Q&A with writer Claudia Carli on how the discovery of an incredibly rare poëzie album inspired her write her new book, As Long As I Hope to Live.
Like many of her age, 12-year-old Jewish schoolgirl Alida Lopes Dias kept a poëzie album in which her friends wrote poems and affectionate notes.
Alie and her friends are brought touchingly and vividly to life, along with their writings and drawings, in this extraordinary book. Their everyday hopes, pleasures and longings are offset by the constant fear of a knock at the door, a missing friend from class, or a family member taken away. Only six of the 19 in Alie's class would survive the War.
Through her friendship with Alie's sister Gretha and the discovery of this precious album, writer and researcher Claudia Carli embarked upon a years-long mission to trace the girls' lives and preserve their memories in her new book, As Long As I Hope to Live.
1.Can you explain what a poëzie album is and what insight it gives us into Alida Lopes Dias’ life?
A poëzie album is a typical Dutch phenomenon. Every girl between the ages of 6- 14 had one. Even up to the 1990s. After that friendship books became popular. In the poëzie album, one would write little poems, some known and some self-made, some funny, some serious. Then you would paste a poëzie picture next to it. These you can still buy today. They are old-fashioned pictures of animals, flowers, or children. You would ask friends and family to write in it or your teacher at school. The fact that only Jewish school friends and her teacher wrote in it shows that during the time they wrote in her book (1941-1943), Alie was only allowed to see other Jewish people. And that her social life was mostly at (Jewish) school.
2.What made you want to get involved in this project?
Because I knew Alida’s sister Gretha and she did not have any family of her own, they were all murdered during the war, I wanted to tell her story.
3.How did you use the album to write the book?
I tried to make a chapter for every girl and every other person that wrote in it. But for some girls, the only thing that proved they had lived was their name on a person card in the City archives. No pictures, no surviving family, nothing, the only personal thing left was her handwriting in Alida’s album. So I could only use the information I had on them and combine that with the measures against Jews during the war. That way I could see, by the date, the girls wrote in the album, what measures were affecting their daily lives.
4.Apart from the album, how else did you go about researching the lives of Alida Lopes Dias and her friends and family?
I wanted to find out who these girls were, so I started from there. I would look up their names in the City archives, some only signed with just their first name, so I had to find out their last name. Then I would look up where they lived. At first, I didn’t know what school they attended, so searched in old school records.
I knew a lot about Alida from her sister Gretha, but I found out more about Alida’s arrest and how she was deported through all sorts of dossiers in several archives: the Jewish Council, City archives, police records, the Shoah Foundation testimonies, Red Cross archives (for any survivors), German archives, to find out about the German-Jewish refugee girls. I’ve searched in every archive possible. Bit by bit archives were being digitalised that really helped my research. And I have interviewed a lot of elderly people who lived in Amsterdam during the war, or who had been in a camp. This is also related to my current work, as I do school projects on this subject. And best of all: speaking to the four girls that survived.
5.What was life like for Jewish children in Amsterdam during this period? How typical was Alida Lopes Dias’ life?
During the first year of the occupation, things were not that much different, but from 1941 things started to change. Jews were not allowed in any public places like parks, shops, markets, sporting facilities, swimming pools, (or in winter ice-skating on the canals!), theatres, cinemas, the zoo, hospitals, doctors, etc., apart from the ones only for Jews. They had to go to a Jewish school, with Jewish teachers.
Things really changed when they had to wear the star. From then on they could be identified as a Jew and the razzias would start. They were not allowed to meet non-Jewish friends. They had to stay indoors from 6pm till 6am. They were not allowed to stand or sit in front of their own window, on their balcony, or in their garden. All sorts of absurd things just to get Jewish people out of sight, that way they were being isolated from the rest of the world. Alida’s family was a normal, working-class family. They were not rich, did not have any means to escape or go into hiding. They had to comply with all these measures. And they did, not once knowing where it would lead. They were caught in a net that got pulled in tighter every day until they were rounded up and deported.
6.What happened to Alida Lopes Dias and her friends, did any of them survive the Holocaust?
Of all the nineteen friends that wrote in the album, six survived the war. Some just by pure luck or the help of some brave people.
Alida and her mother were arrested one day when their names came up alphabetically. They were sent to a Dutch concentration camp. After a couple of weeks, Alida and her mother were put on an infamous transport, called ‘the children’s transport’. All children from the age of 0-16 had to leave the camp and were told that they would go to a camp more suitable for children. Only one adult could accompany them. They were sent straight to Sobibór, an extermination camp, in a freight train with cattle wagons. On-board there were 613 men, 1,350 women, and 1,051 children between the ages of 0-16, among them 119 toddlers, 123 infants and 55 babies. All children and their parents were gassed upon arrival.
7.How did you first come across the album and what did you feel like when you found such a precious historical document?
Gretha, Alida’s sister who did survive the war, gave it to my stepfather. When he showed it to me I thought I had found a treasure, as I loved all kinds of old things. It was very fragile, and I loved the old-fashioned handwriting and of course recognised a lot of the poems, which were also still in use when I was young. Some poems were self-made and showed how funny they were. Then I noticed that the album dates were only in wartime and that was very remarkable because I have seen albums from other Jewish girls that also contain poems from before the war and by non-Jewish friends. Also, a lot of poems were signed with, ‘your school friend’, or ’classmate’, and only by Jewish girls. So it was a specific group of girls in a specific time in history, and that’s when my search started for the girls.
8.Why does the album offer such a unique perspective into occupied Amsterdam?
Because it was written only between the years 1941 and 1943. Only Jewish friends and family wrote in it. And while some of the poems look like they are just average poems, others some do say things like: ‘…when times get better’, or ‘stay strong’.
9.How important are first-hand accounts like this poëzie album for historians and researchers trying to understand the past?
Very important! It’s in the little things, the average, everyday things, that we get a look into a person’s life. We know how the measures affected the lives of these girls, but when we see on which date the different girls wrote in the album, we can see which measures were taken. For example, some girls who wrote later on in the albums were only in Amsterdam from that date. Jews from outside had to move to Amsterdam from January 1942. So you can see that several girls wrote in it from that date because they had only then moved to Amsterdam.
10.What do you hope readers will get from the book?
A favourite phrase to write would be: ‘Forget me not.’ That is what I hope to have achieved, that these girls will never be forgotten. This book gives readers a look, through the girls’ eyes, into wartime Amsterdam and the everyday lives these Jewish girls tried to live. You might say it is the life Anne Frank could have lived had she not been able to go into hiding, since she lived in the same neighbourhood, the Rivierenbuurt in the south of Amsterdam, as did many of the girls in the book. Alida was the same age as her and some of the girls were also deported to Bergen-Belsen, as Anne was.'
As Long As I Hope to Live' is available to buy in all good bookshops.