A Holocaust story of incredible luck, breathtaking bravery and incalculable loss
My Name is Selma: The Remarkable Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter and Ravensbrück Survivor
By Selma van de Perre; translated by Alice Tetley-Paul and Anna Asbury
Scribner, 224 pages, $27
And still the stories keep coming.
At 98, Selma van de Perre has published her first book, a memoir about her activities in the Dutch Resistance and her ordeals at Ravensbrück concentration camp.
It has taken her a long time to be able to look back. Now that she has, the most appropriate response is gratitude – for her survival, her mostly fulfilling postwar life, and the details she adds to our remorselessly accumulating knowledge of the period.
There are no literary flourishes in “My Name is Selma.” This is a book one reads for its story, related with directness and simplicity. Selma’s self-portrait is of a woman of courage and heart, who took great risks and suffered greatly, too — but whose luck, cleverness and resilience saw her through.
“My Name is Selma” is a cousin to Judy Batalion’s recent “The Light of Days,” which focused on the Polish Jewish women in the anti-Nazi resistance. Like many of Batalion’s subjects, Selma Velleman did not look stereotypically Jewish. With her hair dyed blonde, she was able to assume a non-Jewish identity and work as a courier for the resistance. She passed as Margareta van der Kuit, or Marga, and that persona almost certainly saved her life.
Selma was just 17 and living in Amsterdam when World War II began. Her Jewishness had not mattered much before then; her family was not particularly religious, and, like other Dutch Jews, they were integrated into the fabric of Dutch society.
In 1936, Selma reports, German Jews began fleeing to the Netherlands. (Anne Frank, the most famous, had arrived two years earlier.) But after the 1940 Nazi invasion, anti-Jewish restrictions multiplied, random acts of violence instilled terror, and the deportations began.
Selma’s close, loving, perpetually nomadic family dispersed. One brother served in a medical unit of the Dutch military; another became a ship engineer. Selma’s father, an actor whose talents she may have inherited, was sent to a work camp. Her mother and younger sister went into hiding. There was space only for two, leaving Selma, who had barely escaped deportation to Poland, on her own.
Thus began an itinerant, often solitary existence. “I was strong-willed and decisive,” she writes. Merely hiding, with its uncertain guarantee of safety, did not suit her. Helped by resistance members, she joined their ranks, taking on increasingly challenging missions.
With breathtaking audacity, she traveled through the Netherlands, Belgium and France carrying illegal newsletters, money and false identity cards. At one point, she submitted to a German officer’s caresses to steal his papers. Another time she waltzed coolly into the German headquarters in Paris, smiling and flirting, to exchange envelopes with a contact there.
She repeatedly relied on her instincts to skirt disaster. “I didn’t allow the fear to overwhelm me – the desire to thwart the Nazis and help people in danger was stronger,” she writes. The costs included stomach aches and a traumatizing state of constant vigilance.
One day, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, she was arrested. A fellow resister, she later learned, gave up others to save her life. From prison, she was sent to Camp Vught, a Nazi transit camp in the Netherlands, where she helped sabotage gas masks. Then came another transport, to Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp in northern Germany that would make Vught seem “like a vacation resort.”
More luck along the way: She hid from the transport long enough to end up in the final, less crowded cattle car, with women who had taken food from the camp kitchen. She was tasked with portioning it out. During the trip, she wrote a note on toilet paper to her best friend, Greet, and pushed it through a chink in the train. Amazingly, it got to her friend. Dated Sept. 6, 1944, it supplies the memoir’s prologue.
Ravensbrück was harrowing, a sudden hell. As Marga, not knowing whom she could trust, she was tight-lipped about her backstory, never betraying that she was Jewish. Though starving, she hoarded enough bread to purchase long johns as protection against the killing cold. At least twice, when ill, she was beaten into unconsciousness. She managed to secure secretarial work at the Siemens armaments factory, a reprieve from the worst of the cold and cruelty. Holding on to hope, she guarded a blue cardigan knitted by her mother and a fountain pen cherished by her father.
Liberation came even before peace through the diplomatic efforts of Count Folke Bernadotte, vice president of the Swedish Red Cross. Selma and other camp survivors were whisked off to Sweden, where they were showered with gifts and kindness. She revealed her Jewish identity and discovered that her brothers were alive in England. After a return visit to the Netherlands, she joined them there, leaving a romance behind.
It comes as a relief to learn that, in the immediate aftermath of war, Selma was able to reclaim some of her stolen youth, indulging in light-hearted fun with friends and boyfriends. In London, she eventually got an office job for the Dutch section of the BBC, where she met Hugo van de Perre, a Belgian journalist. They were married, happily and had a son. After her husband’s 1979 death, she, too, worked as a journalist for Dutch and Belgian television and newspapers.
But the war years kept encroaching. She stayed in touch with resistance friends and testified for the colleague who had saved her at the cost of betraying others. In 1983, she received the Dutch Resistance Commemorative Cross. She never forgot her mother, father and sister – all, it turns out, murdered by the Nazis. The loss is “a devastating hole inside me that will never heal,” she writes, and this late-life memoir is dedicated to them.
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein