The project didn’t start easily. My family had no known members of either Jewish or Dutch background, and I was much too busy with my consulting business to take myself seriously as a writer. Although a passionate reader, I had no fiction-writing skills, and no training in historical research. Moreover, I recoiled from writing about the Holocaust. When my mentor, Deena Metzger, published her searing novel about that time, The Other Hand, I could hardly choke it down. I’d read Anne Frank’s Diary as a young teenager, but not a single related book since. It all scared me too much.
The Holocaust was the last thing on my mind when my spouse Joanna and I went to live in Amsterdam for six months on February 1, 2001. Her work in astronomy called her there, and I was delighted to have a partial sabbatical myself. Falling in love with the city was easy: the foggy, brooding canals and spectacular museums packed with treasures, the austere but exquisitely crafted canal houses, and the pervasiveness of the water itself. Our dream-like life lasted a few weeks, until I discovered that we were living inside the Nazi-designated Jewish Quarter. The disconnect was profound, between the openness and beauty we were experiencing and the barbed wire which had marked the boundaries of the Quarter. Eventually, eighty percent of its Jewish residents were rounded up and sent to their deaths, the highest percentage in Western Europe.
Once I realized that the Holocaust had killed people who would have been my neighbors, the ghosts and stories kept pursuing me–wherever I went, whatever I did. Only in one sense was I at all prepared: right before we arrived in Amsterdam, my best friend Eliane Vogel Polsky (22 years older than I) had revealed that she’d been hidden in plain sight in a Belgian convent school. She would surely have been deported and murdered had she not been hidden with a false identity. Eliane’s stories of loneliness and narrow escapes burned in my heart, almost as if they had happened to me. My precious friend, an eminent labor lawyer and women’s rights advocate, could so easily have been among the ghosts.
After I visited Amsterdam’s Resistance Museum to learn more about what happened in my neighborhood, poems poured out of me for days. Some focused on people like the executed man whose family only got back the contents of his pockets, not his body. Other poems grappled with the larger questions of how the Holocaust could possibly have happened there, in the city I loved. At the Anne Frank House, my goddaughter spotted a photograph of a roundup happening right in front of our house. The nearby step-gabled building was unmistakable, then a gap for the small street just a doorstep away from us, and finally our own 1780s townhouse with carved floral garlands just above our apartment windows. On the street stood the cluster of neighbors who had been wrenched from their homes. I could not forget the people in that shocking image.
The next year, the ghosts’ presence intensified when we returned to Amsterdam and lived on the Prinsengracht near the Frank hiding place. After we got to know our landlord and landlady, they revealed that Jewish people had been hidden in the attic right above our apartment. Nobody knew their names or what had happened to them; they were last seen fleeing across the rooftops as the Nazis shot at them. That heartbreaking vagueness made me feel their presence all the more. What exact circumstances could have brought them to the house we shared? To understand anything of their story, I needed to conduct in-depth research to discover not just the broadest brush strokes of occupied Amsterdam, but also the finest pen lines. How was it possible that so many Jewish people were rounded up and murdered in what author Richard Shorto has called “the world’s most liberal city”?
The questions pecked at me: how could the Holocaust happen at all, much less there, in what had become my neighborhood? Somehow an 18-year-old woman formed in my imagination, smart and brave but not foolhardy. How would she cope? She didn’t expect the Nazi invasion. She was falling in love, and her name was definitely Rachel. Although I didn’t know it yet, she was the first thread that would eventually be woven into my novel, An Address in Amsterdam.
Although Joanna and I returned to the States, Rachel and her emerging story as a resistance worker kept reappearing in my imagination, like a beloved but neglected relative who needed more attention than I was willing to give. The sketches I’d begun to write would have stayed in the filing cabinet with all my other unpublished writing, had Joanna not endeared herself to her Dutch colleagues so that they invited her back to continue her astronomy work for six-month stretches.
We returned to Amsterdam a third time in 2005. Our first few nights were spent in the relatively inexpensive attic of the Lloyd Hotel, perhaps the world’s only one-to-five- star accommodation. In a narrow winding staircase hung a framed original of the February 1941 mimeographed flyer to “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” —a flimsy document that launched the only general strike in Western Europe to protest the first roundup of Jewish people. The Nazis imprisoned the strike organizers in the very building that was now our hotel. Just a few hours after my landing at the airport, the ghosts were calling me again. My research deepened far beyond scribbling and exploring.
My Belgian friend Eliane visited often as I researched and wrote. We spent endless hours side-by-side on the couch, sipping the spiced Earl Grey tea her Russian Jewish family favored. Some of our most treasured conversations were in 2009, when Joanna and I were lucky enough to score a houseboat rental on a canal lined with huge speckled-bark London plane trees. Eliane told me stories that prepared me for how Rachel might feel and act, like the tale of her ingenious but terrifying escape from a Nazi “mouse trap” in the train station. Once I began writing scenes and then chapters, she read and critiqued them in detail.
“No, Mary,” Eliane would say in her perfect, French-inflected English, “It wasn’t quite like this, what you have written. After the invasion, they would have tried to get to the harbor. When my aunt and uncle. . .” As the book developed, Eliane helped me tune the details and fine points, until one day she read a revised chapter and said “I can’t believe you weren’t there.” Perhaps it offset the pain of remembering to see our conversations and research transmuted into fiction that reflected that wrenching time and place. If only she had lived to see my novel in print.
Whenever I doubted that the book was mine to write, or if the imagined story could be real, the ghosts seemed to answer me. When I questioned whether my 18-year-old heroine was too young to be so active in the resistance, Eliane and I visited an installation called The Bunker. We entered a dark room where loud knocking began, then a voice pleading for shelter from the Nazis. What would we do—and how would we decide? The Bunker recreated the excruciating dilemmas people faced. The final room included a set of small, antiquated wooden drawers, like an old library card catalog with actual stories from that time. I opened a drawer at random and found a 15-year-old girl who not only worked in the resistance, but refused to escape to Switzerland with her parents. I had my answer.
Over many years of part-time research, I read countless books, pored over innumerable photographs, and walked in every weather that January to June can produce in Amsterdam. The city’s center is remarkably unchanged from the 1940s thanks to vigorous protection, so it was easy to slip from the present moment into the time depicted in the black-and-white photos of the Nazi-occupied city. My notebook went everywhere with me, and I spent hours sketching in prose the subtle effects of light on the somber yet glowing houses from centuries ago, or describing the disorienting experience of living in a city whose basic lines are curves.
Whenever a new event appeared in my reading, my first question was how my characters lived it or reacted to it. Reading about the bombing of a Nazi officers’ club, I immediately questioned what Rachel would have done if she’d heard the blast. I decided that she’d have found a café and asked what had happened. To flesh out the scene, I took the tram outside the historic center to find the officers’ club’s address, just as Rachel searches for addresses all over the city in her work as a courier for the resistance. The club’s large but not unusual house stood near the tram—and a few blocks’ search produced a café waiting to be described and included, with a small but sparkling chandelier and a dark wooden bar. The lines between fiction and reality, between past and present, blurred.
In the many months that I lived in Amsterdam (five times for half a year) as well as on shorter visits, similar moments of passing back and forth between historical sources and actual places I could locate were like the movement of a shuttle on a loom, weaving the story ever more accurately and tightly. To complement Eliane’s guidance and my own research, however, my early drafts needed review by a Dutch expert. In 2008, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Laureen Nussbaum, an authority on Anne Frank as a writer, who lived through the Nazi Occupation herself. Laureen soon became a great friend to me and the book in every way.
In addition to our exchanges in many in-depth letters and conversations, Laureen later reviewed the full manuscript twice for historical accuracy—and not just at the factual level, important as that was. The book also had to tell a story that could have happened at that time, with its particular set of characters, each with their own given background and possibilities. What would have happened, for example, with an unplanned pregnancy? What were the legal possibilities, the physical facilities, the quiet solutions? Laureen and her husband Rudi were invaluable guides.
For the book to be worthy of the ghosts, it had to be emotionally true in a way that would only be possible if I searched my own life for the times when I’d felt like Rachel—passionate, conflicted, terrified, brave. I could still feel the sexual thrill I’d experienced as an 18-year-old touching my boyfriend’s arm through his sleeve, long before we were lovers. Apart from my links to Rachel herself, the connections between the larger Dutch story and my life experiences became ever clearer. The dilemmas of people in wartime Amsterdam—whether to collude, collaborate, or resist—were familiar to me from experiences in my southern schoolyard in 1960 when the schools were desegregated. I remembered how terrified I felt when a gang of boys pursued me in a car shouting epithets because of my friendship with the only black girl in our school.
A pattern established itself: while in Amsterdam, I would work hard on both the research and the writing. I’d finally admitted that the project was a book, an historical novel, but whether or when it would be finished or published was still in doubt. I read and re-read the classic histories, every time discovering new connections. As my knowledge grew, so did my understanding of what I’d missed the first time. Back in the States, however, the book was a side project. I did manage a trip to the Holocaust Museum Library and to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and I sent my writing group a revised chapter every few months or so. I still felt connected to the ghosts, and my duty to them kept calling me. But my consulting to nonprofits was flourishing, and progress on the writing was slow.
Then, almost ten years after I first lived in Amsterdam, I was involved in a calamitous accident that resulted in serious injuries and life-threatening infections that incapacitated me completely for six months. Lying in a hospital bed, nauseated and in desperate pain, I vowed to finish the book if I lived, no matter what. It was my only project that no one else could do.
At last I understood what the ghosts could have told me: there was no time to lose in completing this project: my health or my life could be taken from me anytime. I never put the book down again. Even when I could only manage fifteen minutes a day during the next two years of illness, I would verify a date or edit a single paragraph; when my health was restored I gave the book my all. My characters’ experiences confined in hiding became more vivid after my months of being unable to walk or take care of myself.
In 2016, six years after my accident, the published volume of An Address in Amsterdam was in my hands. I began speaking widely on “Resistance Then and Now: Learning from the Dutch,” and “Anne Frank’s Neighbors: What Did They Do?” and reached people in over 80 venues in four countries. Only Covid slowed me down for a few years.
Many authors talk about how tired they are of their characters and their books by the time they’ve revised them multiple times. I am not, even after 13 years of research and writing and years of speaking in more than 80 venues. It’s part of my deal with the ghosts. They got me this far, and they’ll never leave me now.