An unhappy revelation

Paul Glaser hesitantly takes steps to uncover the troubling truth that his father was a Jew.

Rosie Glaser (photo credit: COURTESY PAUL GLASER)
Rosie Glaser
(photo credit: COURTESY PAUL GLASER)
As the last generation of Holocaust survivors ages and passes on, every diary, every memoir, and every book of remembrance takes on the weight of crucial testimony. Yet, in spite of the fact that each story is unique in its particular trajectory of persecution, isolation and devastation, it is rare, at this point, to come upon a work that offers a different angle, an unusual variation on the familiar theme. In this sense, “Dancing with the Enemy,” by Paul Glaser, a 67-year-old manager of health-care and educational institutions, is something of an exception.
The book first appeared in Dutch in 2010 under the name “Tante Roosje,” with Verbum Publishing, a Dutch publishing house that specializes in the publication of Holocaust memoirs, and it has recently come out in English translation (by Brian Doyle Du- Breuil). What makes “Dancing with the Enemy” particularly intriguing is that it is in fact two stories, or rather, two narratives, whose parallel strands combine to create a complex, sobering, conclusion.
Glaser grew up in Holland believing that he came from a long line of Catholics. It was only as an adult that he was able to add up the clues and ask the questions that led him to make the surprising discovery that his father was a Jew. The revelation was not a happy one. From his father (who insisted that his parents had died of natural causes rather than reveal that they were murdered in Auschwitz) to his friends and acquaintances (of which he admits that “I’d been part of many discussions in which Jews were spoken of negatively”), the general consensus was that being partially Jewish was nothing to be proud of. And so he kept the news to himself.
“Wouldn't it be better to just leave things be, to forget my discovery?” He asks, “Should I tell my brothers and sisters? My parents had concealed our Jewish background for a reason.”
And then, in 1994, he received a call from a stranger telling him that a collection of letters written by a Jewish woman by the name of Rosie Glaser had come into his possession. The caller explained that he and his wife volunteered at a local nursing home, and had befriended Magda Coljee, an elderly patient who had no living relatives. When, after her death, the manager requested that they go through the contents of her desk, they learned of Coljee’s wartime friendship with Rosie and her mother. Coljee had taken in the two women as boarders at the start of the war, and continued to send them food parcels after they were arrested and imprisoned in Westerbork. In an effort to return Rosie’s letters to her family, the couple made attempts to seek out her relatives by phone.
When they called Glaser, he recalled that Rosie was the name of his father’s estranged sister in Sweden. He agreed to meet the caller and after reading the letters, he had no doubt that they had been written by his aunt.
Glaser was both troubled enough and intrigued enough to seek her out. When they met, he had a chance to hear her story firsthand. After she died in 2000, he traveled to Sweden to clear out her apartment, where he found her diary and over 50 photo albums filled with a pictorial record of her life before the war.
Glaser doesn't explain the process by which he came to write Rosie’s story. Likewise, he doesn't tell us why he decided to write it in Rosie’s first person voice, as if it is she herself who is telling it. It is a risky decision. For not only is he putting himself, a Catholic man, in the shoes of a Jewish woman, but he is taking on the voice of a woman whom he met only once. Add to this the fact that the portrayal comes to the English language reader in translation, and the result is a voice which, though clear and detailed, lacks a certain emotional pathos.
Nonetheless, Rosie Glaser’s story is fascinating. A pretty, vivacious and enterprising dancing teacher, Rosie’s life was a whirlwind of dances, parties, outings, boyfriends and husbands (none of those mentioned in the book are Jewish), when the Nazis came to Holland. Though she was betrayed, on more than one occasion by people she had been closest to, Rosie’s instincts for survival were sharp. Courageous, resourceful, and confident, Rosie had the wits to know who to befriend, who to impress with her talents, and, when the opportunity arose, who to sleep with.
It was these qualities that enabled her to survive Nazi imprisonment, Dutch work camps and, ultimately, Auschwitz, where she volunteered to sing and dance for SS officers in exchange for food. The many photographs, letters and other documents, which appear in the book, give her story an element of poignant authenticity.
As the war was ending, Rosie, who had taken on her ex-husband’s name Crielaars, was mistaken for a Danish woman and handed over to the Swedish Red Cross in a prisoner exchange. Deeply disillusioned with the wartime behavior of the Dutch, Rosie chose to settle in Sweden. She married a Swede, but due to the medical experiments to which she was subjected in Auschwitz, she could never have children. Though she was in contact with Glaser’s father, who survived the war in hiding, sharp disagreements between the siblings led them to sever their relationship.
But Rosie’s story is in fact the back story of Glaser’s story, and as he slowly takes steps to uncover the troubling truth about who he is, the world is suddenly revealed to him in a new way. After his non-Jewish grandmother confirms his suspicions that his father is a Jew (it is not clear if he ever actually converted to Catholicism), he makes a decision “not to make it part of my life.”
And yet, he writes, “deep inside, of course, I couldn't ignore the appalling truth that the majority of Dutch men, women and children with Jewish ancestry were murdered during the war… if I allowed that truth to get to me, I knew it would throw me off balance.” Perhaps it was the need to confront this sense of vertigo that ultimately spurred him to put the story of his aunt’s survival down in words.
Glaser eventually came to terms with his Jewish heritage, but to this day, his sense of confusion cannot be easily resolved. “So am I a Catholic Jew or a Jewish Catholic?” He asks in the afterword of the book.
The question, and those who are compelled to ask it, are one of the many legacies of the Holocaust that will remain with us long after the last of the survivors are gone.
Dancing With The Enemy: My Family’s Holocaust Secret
Paul Glaser
Nan A. Talese
320 pages; $27.95