22 March 2009

Book: A war story told in hidden letters

A workman finds hidden letters from the past that tell a young man's war-time tale.

Now a book, The Jewish Exponent's literary editor Robert Leiter reviews it here.

In 1997, Manus de Groot, the foreman of a demolition company, was tearing down a house along Amsterdam's Vrolik Street when he found two bundles of letters hidden in the ceiling of the third-floor bathroom. It struck him that the correspondence must be of some importance since there was so much of it -- 86 letters and postcards, and one telegram. They had all been written in a single year, 1942, by Philip Slier, known to friends and family as Flip, from a forced-labor camp. He was just 18 years old at the time, and his correspondence was all directed to his parents.
De Groot read through them and took them to the Dutch National Institute of War Documentation.

The only condition he made was that he eventually be told what had happened to the young man and his family, and if there were any survivors. As the book's publisher and co-annotator, Deborah Slier, states in her introductory remarks to Hidden Letters, this book is de Groot's answer.
Children's book publisher Deborah Slier annotated the letters and her company, Star Bright Books, published it - their first adult title. Slier was also personally involved as Flip was her first cousin; she acquired the letters in 1999. For seven years, Slier and co-annotator Ian Shine tracked down details and annotated the letters. The book contains 86 letters and postcards, maps, documents, and 300 photographs (most taken by Flip).

Slier's father and Flip's father were Amsterdam-born brothers; Slier's father emigrated to South Africa in 1922. Before the war broke out, 56 relatives lived in Amsterdam and other European countries (in addition to Slier's branch). At the end of the war, her family received a letter saying that the Slier brothers, sister and mother had died in camps.

The Germans invaded in May 1940 when Flip was 17. By 1942, Jews were prohibited from nearly all work. Once unemployed, they were sent to some 50 work camps in the Netherlands. Flip was sent to Molengoot camp in spring 1942; one of 7,000 Jews sent to a work camp.

The young man was working as an apprentice typesetter at the daily paper Algemeen Handelsblad. The book's bio says

...he was just about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighed 156 pounds, had black hair and gray eyes. "He was a good-natured, gregarious young man who was described by his friend Karel van der Schaarf as brutaal -- that is, audacious."
In April 1943, the Jewish Council ordered him to the Molengoot camp, where he continued to send upbeat letters to his family. He later escapes, knowing that family members had died in Auschwitz. In Amsterdam, he was hidden, obtained false papers, and even saw friends and family occasionally. Arrrested at Amsterdam Central Station, he was sent to another Dutch camp - Vught - and then to Sobibor in Poland, where he was killed.

Writes Leiter:

Flip's extraordinary spirit and the irrepressible nature of his personality come directly through his 86 pieces of correspondence. When you read them, you touch -- and are touched by -- an astonishing individual.
Read the complete review here.

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