WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures


Hidden Letters
Annotated by Deborah Slier and Ian Shine
Translated by Marion van Binsbergen-Pritchard.
Star Bright Books, 2008, 200 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-88773-488-2

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    Tuesday Evening 13 July ‘42 — Pa and Ma, I have a sense that something is going to happen soon. Will it last another winter? It seems almost impossible to me. Thousands and thousands are dying. But we have to keep our courage up. (p. 77)
    3 Aug. 1942 — [Monday] Pa and Ma, it broke my heart to see these oldsters plodding along. Some of them have heart trouble and varicose veins. There is no light work on the moor, and they get no time to catch their breath. We have already decided that tomorrow we will dig a ditch for them. (p. 96)

Hidden Letters is the real-life story of 18-year-old Philip “Flip” Slier who was imprisoned in a forced labor camp in Holland during World War II. Flip’s experiences are told through the letters to his parents, letters which were discovered in 1997 in the ceiling of a building being demolished in Amsterdam. From April 25 until September 14, 1942, Flip Slier regularly wrote to his parents from Molengoot forced labor camp sixty miles from Amsterdam. Flip tells about camp procedures and his hard work. He shares how he manages to procure additional food from Gentiles whose farms bordered the camp and how he stays healthy in a very harsh environment. Flip acknowledges his blessings, including the support of many people, Jews and Gentiles, who help him meet his physical and emotional needs during his imprisonment.

The eighty-six letters, postcards, and a telegram around which this book is built offer an eyewitness account of a Jewish teen’s life in Nazi-occupied Holland. The annotators support Flip’s saga with extensive notes, annotations, and over 300 hundred photographs, maps, and documents that situate his experiences within the larger context of World War II. The letters were translated from Dutch by Marion van Binsbergen-Pritchard who lived in Holland during the war and received a Yad Vashem Medal for rescuing about 150 Jews, mostly children.

This book is filled with many little known facts, and gives a new perspective on Holland under Nazi occupation. Similar to The Diary of Anne Frank, Hidden Letters will resonate with teen readers because of Flip’s age. Readers will identify closely with his experiences which can help them comprehend and connect to the specifics of Flip and his family’s persecution with the enormity of genocide. Hidden Letters offers readers the opportunity to take multiple stances along the aesthetic and efferent continuum. They can focus on Flip’s letters, which provide lived-through experiences of a Jewish teen’s life in a Nazi work camp. They can also learn facts about this period in history by examining the primary source documents that support the information found in the letters. Unlike a textbook that pre-digests information and transmits it to readers secondhand, students can make their own interpretations and judgments regarding the information presented in primary sources. The letters and documents in this book provide thought-provoking perspectives for youth to consider.

Transacting with primary sources encourages teen readers to reflect and make inferences. Flip reports hearing singer Harry Pos at Molengoot who often sang on the Dutch Labor Party radio station. A sidenote in Hidden Letters says: “A survivor who was in the Blechhammer Camp, a sub-camp of Auschwitz, watched three Jews being hanged for a minor misdemeanor: ‘We all had to watch… Later in the evening we had to go to a concert as usual and listen as Harry Pos stood and sang, while outside the bodies dangled”’ (p. 38). This entry reflects the irony of Flip and his fellow inmates being “entertained” with Jewish songs while incarcerated for being Jews.

A testimony from Sobibor Extermination Camp survivor Esther Terner-Raab reported that an SS officer smuggled extra bread for Jewish workers in the camp and even provided her with pair of shoes before he requested a transfer (p. 150). This excerpt from the letter (below) from Edith Stein [a Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a nun and later a saint] was written to Pope Pius XI:

    …We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church if the silence continues any longer. We are convinced that this silence will not be in the long run to purchase peace with the present German government. For the time being, the fight against Catholicism will be conducted quietly and less brutally than against Jewry, but no less systematically (p.95).

What inferences can readers make about people’s treatment of one another during the war? What are the devastating effects of persecution for both persecuted and persecutors? What is the interplay between politics, religion, and morality during war times?

Reading an informational text can build background knowledge that helps readers understand and question novels as well as informational texts. Flip’s letters are fascinating reading; they are both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Youth will identify with Flip’s youthful spirit, camaraderie with his fellow inmates, and his attraction to a farmer’s daughter. They will find him to be a sympathetic character, and their hearts will be broken to learn that neither Flip nor his parents survived the Holocaust. In fact, nearly all of Flip’s extended family was murdered by the Nazis. Flip’s Hidden Letters provide a first-hand account of this tragic period in human history told from a young person’s point of view.

Pairing this book with Shoah novels can create an opportunity for readers’ hearts and minds to be touched, awakened, and activated to work to end the unconscionable crime of genocide forever. Hidden Letters can also be paired with other informational books that share the Holocaust experience from the perspective of youth: The Beautiful Days of My Youth: My Nine Months in Auschwitz and Plaszow by Ana Novac (1997), Ben’s Story: Holocaust Letters with Selections from the Dutch Underground Press by Benjamin Wessels (1998), The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender (1997), The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition by Anne Frank, edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, translated by Susan Massotty (1997), Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (2005), I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton Jackson (1999), Lonek’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy’s Escape to Freedom by Dorit Bader Whiteman (2005), or Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren (2002).

Judi Moreillon
Texas Woman’s University, Denton, Texas

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