By Aron Heller, AP
JERUSALEM–Throughout the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, and while incarcerated in two prison camps, Mirjam Bolle wrote letters to her fiance that she never sent but hoped to share with him after the war. Yet when the two ultimately reunited she decided to leave the past behind and stashed them away. Now, decades later, she has published them as a memoir.
The result is “Letters Never Sent,” 18 months of diary entries and observations that experts say shed new light on one of the Holocaust’s most controversial legacies — the Judenrat, or Jewish Councils — the dark bureaucracy of intermediaries responsible for implementing Nazi orders.
They were often despised by fellow Jews as traitors, but Bolle, still lively at 98 years old, defends their actions. She says the Judenrat had little choice and yet managed to lessen the blow to the community. As a secretary for the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, she was privy to their inner workings and says they managed to save lives by staving off Nazi deportation orders.
“The Germans decided that there would be a Judenrat, we had nothing to do with that,” Bolle said in the living room of her meticulously kept old stone home in Jerusalem, where she has lived alone since her husband’s death in 1992. “The Germans did what they wanted to do. I always say that if the war had ended after two years, no one would have had a problem with the Judenrat.”
With time, however, Bolle believes they outlived their usefulness. The nearly 1,200 Jewish councils continued to enjoy preferential treatment, even as they devolved into an administrative body for the Nazis’ so-called “Final Solution,” the planned extermination of the Jewish people. For some, the burden was too great to bear. Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw Ghetto Judenrat, killed himself after he was forced to deport Jews to their deaths.
Bolle’s role was more limited. She took dictations, dispatched letters and was sitting in on discussions when the first mention was made of the Nazi system of concentration camps.
“It was a different world … You cannot judge what people did,” she said. “People who are living a relatively normal life just cannot imagine.”
Six million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, wiping out a third of the world Jewry. Today, fewer than 190,000 elderly survivors remain in Israel. Bolle is among the oldest.
Israel’s main Holocaust memorial day is in the spring, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — when Jews in the Polish capital launched a brave, but ultimately doomed, attempt to resist the Nazis.
The United Nations has designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the date of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945.
Bolle’s entries began on this date in 1943. Her fiance, Leo Bolle, had left in 1938 to what was then the British Mandate territory of Palestine and she had stayed behind a bit longer to work.
Her letters describe German raids and deportations, the struggles of the Judenrat to postpone them and her own escape from one roundup when a German officer saved her by chaperoning her down the street. She described other soldiers as “wild beasts” and detailed how Jews were shot by German firing squads.
Eventually, she was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, before moving on to Bergen-Belsen, the infamous German camp where fellow Dutch Jew and diarist Anne Frank died.
Bolle managed to smuggle her collected letters out by wrapping them in a shirt, tossing them over the barbed-wire fence out of sight of a Nazi guard and collecting them on the other side. “I did something very foolish,” she said. “If he had seen that, I wouldn’t be here today.”
In one segment, she writes to her fiance that “we’ll need years to talk about everything we’ve been through.”