Jeroen stumbles across an old scrapbook while scrounging through his grandmother Helena’s attic. When he askes her about the book, it brings back hard memories of her experiences in Amsterdam during World War II, but she tells him her story anyway. Her father was a police officer working with the Nazis and one of her brothers fought for Hitler, but Helena was still determined to hang onto her friendship with Esther, a Jewish girl living in her apartment building. But when the Nazis began arresting Jews in the Netherlands, Helena and Esther’s friendship was ripped apart. Now, years later, will either of them learn what happened to the other during the dark days of war?
Heuvel’s graphic novels were written in the Netherlands as a resource to teach children about the Holocaust. Originally published by the Anne Frank House, they also include teaching materials to help teachers with their use in the classroom. But even with, or perhaps despite, the educational focus, these two stories are still gripping reads that offer a nuanced, highly researched look at the Holocaust, World War II, and their effects on ordinary people.
The first book, A Family Secret, focuses on Jeroen and his grandmother Helena. Helena tells him the story of her family’s life during the war. Because books about the Holocaust published in the United States so often focus on the Jewish experience, it is a nice change of pace to read about a non-Jewish family. It gives readers a wider view of what happened in the Nazi-ruled countries during that time. Helena’s family was torn in their loyalty towards Hitler. One brother wanted very much to join up and fight for him, but her other brother worked for the Resistance. Her father, a policeman, felt that he was only following orders as he helped round up the Jews in Amsterdam, but even he faced a crisis of conscience at a critical point. Heuvel also has Helena tell about her aunt, uncle, and cousin who lived in Java in the Dutch East Indies. When the Japanese invaded, the Dutch were sent to camps where harsh treatment was the norm. Their tale adds even more depth to the story, bringing to light experiences that younger readers might not be aware of.
Heuvel’s sequel, The Search, is Esther’s story, told to Helena, Jeroen and Esther’s own grandson Daniel….
A Family Secret
Eric Heuvel, Ruud van der Rol, Lies Schippers
Farrar Straus Giroux, October 2009