I could read their texts, I became curious about the historical references in their writings so I read books about the German occupation in the Netherlands. 

When one piece of information was revealed, it often led to additional discoveries as I learned what to ask and where to find things. 

I travelled to Israel and the Netherlands to pick up letters Chaim had written to Yad Vashem to commemorate those who had helped his family, to talk with a man who hid with my mother when they were children, and to meet the families of those who saved my family members.  

Q: You wrote in a recent essay for the History News Network, "An extraordinary cache of letters and documents from [my parents'] ordeal reveal experiences of isolation, fear and uncertainty that, although incomparable, have particular resonance today." What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: This quote is from an article about the similarities—and extreme differences—between my family members’ experiences in hiding and the isolation we are experiencing today due to COVID-19. 

There are echoes: not knowing when it will end; anxiety over gaps in education and the fragility of life; guilt about who dies and who survives; and worry for those who are isolating with people who will harm them, as was the case with my aunt Judith, whose “rescuers” repeatedly assaulted her.

A virus doesn’t discriminate, but policies and people do. I hope that my family member’s accounts will help readers understand what it is like for each person who is treated unjustly as part of a persecuted mass. 

Their experiences show how ordinary people were turned into an invented enemy—persecuted in their own country, not welcome in other countries, stripped of their rights, and even murdered. Their encounters reveal the danger of unlimited authority, racism, and cruelty inflicted by one person on another. 

At the same time, the resistance workers who risked their lives to help friends and strangers show us how one person can make a difference by having the courage to act, resisting what is not right, and seeing every person as fully human. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m in the very early stages of developing ideas for a companion curriculum for Invisible Years that can be used in schools and museums. And I continue to plan, design, and produce books for art museums. 

I just finished a book on Gerhard Richter for The Met; one project I’m currently working on is a catalogue raisonnĂ© of Arthur Dove’s work to be distributed by Yale University Press. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since Invisible Years launched a few weeks ago, the letters that have been coming in confirm my hopes for readers’ experiences. 

Readers feel as though my family members are right there, talking to them; they appreciate the history that provides context for the personal stories; and they feel the book is relevant today given the rise of authoritarian leaders and racism in the world. 

In addition to the interwoven voices that make up the narrative, the book includes 63 beautiful photographs and artifacts accompanied by captions and quotes, section introductions, timelines, and 64 history briefs. People are reading the book in different ways; the structure makes it accessible to a wide audience. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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