An Interview with Mark Klempner

The following is a transcript of an interview with Mark Klempner that serves as a good introduction to him and his work. To read an interview that covers different ground, see this one in The Social Edge. If you would like to listen to an interview, several audio files are available online, including a twenty minute interview conducted by activist Chris Goldstein for Santa Fe Public Radio, and a thirty minute interview conducted by history buff Mike Cuthbert for AARP Prime Time Radio.

Why is your book described as “an edgier view” of the rescuers?

Let me tell you a little story: I once heard Miep Gies, the lady who tried to rescue Anne Frank and her family, speak at a private luncheon. There were three introducers, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister, and each talked about how wonderful she was, and then Miep stood up and talked about how helping the Franks was just the human thing to do. After she was finished, a local politician kissed her on the cheek, and everyone went home feeling they’d met a really nice woman who did something very decent a long time ago.

But let’s look at Miep in the historical context. During the Nazi occupation of Holland, priests and ministers were generally not encouraging people to help the Jews. Even many of the rabbis were urging their fellow Jews to remain law abiding citizens, and thus to cooperate with the Nazi occupiers. One third of the mayors in the Netherlands had joined the Dutch Nazi party, and the other two thirds were playing it very safe. To do what she did, Miep had to ignore the voices of the reasonable people in society. And, most of all, she chose to directly defy the Nazis, which meant courting a death sentence. That goes way beyond “nice.”

In writing my book, I wanted to uncover these deeper and most radical aspects to the rescuers’ personalities. And so, I talked with and tried to get to know them. And I kept on talking with them, and kept on getting to know them, and by the time I finished the book, nine years had gone by. When I write about who they are as people, and what they believe in and live for, it’s based on the intimacy that developed over that period of time.

Along the way, I discovered that they hold strong convictions about contemporary issues, and in my book, I wanted to include their sometimes provocative views. I figured that if the rescuers’ moral compasses pointed so unfailingly toward what was morally right during the Nazi years, we ought to be interested in what they have to say about the problems facing us today—and what they think some solutions to those problems might be.

And what do they have to say along those lines?

Actually, if I tried to present them as if they have a platform, I would be violating a principle I heard often from them: that we should be careful not to oversimplify, and also to avoid lumping people together. Certainly, they would say that if you see injustice in your midst, if you see people being mistreated, you have to do something about it. But beyond that, there isn’t any one single message. When it comes to society’s problems, they urge us to reject simplistic solutions to complex situations and to resist the tendency to generalize about minority groups, or any groups for that matter. Some of what they had to say had a real “sixties” ring to it: question authority, think for yourself, be spontaneous . . .

I’m curious as to why they would add “be spontaneous”?

Well, the Nazis were like automatons; they were like robots. There was no spontaneity, no freedom of thought: only the party line. Kees Veenstra told me about meeting a young SS whose head was so filled with Nazi propaganda that he not only thought the Third Reich would last 1,000 years, but also that everyone in America would learn to speak German after Hitler conquered North America. Kees said, “Once people latch onto some twisted ideology, and reach the point where they are completely convinced that they are right, it’s very dangerous.”

Did the rescuers express hope that we’ll be able to get through our current crises?

Oh, sure. They’re world class hopers; they got through the war by practicing radical hope. And they still remain hopeful today. When I asked Heiltje Kooistra how people today might keep from getting overwhelmed by the problems in the world, she said simply, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.” Heiltje hid nine people in her house, and relied on her strong religious faith to make it through the war. Mieke Vermeer also drew on her personal faith, and a lot of positive thinking. When I lamented to her about global warming, she said, “Each generation has to face a new set of problems, but God also gives you the power to solve them. Think of what a terrible problem Nazism was in my day. Now it’s history.”

Are any of the rescuers still involved in humanitarian activities?

Absolutely. For instance, there’s one rescuer couple, both in their late seventies, whom I visited at their home in a rural area of the Netherlands. When we took a break from the interview, they said, “Let us show you around our property.” I looked at their fruit trees and garden, and then they said, “Let us show you what we have in our garage.” And I’m thinking, “What could they possibly have in their garage?”

Well, the whole garage was filled to the top with garbage bags. And they said, “We just organized a clothing drive over our entire county, and these are clothes people donated that we’re going to send to Romania.” They explained that the people there have hard winters and not enough warm clothes.

And then there was that lady, Mieke Vermeer, who was involved in social justice work.

Yes, while raising seven children, Mieke still found the time to write letters on behalf of prisoners who had been unjustly arrested and detained because of their political views. She continued to be involved with this Freedom Writers program run by Amnesty International for quite a few years. It has a pretty good track record of getting prisoners released by calling world attention to their plight.

Of the ten rescuers you feature in your book, several of them were in their eighties or nineties. One was almost one hundred . . .

Yes, Mrs. Kalff. When I asked her what she did during the war, she asked, “Which one?” because she already was a teenager during the First World War. The interesting thing is, I caught the rescuers in the last years of their lives, and I must say, that gave them a certain perspective they would not have had earlier. I got the feeling from them that they just wanted to tell me the truth—they weren’t worried anymore about what their kids or grandkids would think, and certainly not what their neighbors would think. They realized they wouldn’t be around much longer, and that this was their chance to really put down for posterity not only what they did during the Nazi years, but also what they’d come to believe about life and living. It was a beautiful moment at which to catch them, really; it’s what gerontologists call “the life review stage.”

You spent almost a decade interviewing these people. Why would you devote so much time to this project? Could it have had to do with your own family history?

No doubt, that did play a big part. My father and his family made it out of Europe by the skin of their teeth—they were literally on the last boat out of Poland: the SS Batory that left Warsaw on August 25, 1939, one week before the Nazi invasion. So I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and I was acutely aware that nearly all the relatives who had been left behind were killed. So as a child I often wondered, “What would have happened if my father hadn’t boarded that ship?” His only hope would have been to meet up with one of the rescuers—and there were very few of them.

If your own family history traces back to Poland, why did you go to the Netherlands to interview Holocaust rescuers?

I thought at the time that it was because I didn’t want to have to become fluent in Polish, but I realized later that it was much more than that. One day I mentioned it to my wife, and she said, “It would have been too close to home.” That really gave me a jolt, because I realized she was right: to go back to Poland, the place where my father was taunted by anti-Semites and so many of my relatives were killed, would have been too much for me. I simply wasn’t up to returning to the scene of such a horrific crime.

Somehow the Netherlands felt more approachable, not as heavy. But, as it turns out, it was almost as bad a place for Jews during the Nazi years. Not that the Dutch were anti-Semitic, but the physical terrain, the strong Nazi presence, and the gradual, covert way the Nazis went about implementing the Final Solution there proved to be particularly deadly when compounded with the Dutch inclination to seek consensus and accept compromise. So to be a rescuer in Holland you really had to be willing to step out and follow your own convictions, come what may.

Would you say that meeting the rescuers changed your life?

Yes, there’s no doubt. I didn’t explain this to you earlier, but before I went to college, and long before I met the rescuers, I was a professional musician. I wound up in LA and was a studio guitarist there for more than ten years. Towards the end of that time, I became profoundly disenchanted with the music business, and I also was fed up with the town in general. The general attitude was “me first,” and people had bumper stickers that said things like, “The one with the most toys wins.” When the LA riots broke out in ’92, that was it for me: I knew I needed to get away, and also to find a different way of life.

Bailing out of the music business, and attending Cornell University was a good start, but when I later met the rescuers, thanks to a research grant I received at Cornell, they were like an antidote to all the selfishness and self-centeredness I’d witnessed in LA. When I saw the humble, beautiful way that the rescuers live, and how spiritually rich and meaningful their lives were, I realized that this is what it’s all about: not money, not fame, but the inner satisfaction that comes from being a mensch.

Do you go into this in the book?

Yes, somewhat. It’s the rescuers who are center stage, but I weave in my own story as I’m telling the rescuers’ stories because I want the reader to get to know the rescuers through the way they related to me, as well as by what they said in the interviews. And I wanted to convey the impact they had on me, and how meeting them affected my relationship with Judaism, and many other things. Often they looked at me as if I were the child or grandchild of the people they rescued, so that was really interesting, and definitely helped us to bond.

There are so many marvelous stories in the book of the ways the rescuers were able to outwit the Nazis. Could you tell us one of them?

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter about a guy named Ted Leenders who was busy all through the war saving the lives of many Jewish people. But one day he was tipped off that the Nazis were going to come and search his house. He found another place for the Jewish family that was hiding with him, that was no problem, but what was a problem was that he had let a policeman involved with the paramilitary resistance temporarily store a bunch of weapons down in his cellar, and there would not be time to get them out.

Ah, yes. And that’s where his vacuum cleaner came in . . .

Exactly. He took the canvas bag that collected the dust and attached it instead to the air intake. He then started up the vacuum by the entrance to the cellar, and spewed a thick layer of dust all the way down the stairs. When this Nazi officer named Müller started searching the house and interrogating him, Ted said, “Herr Müller, you haven’t been to the cellar. Let me take you down there.” The commandant glared at him. Ted went on, “Müller, you are accusing me of all kinds of things, but I am going to show you I have nothing to hide. Follow me down to the cellar.” Müller looked at the dust on the stairs and didn’t want to bother. He shined his flashlight and said, “Ach, there’s nothing there!” Then he slapped Ted in the face, and said he’d be back another time. When Ted told me the story, he explained that he used reverse psychology on Müller, because German officers hated to be told what to do, especially by civilians.

And Müller did indeed return . . .

Yes, that’s another dramatic story . . . The book is filled with such stories: some recount close calls, others tell about how the children were hid, and some recall how the rescuers got through the tough times while hiding people. Then there are stories from long after the war, like Hetty Voûte’s story about how she started a foundation to take care of Icelandic horses that were being mistreated. But the underlying thread through all these stories is courage and compassion. And, often, as in the story I just told, cleverness.

Did any of the rescuers ever regret what they did? I mean, as you read the book you see that they often had to endure great hardships because of the choices they made to reach out to people who were in trouble.

No, they all said that if they could do it over again, they’d do the same thing. Some even looked back at the war as a special time, a time when they had an opportunity to really do something important.

Kees Veenstra said something along those lines at the end of his chapter, didn’t he?

Oh, yes, that’s one of my favorites. Let me read it to you:

The war was a terrible time—horrible things happened then. And yet, and yet . . . often I think the war was the best part of my life. You could be useful, you could save people, you could do things. And people were glad with anything they got: food, shelter. And now we are well fed and well housed, and not content. Everybody takes everything they have for granted—even my own children. And I know that life isn’t always that way. It can be quite different. Of course, it’s ridiculous to say that the war was a great time—I wept during that time—but still . . . something happened. It was quite clear what was good and it was quite clear what was bad. You had to do the good things.”

©2010 Mark Klempner