New book tells story of incredible courage shown by two Dutch Jewish sisters during World War II

Author Roxanne Van Iperen
cover of "The Sisters of Auschwitz"

Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN In early August we received an email from a publicist for HarperCollins by the name of Rebecca Silver, who’s sent us interesting books to consider reviewing in the past.
Here’s how Rebecca’s email read:

Hi Bernie,
Roxane van Iperen did not know what she would eventually uncover in her home after she moved in, but later discovered it was once known as the High Nest and became enthralled with the inspiring story of its former occupants. As she unearthed the history behind her own walls, she learned it was a safehouse for Jews in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. From then on, van Iperen was determined to explore its hidden corners and found she had unprecedented access to two sisters’ personal archives to create this remarkable work of narrative non-fiction.
The High Nest was one of Holland’s most daring rescue operations conducted by Jews for Jews. Through her excavation, she learned the story of two sisters, Janny and Lien Brilleslijper, who joined the Dutch Resistance, helped save dozens of lives, were captured by the Nazis, and ultimately survived the Holocaust. Through renovating her home, the sisters’ ingenuity and drive to survive was exposed by double walls, secret doors, and walled-off annexes that were so well concealed they were left undetected for decades.
Originally published in The Netherlands as The High Nest, the book was awarded the 2019 Opzij Literature Prize, an annual Dutch award given to female authors whose work has contributed to the emancipation, evolution, and awareness of women. Janny and Lien’s story is a remarkable story of resistance, strength, and determination — one you must read to believe.
All the best,
Rebecca

Included with Rebecca’s email was the following synopsis of the book: Eight months after Germany’s invasion of Poland, the Nazis roll into The Netherlands, expanding their reign of brutality to the Dutch. But by the Winter of 1943, resistance is growing. Among those fighting their brutal Nazi occupiers are two Jewish sisters, Janny and Lien Brilleslijper from Amsterdam. Risking arrest and death, the sisters help save others, sheltering them in a clandestine safehouse in the woods, they called “The High Nest.”
This secret refuge would become one of the most important Jewish safehouses in the country, serving as a hiding place and underground center for resistance partisans as well as artists condemned by Hitler. From The High Nest, an underground web of artists arises, giving hope and light to those living in terror in Holland as they begin to restore the dazzling pre-war life of Amsterdam and The Hague.
When the house and its occupants are eventually betrayed, the most terrifying time of the sisters’ lives begins. As Allied troops close in, the Brilleslijper family are rushed onto the last train to Auschwitz, along with Anne Frank and her family. The journey will bring Janny and Lien close to Anne and her older sister Margot. The days ahead will test the sisters beyond human imagination as they are stripped of everything but their courage, their resilience, and their love for each other.
Based on meticulous research and unprecedented access to the Brilleslijpers’ personal archives of memoirs and photos, The Sisters of Auschwitz is a long-overdue homage to two young women’s heroism and moral bravery—and a reminder of the power each of us has to change the world.
Author bio: Roxane van Iperen is a Dutch writer and lawyer who resides in the countryside east of Amsterdam, in a home known as “The High Nest” which was once the center for one of Holland’s most daring rescue operations conducted by Jews for Jews. She was shortlisted for the biggest public prize in Holland, NS Publieksprijs’ Book of the Year.

Now for my review of “The Sisters of Auschwitz”: The information I’ve quoted verbatim from Rebecca Silver’s email gives as complete an idea what the book is about as one might like. The question with which I want to deal is whether I would recommend this book.
It was a year ago precisely that I wrote about a book that was also based on documents that had been found hidden for years and which opened up an entirely different perspective on certain facets of the Second World War. That book was titled “The S.S. Officer’s Armchair – Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi”. (You can read my review by entering the word “armchair” on our website when you click on “search archives”.)

Of course, there’s a world of difference in reading about a hitherto undisclosed account of what life was like for an S.S officer in contrast with the lives of two Jewish sisters (and their families), but the comparison is fair to make because, in both cases, through a combination of luck and great diligence, the authors of the two respective books were able to piece together their subjects’ lives.
As I made my way through “The Sisters of Auschwitz”, knowing that the two sisters who are at the heart of this book actually survived Auschwitz did not detract from the suspense that the author builds in telling the story. Every Holocaust survivor has their own unique story to tell, but it’s in the telling of the story that the great books separate themselves from the more mediocre ones. And, as is evidenced by author Roxanne van Iperen having been shortlisted for Holland’s most prestigious literary award, this book is not just a fine piece of reporting what the author discovered, it’s very wonderfully written.
Rebecca Silver’s email tells you about as much as you need to know about the story that was unearthed by van Iperen’s having had the good fortune to have lived in the house - the “High Nest”, which became the hiding place for Janny and Lien Brilleslijper, along with a great many other Jews, for a good part of World War II. What the author also does so well is describe the terrible fate that befell so many of Holland’s Jews during the Holocaust, when almost 75% of the Jewish population was exterminated, either by being murdered in Holland, sent to labour camps where they perished from exhaustion and hunger, or finally were gassed in death camps, particularly Auschwitz.
I’ve read before how so many Dutch citizens cooperated fully with the Nazis. It still comes as a shock to contemplate that fact because we’ve come to regard Holland as such a liberal state, which for the longest time was thought of as a mecca for those in pursuit of sex and drugs. But when you realize that 76,000 Dutch Jews were sent to their deaths, in no small part because so few Dutch gentiles were willing to come to their aid, it certainly leaves a different impression of the Dutch for Jews who might have thought of the Dutch as being active resisters to the Nazis. Sure, there were many brave souls in the Dutch resistance, but the Nazis were as comfortable in Holland as any Western European country, where they found many Dutch who were all too willing not only to work for the Nazi regime, but who were as cruel as many Nazis in carrying out their duties.
That’s not the major theme of “The Sisters of Auschwitz”, but as you read of Janny and Lien’s constant worry about being betrayed during the fairly long period in which they were able to avoid being detected by Nazi hunters, who were primarily Dutch citizens - zealous in their pursuit of Jews, it’s hard not to wonder whether there was a much deeper anti-Semitism engrained within the Dutch than perhaps we’ve thought.

While the first half of “The Sisters of Auschwitz” deals with Janny and Lien’s being able to hide from the Nazis, also their active involvement in the Dutch resistance, once the storyline moves from Holland to the sisters’ (along with their younger brother and both parents) being transported to Auschwitz, the book becomes nothing less than an outright horror story.
Before Janny was captured, by the way, she was in hiding in Amsterdam, along with her non-Jewish husband, Eberhard, where they were both quite active in the resistance. Once she is captured –and tortured, however, how she manages to endure the horrors that are subsequently thrust upon her is a testament to this woman’s utter resilience. While Lein is brave, nothing compares to Janny’s determination to carry on, no matter how many times you might think to yourself: “Why didn’t she just give up and let herself die?”
Whether it was being starved, beaten, or forced to spend hours naked outside in freezing temperatures, Janny not only managed to endure, her incredible willpower also enabled her to keep Lein alive at the same time – many times when Lein was ready to give up.
What might come as the greatest surprise to readers moreover, is the introduction of the Frank family into the story: father Otto, mother Edith, and sisters Margot and Anne. I was always under the impression that Anne Frank died in Auschwitz, but I was wrong; she died in Bergen Belsen, along with her sister Margot. If the details given in “The Sisters of Auschwitz” are accurate, the fact that Margot and Anne even made it as far as Bergen Belsen after having been in Auschwitz is largely due to the care that was given to both of them by Janny and Lein when both Frank sisters were suffering from typhus in Auschwitz.
As much as this book is a compelling read, I admit that I had a hard time with the many foreign names in the book. There are so many different characters introduced – and that is largely a reflection of just how many different Jews the two sisters were able to hide in the “High Nest” at one time or another, that it became quite confusing for me, as did the names of the sisters’ children. Still, I’m sure that if you concentrate on trying to remember who is who (and I’m terrible at that), it will all come together for you.
Just as reading “The S.S. Officer’s Armchair”, which was published in 2020, enabled an entirely new understanding of what life must have been like for an ordinary Nazi official – 75 years after that particular individual likely died, reading “The Sisters of Auschwitz” also opens up an insight into how some Jews were able to endure the tortures inflicted upon by them by the Nazis that, were it not for a quirk of fate, would also have remained undisclosed.
“The Sisters of Auschwitz”
By Roxane van Iperen
320 pages
Published by HarperCollins
Released for sale August 31, 2021
Available on Amazon

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