Rhodea Shandler was born Henriette Dwinger in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, on August 26, 1918. She became a nurse and married Ernst Bollegraaf. When the Nazis began rounding up Jews, Rhodea, her husband and their daughter went into hiding with sympathetic Christian families. In 1951, Rhodea and her husband, now with five daughters, emigrated to Canada. Shortly after completing her memoir, Rhodea died on February 17, 2006, at the age of eighty-seven.
A Long Labour: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir by Rhodea Shandler (Ronsdale, $19.95 2007). Introduction by Lillian Kremer 1-55380-045-1
A Long Labour: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir (Ronsdale/Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre $21.95)
from Joan Givner
At age 87, Rhodea Shandler finally began writing A Long Labour: A Dutch Mother’s Holocaust Memoir. It contains the story she felt unable to talk about with her family for most of her life. She died a year later, soon after it was finished. Simply put, A Long Labour describes Shandler’s life as a fugitive in the Dutch countryside during the five-year German occupation of Holland more than sixty years ago.
Soon after the Nazi occupation of Holland began, Rhodea and her husband left the city and, assisted by the underground resistance movement, traveled to the farming country of rural Holland where anti-Nazi feeling was strongest, and Nazi patrols less frequent. Over the ensuing war years they moved frequently, as one hiding place after another proved untenable.
Found and paid for by the underground, their home was a former pig-sty, whereas a wealthier Jewish couple who could afford to pay more was accommodated in the house with the host family. Their protector’s attitude, kind at first, changed overnight to hostility when Rhodea discovered she was pregnant. Rhodea nevertheless feels gratitude to the family. She is fully aware of the risks taken on their behalf—their hosts would have been shot instantly for harbouring Jews—and she understands that those risks were greatly increased by the presence of a baby on the premises. In spite of severe privations, Shandler remained on friendly terms with her hosts and visited them after the war.
Her baby was delivered in the unheated pig-sty on a frigid December day, with unsterilized equipment, and with help from her husband and a fellow fugitive who had some nursing training. Once the child was born, the resistance movement arranged for her to be placed with a Gentile family.
Rhodea and her husband were dispatched to separate hiding places, not far from each other. When convoys of German soldiers searched the area, Rhodea hid in a shallow dug-out, like a grave, in the ground. In a sad footnote, she notes that the first member of the underground who helped them was captured and shot.
After the war, when Shandler returned home to Amersfoort, she discovered that her parents, brother, and many members of her extended family who had been transported to Poland, supposedly for relocation, had been killed in the concentration camps. She also found that the neighbours to whom she and her husband had entrusted their money and possessions for safe-keeping, were unwilling to return them. Her story ends as the couple and their children start a new life in Canada.
In spite of the gruesome circumstances, Rhodea’s tone is surprisingly benign and tolerant, not so much because of the mellowing effect of old age as the result of an enviably optimistic outlook that helped her during her ordeal. She speaks sadly but rarely in anger. Any incipient bitterness is either suppressed quickly or tempered with understanding.
Rhodea manages to sympathize with the young German soldiers she saw in the last years of the war. She saw that they were little more than children, drafted unwillingly into the depleted army. When she visited a German town after the war, she was greatly moved by the plight of German mothers who had lost their sons.
Like many survivors, Rhodea remained tormented by guilt over her own choices—for her abandonment of the mental patients it was her job to care for before she became a fugitive, for leaving her older daughter to the protection of others when she fled, and for failing to convince her parents to go into hiding, rather than making the fatal journey to Poland.
Perhaps because Rhodea’s world-view is so generous and forgiving, it was deemed necessary to contextualize her story by prefacing it with a factual account by an expert on the Dutch Holocaust. Dr. Lillian Kremer, professor emerita of the University of Kansas, puts a somewhat different perspective on Rhodea’s narrative and makes a fierce indictment of Dutch collaboration in the persecution of their Jewish neighbors.
Kremer states that the number of Dutch Jews who perished in the Holocaust was slightly higher than the number in other European countries; that Dutch civil servants cooperated in the disenfranchisement of Jewish citizens; and that the Dutch police actively participated in the deportations. After the war, Jewish survivors found little support from their compatriots, who were interested mainly in re-establishing their own lives. It is alleged they had little sympathy for the greater losses and the atrocities suffered by the Jews.
In the 1960s, the Dutch population that had lived through the war years, like that of other European countries, came in for severe criticism by a younger generation. The myth of a widespread heroic response to Nazism was exposed as a lie; numerous publications indicted the wartime generation for the abandonment and betrayal of Dutch Jewry.
The effect of these two juxtaposed female voices—that of Rhodea Shandler summoning up vivid memories from her own distant past, and that of Dr. Lillian Kremer drawing on a wealth of scholarship to give a broader perspective—is to set up a kind of dialogue. It is a dialogue that deserves, even cries out, to be continued in formal and informal settings, in classrooms and in book clubs, appropriate for all ages.
Only a few quibbles: There is no explanation as to how and when Rhodea Shandler’s surname was changed from Bollegraaf and the scholar who wrote the preface repeatedly uses the term “disinterested” when, I think, she means “uninterested.” Also, prior to describing her arrival in Canada, Shandler recalls how she crudely assumed B.C. was going to be full of Indians—an off-putting reference that might have benefited from some editorial tinkering.
-- review by Joan Givner
[BCBW 2007] "memoir" "holocaust"