“At Night I Dream of Peace” is the collection of diaries a young Jewish girl, Carry Ulreich, wrote during World War II in the occupied Netherlands. Ulreich, who moved to Israel after the war, became Carmela Mass and died in her nineties last year, has a fascinating story to tell: When the transports to the camps began during the war, she and her family (her parents, her older sister and her sister’s fiancé, who organized the hiding place) found refuge with a Catholic family, the Zijlmanses. Until the end of the war, the two families, who hadn’t known each other previously, lived together in a small apartment in Rotterdam.
The Zijlmans family was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1977, but Mass only decided to publish her diaries a few years ago. The book became a best-seller in her native Netherlands in 2016 and was recently translated into Hebrew. As yet, there is no English version.
It’s no surprise that the Dutch embraced the book, which ended well and portrays the “good Holland.” But even without that, readers – particularly those in Israel – will find the book an interesting and significant document.
The young Carry Ulreich documents all the occurrences and news reports they heard starting from December 1941, around a year-and-a-half after the Nazis first occupied the Netherlands, until the end of the war in 1945. Her diary takes the reader on a journey toward already known destruction, yet at the same time documents a miracle that went against the grain and gravity of history.
Comparison with “The Diary of a Young Girl” is of course inevitable – not just for the obvious reasons (Mass herself told a Dutch newspaper in 2016 that her story was “like Anne Frank’s, but with a happy end”), but primarily for historic reasons. Both were Jewish teenagers from middle-class families, writing while in hiding in the center of a major city in the occupied Netherlands. But their backgrounds were quite different: While Frank grew up in a secular family with weak Jewish or Zionist ties, Carry Ulreich, who was born in 1926, came from an observant, Zionist family that was involved with the Jewish community.
As a result, aside from the personal testimony, Carry’s diary testifies to what was happening in the community and what information they were getting from Poland in real time. According to her diary, they knew or had at least heard about the Nazi death camps as early as 1942.
Carry wasn’t a brilliant or charismatic writer like Frank, nor was she rebellious or radical as Frank was. Her writing talent is pretty average, and Carry herself emerges as an introvert with modest ambitions, so it’s hard to find any exceptional literary or poetic value in her diaries.
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The book’s impact actually comes from the opposite direction: As history was threatening to consume her, Carry holds onto her dry, chronological daily reporting, like a ticking metronome that gradually speeds up. Her writing is restrained, sometimes laconic, even when writing about the most personal subjects – as if she was an archivist.
Here and there we see a flash of gentle humor or raging emotion, but these are always in the background. What is important to the author are the minutes she takes of each day’s events, both large and small. These on their own accumulate into a thorough, nerve-racking chronicle of the danger gradually closing in, of ever more stringent decrees, of body and soul on the verge of breaking and the diminishing sweetness of her routine. But at the same time, these all become part of the other story – of the palpable and unique human miracle taking place in the small apartment of refuge.
Naturally, this retrospectively created tension – between the laconism of the storyteller and the historical developments she is confronting (of which the reader has foreknowledge) – is more distinct at the beginning of the book, before the family goes into hiding. It sometimes reaches absurd heights, particularly given Carry’s volunteer work with the Jewish Council that organized the transports, which meant her own deportation was postponed.
So, for example, she writes with restrained pain of the Jews who couldn’t get off the lists gathering under the batons and rifles of the SS men. But just a few days later she can write: “Last Monday I went to school again. It was very nice, because we were only three in the class. It was like a private lesson. Before that I strained my back.”
With the move into hiding in the Zijlmans’ home, the diary takes on a different character. The Zijlmanses are an interesting bunch: the parents, Adriaan and Maria – a bank clerk and housewife, respectively – are devout Catholics who go to church regularly but maintain a bohemian, open atmosphere in their home. Their oldest son, Aad, was drafted into the army (according to Carry, they believed if they were good to others, God would protect their soldier son), but there are three children still at home – daughter Mies and son Bob (the older children), and Canis, who is Carry’s age.
There are periodic tensions and arguments between the families over the housework and other small material matters, but in general the atmosphere is lively and full of affection, fraternity and mutual concern.
Political, philosophical and theological arguments fill the home, and Christian and Jewish holidays are celebrated together. Bob, a flirt, occupies a central role in Carry’s diary and her life – their relationship gets closer until the end of the war (when it emerges that he was active in the resistance, which explains his lengthy absences). In between, the neighborhood in Rotterdam is portrayed under occupation and war, while we also get a picture of daily life in the house.
A lot of small, almost casual reports actually tell thrilling stories: about a search that took place without incident; about the rare instances when Carry and her sister ventured out of the house with some cover story; of the days of hunger and shelling.
According to the introduction, the editors of the original Dutch edition, as well as the translator himself, Simon Suzan, were careful – and rightfully so – not to tinker with the text, so here and there one finds sentences that are confusing.
What is not justified is the way the interesting afterward by Dutch historian Bart Wallet was translated, where the reader is informed that Rotterdam had a “community of some 13 Jews at the beginning of the war,” or that the Jewish Brigade was “a Palestinian-Jewish division in the British Army.” These are small but aggravating errors, especially when no fewer than five people were involved in editing the translation. Nevertheless, the Hebrew translation flows well and is readable.
Will young people read it? You can bet that this depends on the schools and their ability to embrace the universal and multicultural story, along with the Jewish and Zionist narrative. This isn’t a given, especially nowadays, when universal values are considered traitorous and even the memory of the Holocaust is exploited for cheap nationalist propaganda.