DANCING WITH THE ENEMY: MY FAMILY’S HOLOCAUST SECRET
By Paul Glaser
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.95, 299 pages
During a business conference in Krakow in 2002, Paul Glaser, a Dutch businessman, reluctantly joined his colleagues in a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In a display of confiscated luggage, “a large brown suitcase … glued [him] to the spot.” The suitcase was from the Netherlands and the label attached read “Glaser” in large letters. The suitcase gave Mr. Glaser the impetus to reveal his family’s secret, that his origins were Jewish and that his aunt, Rosie, had led one of the most extraordinary lives of the 20th century.
Paul Glaser had grown up as a strict Catholic. He knew his mother came from a Catholic family, but about his father’s background he knew nothing. His research ultimately led him to Sweden and his father’s sister, Rosa Glaser.
Rosie was born in 1914 of Dutch parents in the German town of Cleves near the Dutch border. Rosie knew she was Jewish, but she and her younger brother, John, grew up in a secular household. She was pretty, independent, lively and passionate about dance. By the time she was 25, she had taught ballroom dancing all over Europe and had an active love life.
Rosie’s first love was killed in a plane crash; she married (and divorced) Leo, the owner of the dancing school where she taught; she had an affair with a charming, irresponsible young man and, by 1942, she was engaged to a Swiss businessman she met in one of her classes.
After the Germans marched into the Netherlands, Jews were no longer allowed “to eat in restaurants, visit hotels, go to the cinema, walk along the beach, take a stroll in the park” or to travel. Rosie refused to wear the yellow star identifying her as a Jew, or to honor the new restrictions. Forced to give up the dancing school she had started after her separation from Leo, she opened a secret school in her parents’ attic.
She was betrayed twice, once by her ex-husband and once by her lover, and sent to prison and to two concentration camps in Holland. Thanks to her straightforward nature, her ability to dance and sing for prisoners and guards, and her fluent German, she worked as a nurse, secretary and model for garments made by inmates for potential buyers. She seduced the Dutch SS officer in charge of prisoners’ destinies at Camp Westerbork and spent “relaxed and cozy evenings” with him.
Rosie was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, where she was assigned to the Experiment Barracks. After undergoing a series of medical experiments, including painful sterilization and typhoid injections, she refused to volunteer for further experiments. She was sent to Birkenau extermination camp “to accompany and reassure the prisoners before they went for a so-called shower” and then “to drag the still warm-corpses outside.”
After six weeks, she marched up to the group leader and spoke to him in German, telling him she wanted to be transferred to the factory where shells and grenades were manufactured.
Her luck held out; she soon was given an administrative job in the factory’s office.
Rosie offered to play the piano and dance for the SS officers’ evening get-togethers. She suggested teaching the officers the latest dance steps and became her boss’ mistress, “a little love in the midst of despair, in that factory of death, that demonic enterprise.”
Rosie survived Birkenau and the death march west away from the advancing Russian army. She was rescued by the Swedish Red Cross, married a Swede and started a new life, disgusted by the way she and her family had been treated by the Dutch, noting that the “proportion of Jews murdered in the Netherlands was higher than in any of its neighboring countries, including Germany… . I was unlucky not because I had been born Jewish, but because I had been born Dutch.”
Paul, who “had always thought there had been much resistance during the war, that the Dutch government had done as much as possible for its oppressed citizens,” was shocked to discover that “many of my fellow citizens participated and profited. There was more betrayal than resistance.”
In writing “Dancing with the Enemy,” Mr. Glaser’s sources were Rosie’s diary, her letters, photos and old films, and a variety of other documents, including poems, songs and official reports from the Dutch State Police. He interviewed his mother, cousins and Rosie herself. The book is divided into chapters alternating between first-person accounts by Rosie of her life and by Paul as he uncovers his Jewish background. Unfortunately, the writing in “Dancing with the Enemy” is not as good as the riveting story. Rosie’s and Paul’s voices are not distinct. Without a bibliography, it’s impossible to tell what is authentic and what is the author’s interpretation of his source materials. No translator is given credit for the English version.
What is undeniable, however, is Rosie’s fearless strength in facing her fate and her refusal to become a victim. She refers little to the brutality she encountered, but frequently mentions the little kindnesses extended by the Germans. The will to survive is powerful indeed.