Hiding, and Seeking

Hiding, and Seeking

“In the end, I hope that my lines will be read by people who will see how we struggled under terrible circumstances, and that the reader will want to take up this struggle that we have fought and experienced from the front lines for the construction of a worthwhile human society,” Erwin Geismar wrote in a personal memoir in 1943.

His granddaughter, Daphne Geismar, feels the same regarding the lines she has put together in her new book, Invisible Years: A Family’s Collected Account of Separation and Survival during the Holocaust in the Netherlands. Released in May by publisher David R. Godine, Geismar’s account of three branches of her family—including 61 relatives killed across three generations as well as some who survived against incredible odds—immerses readers in the stories behind their fates. It brings us face-to-face with their humanity through their own words and in their own images, captured in the beautifully reproduced photographs that open the book.

Among them, Erwin Geismar and his wife, Grete, gaze up from a two-page spread, looking directly at the viewer in 1940’s version of a selfie, as if they might be about to speak. Grete survived the war posing as a non-Jewish maid, living in plain sight; Erwin died on November 19, 1943 at Auschwitz. Their son, David, survived the war by being shuttled from one hiding place to another near Amsterdam and in the northern part of the country; among the book’s graphics are a fold-out map documenting all of the families’ hiding places. David would grow up to become Daphne’s father.

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Throughout most of her life, Daphne knew few details about her parents’ experiences during the war. Her mother, Mirjam de Zoete, had survived in much the same way as her father, traveling from one safe house to another. Mirjam’s sisters Judith and Hadassah, separately from her, did the same, while their parents were taken in by the minister of the Breeplein Church in Rotterdam. He and his sexton hid the couple in the attic above the church’s sanctuary, where they spent two years with another family concealed beside the organ’s pipes. Miraculously, the entire de Zoete family of five survived the war and were reunited, though many close relatives perished, and life would never be the same.

It wasn’t until the congregation of Breeplein invited descendants to join them for the church’s 75th anniversary celebration that Daphne was confronted with the reality of her maternal grandparents’ story. “It was the beginning of a deep and emotional dive into my family’s wartime experience in the Netherlands,” she writes in the preface to Invisible Years. Upon her return to the United States, Daphne learned her mother had a “Holocaust drawer” in the bottom of an antique desk, filled with documents and personal artifacts. In Israel, her mother’s sister Judith had another. The idea of compiling a family book was born.

A graphic designer and visual artist by training, Daphne had worked on many books in her career, most of them for art museums. Beyond design, she often advises curators on organizing and structuring information. But putting together a book about her own family was another thing entirely. At first, the granddaughter of the Breeplein Church’s minister, Kiene Brillenburg Wurth, offered to write the book, while Daphne planned to design it, with research and other assistance from her sister, Warda Geismar, and her cousin, Sharon Cohen-Strauss. But as time passed and the project was set aside due to other obligations, Daphne picked up more and more of the pieces.

Something about reading her family’s diaries, letters, memoirs and other writings spoke to her own search for self and meaning. Eventually, she realized this wasn’t a book to be written. Instead, she needed to find a way to stitch together the words that were already on the pages in those Holocaust drawers. “There was something about the many voices that I viscerally felt the horror of it,” Daphne says. “Somehow it made it real in a way I had never felt before.”

It felt real to early readers of the manuscript, too. Daphne gathered an advisory board to help her. When they sat down to read a draft aloud, each one claiming the voice of one family member, the entire table wept. “That was both a really emotional and an amazing moment because it just pointed out the strength” of the project, she says. From that point forward, she knew the book was working.

Invisible Years is divided into chronological sections—Before, Trapped, Forbidden, Separated, Invisible, After, Remembered—as well as offering historical context, brief explanations of the project, supporting documentation and a separate story from Daphne’s uncle, Zigi Mandel, whose flight through Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to Palestine doesn’t run parallel to the others’. The final product, an oversized book printed on heavy paper, punctuates the narrative with reproductions of family photographs and artifacts: a child’s handwritten poem, a hand-drawn map of the church hiding place, a Jewish star, falsified identity cards. “Part of the plan was, how can the reader feel almost like they’re with me, picking up and touching the material?” Daphne explains.

Research for the project required translation from German and Dutch into English as well as interviews with living relatives, much of it handled by Cohen-Strauss, who served as a liaison to the Israeli branch of the family. There was more to discover beyond what was stashed in those drawers. For example, Daphne and her collaborators found the son of a woman named Erika Heyman, who had hidden her grandfather Erwin. The man, now living in Texas, had taken flute lessons from her grandfather even before he’d gone into hiding at their apartment. He’s “the only person other than my father and grandmother who I’ve ever known who knew my grandfather,” Geismar says.

She and Cohen-Strauss also learned a painful story that Cohen-Strauss’s mother—Daphne’s aunt Judith—had kept a secret for decades: she had been abused by the family who hid her during the war. As a result, on a 2016 trip to Israel, Daphne met with the director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, “to ask them to remove a name from the Righteous,” the list of non-Jews who helped Jews escape, provided false papers or kept them in hiding.

The stories in Invisible Years are particular to Daphne’s family, but they speak to the experiences of persecuted peoples everywhere. As she worked, Daphne says, she asked herself, “How can one group of people do this to another group of people? And, of course, the entire time I’m working on it, I’m hearing it happening over and over again with different groups of people, and that felt tragic.”

She stops short of direct comparisons. “You can’t compare any two episodes of hate, persecution, evil. They’re all horrific to whoever is going through it, and everyone’s horror is their own horror,” she says. Nevertheless, she sees a shared thread in today’s calls for racial justice: “this idea of not seeing someone as fully human… I think we have to be connecting with people on a human level to be able to stop this mass hatred that has happened over and over and over again.”

In the end, it may be that circling back around to the personal is the only solution. Daphne tells the story of her father, David, who eventually emigrated to the United States, raised his family here and ran a business in Weston, Connecticut, called Dave’s Electric Appliance Service. When he was ready to retire, he trained an Iranian immigrant to take over his business and befriended his family. “I don’t know how you do that on a mass scale,” Daphne says. “Maybe just one at a time.”

Daphne Geismar
Book Website

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Terry Dagradi.

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