In 1997, Manus de Groot, the foreman of a demolition company, was tearing down a house along Amsterdam's Vrolik Street when he found two bundles of letters hidden in the ceiling of the third-floor bathroom. It struck him that the correspondence must be of some importance since there was so much of it -- 86 letters and postcards, and one telegram. They had all been written in a single year, 1942, by Philip Slier, known to friends and family as Flip, from a forced-labor camp. He was just 18 years old at the time, and his correspondence was all directed to his parents.
De Groot took the letters home that night and read through them, struck by the increasing sense of fear that the young man expressed. Moved by the correspondence, the foreman took them to the Dutch National Institute of War Documentation, where he had once done a job. The only condition he made was that he eventually be told what had happened to the young man and his family, and if there were any survivors.
As the book's publisher and co-annotator, Deborah Slier, states in her introductory remarks to Hidden Letters, this book is de Groot's answer.
Slier annotated Flip's wartime correspondence, and her children's book company, Star Bright Books, has published the work, their first adult title. Slier's interest in this project goes beyond just being a publisher with a book to sell; Flip also happened to be her first cousin.
The publisher came into possession of the letters in 1999. She and her co-annotator Ian Shine then spent seven years researching the story behind the correspondence, tracking down the references Flip made and fully identifying all the people the young man knew or spoke of (the letters were translated by Marion van Binsbergen-Pritchard). The annotators also attempted to recreate the atmosphere in the Netherlands during the German occupation.
"As my explorations widened and deepened," writes Slier, "Flip's world gradually came into focus. Once I had photographs, documents and local knowledge, it became easier to understand the conditions under which Flip was living in camp, to understand his fears, and above all, to appreciate his spirit, courage, optimism and generosity."
Flip's father and Slier's father were brothers, both born in Amsterdam. In 1922, Slier's father emigrated to South Africa. She notes in her introduction that she remembers the day in 1940 when she came home from school to find her mother in tears because the Germans had invaded the Netherlands. At war's end, a letter came to South Africa saying that all of the Slier brothers and sister had died in camps, and their mother had died in Westerbork -- the infamous transit camp in the Netherlands. That was the only time the publisher said that she ever saw her father cry.
The German invasion took place on May 10, 1940, and Slier says that for the next year, life on Vrolik Street remained pretty much as it had always been. The Nazis tightened their grip so slowly and cleverly, she suggests, that the attitude toward the Jews did not seem particularly hostile.
According to the publisher, the German policy in the Netherlands was an effort to fortify the coast against an Allied invasion, integrate the country into the greater Reich, steal whatever they could, put the Dutch to work as slave laborers and purge the country of its Jews. "By 1942," she writes, "Jews were prohibited from almost all types of work. Once they were unemployed, they were sent to one of about 50 work camps set up throughout the Netherlands, which were, in reality, holding pens. In the spring of 1942, at age 18, Flip was one of 7,000 Jews sent to a Dutch work camp. From there he wrote to friends and family almost daily, and his letters now provide [an] eyewitness account of life in camp Molengoot."
Flip was 17 at the time of the invasion, working as an apprentice typesetter for the Algemeen Handelsblad, a daily newspaper where his father was also employed. In the little bio included in the book, it states that he was just about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighed 156 pounds, had black hair and gray eyes. "He was a good-natured, gregarious young man who was described by his friend Karel van der Schaarf as brutaal -- that is, audacious." He was also a dedicated photographer, and, we are told, many of the photos of family members and friends spread throughout this large, ultimately tragic, scrapbook-like volume were taken by Flip.
In late April of 1943, the young man received a letter from the Jewish Council, the Judenrat-type group in Amsterdam, ordering him to take a train to Hardensberg, which is 80 miles east of Amsterdam; from there, he walked to the Molengoot camp.
In these chatty letters to his parents, Flip tries to be upbeat, and generally he succeeds, but there always comes that moment when reality breaks in. In an early one, he makes reference to a relative and says that, if he had to do the kind of work Flip and his friends are doing at the camp, even for one day, "he would collapse. Let him stay in A[msterdam]. It is no joke here."
Then Flip immediately returns to his cheery tone: "But again I will get through it. If anything happens here, I will be gone in no time."
And he held to his word. When the possibility arose of the camp being evacuated, Flip escaped. By then, he knew that certain members of his family had died in Auschwitz, and he understood what his fate might be.
Hidden for a Time
He got to Amsterdam and was offered a place to hide. He occasionally saw friends, and was near enough to see his family now and again. By then, he had died his hair and had false papers.
But on March 3, 1943, Flip was arrested at Amsterdam Central Station and taken to Vught, another wretched camp in Holland. It is reported that Flip never recovered from this experience.
From Vught, he was sent to Sobibor in Poland, where he was murdered.
More than 300 photographs, maps and documents illustrate this sad but compulsively readable, coffee-table-sized volume. Because this is an Amsterdam story, Anne Frank is evoked, but in this instance, the comparison is not disproportionate. Flip's extraordinary spirit and the irrepressible nature of his personality come directly through his 86 pieces of correspondence. When you read them, you touch -- and are touched by -- an astonishing individual.
As for his many relatives, there were 56 members of the Slier family living in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe before the outbreak of the war (this discounts the South African Sliers, of course).
Of these, six survived.