A few days ago I received a book in the mail from a man who personally knew Hannie Schaft, the young, beautiful, gun-toting Dutch woman who the Gestapo – desperately searching for her — called “The Girl with the Red Hair,” and who Queen Wilhelmina designated, “The Symbol of the Resistance.” And I feel like I’ve touched a piece of history. Again.
Since November, 2008, I’ve been writing a book for the Chicago Review Press about female WWII resisters. CRP gave me only 12-14 months to research and write 26 2,000-word profiles, plus an introduction on each country represented.
That wasn’t a lot of time, especially for a first-time author. And so I was even more stressed when I discovered, six months into the project, that my overworked husband wasn’t going to have time to locate the necessary photographs — at least one for each woman — as he had promised. Even if I could find the time, where was I going to look? Getty and Corbis didn’t seem to have what I was looking for and I couldn’t afford to spend $300.00 per chapter anyway.
I began my grope in the dark. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem had a few that I needed, so that was a start. Although the USHMM had access to photos of Sophie Scholl — the German university student involved with the White Rose resistance pamphlets — they wouldn’t release them to me until I had written permission from an individual living on the west coast.
Dr. George J. Wittenstein, a practicing physician, was pleasant but firm on the phone. Since so many erroneous things had been written about the Scholls, he told me, in a still-heavy German accent, I had to send him the chapter by mail before he would release the photographic rights. My chapter went out by snail mail the following day.
Dr. Wittenstein mailed me back some corrections and urged me to purchase Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a new book whose title had previously belonged to an erroneous book on the same subject but which had recently had undergone a sound and thorough gutting by a new team of writers and researchers. I purchased, I read, I rewrote, I mailed back. He liked it.
Aside from now having in my hands a chapter of meticulous accuracy (and one of the most appealing chapters in the book, I believe, since a portion of each White Rose leaflet makes a chronological appearance in sidebar form), I had the overwhelming consciousness of having exchanged letters and telephone calls with one of the German university students who had kept the embarrassed Gestapo on the run for months during one of the most dramatic resistance efforts in Nazi-occupied Germany. Dr. George J. was in fact Jürgen Wittenstein, an editor of several White Rose leaflets and the person who had snapped the famed picture of pensive Sophie centered between her brother Hans and friend Christoph Probst in the Munich East train station, the photo which will now be part of my book.
In the ensuing months, I spoke to Diet Eman, a Dutch resister whose memoir I had read a decade earlier, and she sent me her own personal photographs for inclusion in her chapter. Nelly Trocmé Hewett called me on the phone when she heard about my project, making sure I had the correct information since so many others had made factual errors in writing about her parents, Magda and Andre Trocmé, famed leaders of the Le Chambon-sur-Lignon rescue operation. Muriel Phillips Engelman — a witty former army nurse who refused to leave her post while being deluged with buzz bombs during the Battle of the Bulge – became a lively email correspondent (and it is she who is leading the troupe of army nurses who adorn the cover of my book). I spoke to Barbara Moorman, the daughter of Johtje Vos, who was a little girl – one of the towheads in the fairly well-known Vos family/rescued Jews USHMM photograph — when her mother and father sheltered Jews and “onderduikers” in their Dutch home and she sent me a copy of Johtje’s hitherto unobtainable memoir. I was in the midst of a flurry of email correspondence with a man who held the key to Marlene Dietrich’s wartime photographs before I realized that I was communicating with her grandson.
All these communications took time away from writing, certainly, but they provided me with crucial additional information and something else: an electrifyingly exciting experience, a history geek’s heaven, a living connection to history. I also managed to get the book done on time. Almost.
And a few days ago, I received a book that has information on Hannie Schaft — “the girl with the red hair” — which I wasn’t able to find anywhere else (and although it’s late in the game, I have editorial permission to use its contents to add a few key quotes to her chapter). Paul Elsinga, my Schaft connection, was 10 years old when a sick and grieving Hannie stayed in his home before she initiated her second wave of resistance work. Paul approved my chapter with one exception: Hannie’s hair was not red but auburn. You see, he knew her personally.
I’d love to do this type of work again but that really depends on how well the book does and there’s no predicting these things. Whatever happens, I hope that come next March a few readers, at least, will encounter the stories of these women and find that touching history is not necessarily a dry, dusty experience. Perhaps they will discover instead that the past was once someone’s living, breathing present, in vibrant color, and overflowing with hopes and fears, convictions, and choices.