Remembering the Holocaust as Gaza Starves

JUNE 7, 2024


Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

On May 4, as war and famine raged in Gaza, Amsterdam marked Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration of those who resisted the Nazi occupation, with special emphasis from the city’s organizing committee on the Jews who perished in the onslaught. Among the dozens of ceremonies that crisscrossed the city, I joined one at the Centrale Markthal, a building that had, throughout that period of dread, housed a vast open-air market that sold food to Amsterdammers, though it is currently dedicated to spectacles, parties and gatherings enjoyed by those who, mostly, know little about that remote tragedy.

I was there at the invitation of Max Arian, an 84-year-old Dutch friend, one of the speakers that day. I had met him 50 years ago, on my first visit to the Netherlands to drum up solidarity for the Chilean resistance to the dictatorship of General Pinochet, which drove me into exile. Max, as a secular Jewish survivor of the Nazi occupation, was particularly attuned to freedom and national liberation struggles elsewhere around the world, including the struggle of the Palestinian people for a homeland and an end to the occupation. What bonded us most back then, of course, was how he identified with the promise of Salvador Allende’s peaceful revolution, which was abruptly ended by Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’etat.

During that initial, hospitable encounter, he hinted at his childhood story, but I only learned the details when, with my wife and son, I moved to Amsterdam in 1976 for a four-year stay – welcomed warmly by Max and his family, like an echo of the refuge he had been given as a young boy back in 1943.

His father, Arnold, a member of the resistance to the Nazis, had been shipped to Auschwitz, where, unbeknownst to his relatives, he had died in October 1942. Max’s mother, Rebecca, was subsequently arrested and beaten and, while in captivity, managed to smuggle a message to a relative asking that her 3-year-old son be “hidden” from the Nazis. The child spent the rest of the war with a loving Christian foster family, the Micheels, under a false identity. Rebecca herself was eventually packed into a train with thousands of other Jews and was only rescued at the last minute by men she presumed to be comrades of her husband.

She lived the next two years in safety in Limburg, not far from where her son was being cared for, though she could not know where he was for security reasons. The only sign that he was well was an unsigned letter from Max’s foster mother allaying Rebecca’s fears and mentioning how much, perhaps too much, the little boy enjoyed vlaii, a cake with green berries that was only baked in that southernmost region of the country. So Max was nearby and there was hope that they might still have a future together. And on May 5, 1945, which is still celebrated as Liberation Day in the Netherlands, Rebecca sought news of her son’s whereabouts and immediately retrieved him.

If that clue of shared food had been her sole connection to her lost child, food must have also been on her mind as a way of connecting with her parents, Philip and Mietje Witteboom. They had been spared when the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in early 1940 because Philip, with his wife’s help, ran a stall in the Centrale Markthal providing fruit and vegetables for the populace. Classified as “essential workers,” they managed to avoid deportation until finally, in 1944, they were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. When Max’s grandfather fell ill, he was transported to Auschwitz, where he died. Mietje outlasted her jailers, though she almost succumbed to starvation before the camp was liberated. Indeed, when Rebecca heard her mother had returned to the Netherlands and rushed to see her, she did not recognize the gaunt, skeletal woman advancing down the street, and was only able to identify her by the dress Mietje was wearing.

I imagine their elation, and also the abiding pain left behind by so many missing, murdered relatives, the extended family whose names and dates of birth and death are inscribed now on the Holocaust Memorial Wall, where, on a visit last year, I examined them, one by one, with Max by my side recounting their stories. And we talked, once more, about his own life as a “hidden” child, which had continued to fascinate me over so many decades, to the point that I had borrowed many aspects of his experience for one of the protagonists of my novel The Suicide Museum (2023).

It was not, however, until the ceremony on May 4 of this year that I learned what had happened in the aftermath of the occupation and, once again, the importance of food. Because Mietje, in addition to that solitary dress, had brought something else back from Theresienstadt: a piece of chocolate given to her by the Russian liberators of the camp. This famished woman, instead of devouring it, had kept it for her grandson, wagering that he was still alive. It offered him not only sustenance but the memory as well, because that sweet would remain for Max as the unforgettable moment when he first tasted chocolate. It had melted and then hardened over time, mixing with the tin foil, and yet it was so savory.

And more memories of food: how his grandmother and mother had, for the following decades, sold fruit and vegetables in a stall at that marketplace, despite the efforts by some other vendors to deny them that right on the grounds that the original license was in the deceased Philip’s name. This was the place where the miraculously saved Max, beloved of those two formidable female figures, had spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence, had helped to carry boxes and scrape the muck from them and even, on Mondays, work the cash register. So it was food, again, that came to the rescue of the family, providing a livelihood during difficult years of scarcity, continuing a tradition that had been in the family for generations, even if Max himself would become a famous journalist and cultural critic.

The commemoration at the former marketplace was, therefore, a way of celebrating the triumph of life over death, embodied in the fact that both octogenarian speakers, Max and another hidden child survivor, Simon Italiaander, were very much present to evoke a time when that space had resounded with the back-and-forth of merchants and wholesalers and clients and filled with the smell of cabbages and tomatoes and oranges, so Amsterdammers could eat and love, multiply and laugh, betting that life could, that it must, go on. Because Max was not alone that day of the ceremony. His (non-Jewish) wife Maartje was there, as were other members of his family – one of his three children and two of his eight grandchildren – who existed solely because he had been saved. The ghosts of the past, the dead who await some sort of resurrection in our memory, seemed to be blessing those who had managed to defy the extinction the Nazis had wanted to visit upon those innocent people.

And yet, as more and more recollections of the food that had been sold in that marketplace filled the air, as photos of that space vibrant with sustenance and nourishment circulated among the spectators, as I stared at a marvelous image of a robust, older Mietje, no longer famished, standing defiantly in the midst of endless crates of vegetables, what kept intruding on me, perversely and inevitably, was Gaza: the horror of what was going on in Gaza, what students around the world have been protesting against, including in the streets of Amsterdam. How could a state that had been founded by the survivors of the Holocaust be inflicting starvation on its Palestinian neighbors? How could its armed forces massacre children who, unlike Max, had nowhere to hide, no one to take them in? How could so many Israelis feel indifferent to such grief and afflictions – an indifference that, alas, recalled how so many Germans (and Dutch people, and millions around the world) had turned a blind eye to the sins of the Nazis?

These searing questions, which invaded me, which I could not help asking, do not undermine or disrespect the ceremony at the Centrale Markthal. They make the need to remember more relevant than ever, the certainty that never again should humanity witness terrible war crimes without demanding accountability, as the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague has done. More relevant, also, because those who acclaim Hamas – a murderous, theocratic, misogynistic, oppressive organization that also massacres children and holds innocent hostages – those who share its dreams of ridding the region of its Israeli enemies, would do well to attend memorials like the one I was at on May 4 in Amsterdam.

This is the complicated challenge of our times: to rejoice at the wondrous survival of Max Arian, a fervent supporter of amity between Palestinians and Israelis, and at the same time condemn those persecutors who, by their current acts of terror and forced famine, are betraying the ardent memory of so many of their ancestors who died and are still crying out for peace and justice.

This first appeared on New Lines.