The Sisters of Auschwitz
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The Sisters of Auschwitz

The True Story of Two Jewish Sisters' Resistance in the Heart of Nazi Territory

Roxane van Iperen

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eBook - ePub

The Sisters of Auschwitz

The True Story of Two Jewish Sisters' Resistance in the Heart of Nazi Territory

Roxane van Iperen

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About This Book

A New York Times bestseller

The unforgettable story of two unsung heroes of World War II: sisters Janny and Lien Brilleslijper who joined the Dutch Resistance, helped save dozen of lives, were captured by the Nazis, and ultimately survived the Holocaust.

Eight months after Germany's invasion of Poland, the Nazis roll into The Netherlands, expanding their reign of brutality to the Dutch. But by the Winter of 1943, resistance is growing. Among those fighting their brutal Nazi occupiers are two Jewish sisters, Janny and Lien Brilleslijper from Amsterdam. Risking arrest and death, the sisters help save others, sheltering them in a clandestine safehouse in the woods, they called "The High Nest."

This secret refuge would become one of the most important Jewish safehouses in the country, serving as a hiding place and underground center for resistance partisans as well as artists condemned by Hitler. From The High Nest, an underground web of artists arises, giving hope and light to thoseliving in terror in Holland as they begin to restore the dazzling pre-war life of Amsterdam and The Hague.

When the house and its occupants are eventually betrayed, the most terrifying time of the sisters' lives begins. As Allied troops close in, the Brilleslijper family are rushed onto the last train to Auschwitz, along with Anne Frank and her family. The journey will bring Janny and Lien close to Anne and her older sister Margot. The days ahead will test the sisters beyond human imagination as they are stripped of everything but their courage, their resilience, and their love for each other.

Based on meticulous research and unprecedented access to the Brilleslijpers' personal archives of memoirs and photos, Sisters of Auschwitz is a long-overdue homage to two young women's heroism and moral bravery—and a reminder of the power each of us has to change the world.

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Part One


‘When we have to fight, so be it. One cannot become untrue to oneself. One cannot fool oneself either. This is what we believed in. We did what we had to do, what we could do. No more and no less.’
Janny Brandes-Brilleslijper


The Battle of Nieuwmarkt

Amsterdam, 1912. Had the Battle of the Nieuwmarkt been settled differently, the Brilleslijper family would probably never have existed. There, on the square in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, at the foot of the ancient city gate, young Joseph Brilleslijper fought for the hand of Fietje Gerritse.
Their families are perfect opposites: Joseph descends from a circus family of travelling, Yiddish-speaking musicians, and although his father has become a fruit importer, the Brilleslijpers still host exuberant Friday evenings at their home on Jodenbreestraat, where all family members gather to act and sing. Fietje Gerritse, on the other hand, is from a family of devout Frisian Jews; tall, sullen people with ginger hair, raising their six children with strict discipline among the godlessness of the Red Light District, with its dock workers, sailors and whores. From a young age, Fietje worked in her parents’ late-night shop on Zeedijk, standing on a crate behind the till, her three brothers, acting as bouncers, by her side. She has fallen madly in love with ever cheerful Joseph, but her parents will have none of him; a good-for-nothing, out-of-work boy, constantly running off to visit his travelling grandfather at the circus.
The three Gerritse brothers have, more than once, mercilessly beaten Joseph up, and when he comes to their parents’ house to ask for Fietje’s hand, they even throw him out, his face flat on the clinkers. Joseph realises there is but one option left. He invites the unbeaten giants of Zeedijk to descend from their throne so he can, once and for all, show the Gerritse family his mettle. With his older brother Ruben, he drums up some friends from the neighbourhood, including Dumb Öpie, the boy who has never spoken a word but is as strong as an ox, so no one comments on that, and with their fists and jaws clenched, they head towards the old city gate. In front of the fish stalls on Nieuwmarkt, a spectacular fist fight breaks loose. For the first time in their lives, the Gerritse brothers are brought to their knees. Joseph wipes the blood from his knuckles, picks his Fietje up at her parents’ store and together they move in with Ruben and his wife.
Whether it was strategic insight, brute force or good fortune, the victory marks the beginning of a loving relationship. They marry on 1 May 1912 and Joseph’s father finds the young couple a small place to live in the poorest part of the Jewish Quarter. And there, on 13 December 1912, their daughter Rebekka, ‘Lientje’, Brilleslijper first sees the light of day.
The family is penniless but happy. A few lean years later and with a little help from Opa (Grandpa) Jaap, Joseph’s father, they take over a small shop on Nieuwe Kerkstraat, where they move into the apartment above the store with young Lien. While Fietje works in the shop day and night, Joseph helps out in Opa Jaap’s wholesale business. It will take another four years before Fietje’s parents – two squares away but worlds apart – reach out to their daughter. The occasion is the birth of Fietje’s second daughter, Marianne, ‘Janny’, named after her maternal grandmother. Five years later, in the summer of 1921, the long-awaited son, Jacob, ‘Japie’, is born, and the family is complete.
While Joseph and Fietje work around the clock to make ends meet, the Jewish Quarter raises their children. Large families live in long, narrow rooms, with children sleeping underneath the sink or along the skirting board in the hall, so most of their life happens out on the street. Just around the corner from the Brilleslijper home is Royal Theater Carré where Lien and Janny spend hours, staring at the stream of beautifully dressed people who come to see the revue. Further down Jodenbreestraat is the Tip Top Theater, a popular meeting place where silent movies are shown and famous artists like Louis and Heintje Davids perform.
Everyone in the area knows each other; brothers help earn a living, sisters help raise the children and in the streets around the house it always smells of food. From Waterlooplein to Jodenbreestraat, stalls are selling roast chestnuts, fresh fish, hot spices and pickled gherkins. On Fridays, Fietje and other women in the neighbourhood always keep a large pan of soup on the stove for the poor. In the war years of 1914 to 1915, when Belgian refugees turn up in the shop, Fietje gives worried mothers their groceries even if they can’t pay. ‘I’ll write it down,’ she says, sending them away with a smile.
On Friday night the family joins the rest of the Brilleslijper lot in Opa Jaap’s house on Jodenbreestraat. They have chicken soup, play music and act with all the uncles, aunts and cousins – a tradition Joseph, after his father passes away, will continue with his own wife and children.
And so the early childhood of the Brilleslijper children unfolds in the penniless but sheltered surroundings of the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter, in a family full of love and music. But life gets harder as the 1920s progress. Unemployment is on the rise, families run out of food and when Fietje visits her neighbour one Friday, her traditional pan of soup for the poor is nothing but a pot filled with steaming hot water.
The building where they have their shop and their home is sold to a large firm and they are forced to move to Rapenburgerstraat. It is just one block away from their old house, but the loss of her shop weighs heavy on Fietje. On his own, Joseph does not make enough money to pay the rent, and the family moves again, ending up in two small rooms around the corner of Marnixstraat, on the fringes of the Jordaan area. Each morning at the crack of dawn, Fietje and Joseph leave the house together to earn their keep in the fruit and vegetable trade.
In 1925 the tide slowly turns when, to their sorrow, Opa Jaap dies. With the help of his brother Ruben, Joseph takes over the wholesale business and moves his family into a house filled with other family members on Marnixstraat. They live on the first floor, where Janny and Lien get to share a beautiful room together. But the familiar Jewish Quarter feels miles away; the girls miss their old neighbourhood, the people, the familiar Yiddish–Amsterdam sound with its lisped S. Cut off from the Jewish Quarter, the girls begin to understand why the evergrowing stream of Jewish refugees from Russia and Poland stick together in narrow houses the way they do. Around the streets of the Nieuwe Prinsengracht, close to their former shop where many of the Eastern Jews bought fresh fish from Fietje, they form a tight unit – the women wearing headscarves, the men with their long corkscrew curls in black caftans.
The sisters are inseparable and look so much alike that it’s very difficult to tell them apart. They enjoy the freedom offered by their parents’ loving neglect. In the morning, when Joseph and Fietje have left for the market in the dark and Japie is still fast asleep, they get their bicycles out of the shed and pedal to the Olympic Stadium, their shoulders forward, race across Amstelveenseweg and then turn right onto IJsbaanpad. At the wooden footbridge across the railway towards Aalsmeer they must get off because the bridge is too steep and high. They have to brace themselves, push their bicycles up with outstretched arms, squinting so as not to see the rails below.
And there, where the Schinkel river streams into Nieuwe Meer, resting on high piles, is Schinkelbad, an outdoor pool built with wood, filled with city water. All sweaty from cycling and their final climb, they jump into the cold water quickly and always swim just a little too long, so they have to hurry back to make sure Jaap, who they sometimes lovingly call Japie, gets to school on time.
Janny and Lien grow into two beautiful young girls. They are petite and dark, with a straight nose and high cheekbones, eyebrows like fox tails and a wealth of black hair tied low on their neck. At the end of primary school their education is finished; Father and Mother have no money for further studies – and they can do with their help. It doesn’t matter; the sisters are inquisitive and have a sharp eye for the world around them. Amsterdam offers them everything they need to learn.
They help Fietje with the housekeeping, work full time as seamstresses and look after their younger brother. As they grow older, the age difference seems to shrink, but the differences in their nature become more apparent. Lien is spontaneous, outgoing, light-hearted like her father and a dreamer. Janny is down-to-earth, at times reserved, and has a strong will, like her mother.
Lien turns out to have a great talent for music. At a young age she sings in a children’s choir and at Opa Jaap’s soirées she is always at the front of the stage. In her early teens she takes classes at Florrie Rodrigo’s dancing school. Florrie is a Jewish–Portuguese dancer who first made a name for herself in Jean-Louis Pisuisse’s shows and then as an expressionistic dancer in Berlin. She started her dancing school in the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter after fleeing an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany.
Joseph does not think much of his daughter’s frivolous hobby and forbids her to take any more classes. But Joseph’s stubborn genes are stronger than his authority; through Florrie, Lien ends up with the choreographer Lili Green, and around her sixteenth birthday, she secretly starts to take lessons from her. Lili is a pioneer in the world of dance, someone who modernizes the techniques of classical ballet. She sees a serious future as a dancer in store for Lien.
And so, little Lien works as a seamstress during the day, rushes to Lili Green’s studio on Pieter Pauwstraat to practice in the evening and performs in the clubs around Rembrandtplein at night. When yet another morning she returns home at the crack of dawn and she runs into her worried mother on the stairs, Fietje quickly steers Lien to her room before Joseph sees her.
Janny, the younger sister, doesn’t last more than six months at the sewing studio. She is impatient and rebellious, just as she was at school. She calls herself spiritual but not religious. She grew up in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, but never goes to the synagogue. She’s from a family of grocers, but she joins the Zionist organization Hatzair, where most members are children of doctors and lawyers. As soon as she notices people being treated differently, she fiercely protests – inspired, obviously, by the history of her grandparents Gerritse, who didn’t think her father good enough to marry her mother.
After the unsuccessful adventure at the sewing studio, Janny goes through a range of jobs before ending up at a laboratory. With the money she earns at the lab she occasionally takes courses, learns to speak a bit of English, French and German, and takes a first-aid course; something that might ultimately save her and Lien’s life.
She leaves the Zionist movement, because she believes they must fight for a better society for everyone, not to secure the rights of the upper middle class only. She immerses herself in communism, in Marx, in social democratic principles – at home, both of her parents read the socialist newspaper Het Volk – and engages in debate with everyone, on everything. It worries her to see the number of Eastern Europeans and other emigrants in the Jewish Quarter rising, even though it has become increasingly difficult for them to cross the border. Janny tries to convince her father of the brown threat: fascism. Joseph thinks it won’t get that bad, but Janny sees a real danger in the alliance between Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, and when in the summer of 1936, the Spanish Civil War begins, Janny, nineteen years old, becomes an active member of the resistance.
She mainly works for the International Red Aid, who support Dutch volunteers fighting in Spain with various activities. Janny is also a member of the committee Help for Spain, and works with a group of young people living in a community centre on 522 Keizersgracht, who Lien introduced her to – journalist Mik van Gilse, photographers Eva Besnyö and Carel Blazer, and film-maker Joris Ivens. From Amsterdam, Janny contributes by collecting money for bandages and other scarce items, she smuggles an ambulance across the border and helps find homes for the growing number of refugees from Germany. They tell her stories of increasing hatred against Jews and ‘Bolsheviks’. The German defeat in the First World War, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 causing the worldwide crisis that hit Germany hard and the increasingly openly anti-Semitic atmosphere – all these factors have led to the overwhelming victory of Hitler’s Nazi Party, the NSDAP.
The situation in the Netherlands deteriorates as well. The economic downturn reduces many to impoverishment, unemployment rises and Prime Minister Colijn has implemented a tough austerity policy. The Brilleslijper family are facing setbacks at home too: Joseph has had a number of major eye operations and he is not recovering well. Fietje and the three children bring in the money, until Mother too falls ill and ends up in hospital.
There is, however, one light at the end of those troubled thirties: both sisters meet a man who will change their life.
Lien, in the meantime, has moved out, mainly to escape Joseph’s wrath about her dancing activities. Now twenty-four years old, she lives in an artist’s commune with a colourful group of students on Bankastraat in The Hague, the largest Dutch city on the North Sea coast and the seat of parliament, around forty-three miles south of Amsterdam. There is a shared kitchen, a kitty to cover expenses and a blackboard for residents, room numbers and administrative announcements in the hall. When Lientje, owing to a concussion, is bedridden – she fell on her way to dance training – a new tenant brings her a bunch of hand-picked flowers. She is charmed by this tall, blond boy with his blue eyes and cautious smile. His name is Eberhard Rebling, and he is a German musicologist and concert pianist who fled National Socialism and his militarist father in his homeland.
Eberhard in turn is fascinated by this petite dark woman with her sharp tongue. On paper, they could not be more different, and yet they fall deeply in love. They quickly become a pair in music too: as soon as Lien is back on her feet, she teaches dance and performs, accompanied by Eberhard on the piano.
They become friends with other students visiting the house and for nights on end they discuss the ominous political climate in neighbouring countries. Among their friends are Gerrit Kastein, a young doctor, oboist Haakon ...

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