She wasn't the only one to think as she did. Others I'd met, many others, repeated the same mantra often and, to my mind, inexplicably. "We're not heroes," they'd all say, "and we don't like people saying we are."
Their role in World War II, the most important story of 20th century, was--at least I thought--the greatest Christian story of that time because rescuers leveraged everything, their lives and even the lives of their families, in order to save Jewish people they most enough didn't even know and sometimes, quite frankly, didn't like. The rescuers were heroes, but they wanted no part of that word.
Because they weren't, they told me so, time and time again, even sickeningly. When I went up to Diet Eman after listening to her tell her story in the B. J. Haan Auditorium in the fall of 1991, when I approached this tiny little silver-haired woman and told that if she ever wanted a writer to help her write her story, she looked up at me and told me two things: first, I wasn't the first to ask--six others had already approached her; and second, that it didn't matter anyway because she didn't want a book about her life because she didn't think what she did was anything different from what hundreds of others did. She wasn't a hero.
She was a hero, of course, officially too, honored by the U.S. government, by the Dutch, and even by the nation of Israel, who calls them all "Righteous Gentiles."
No matter. She wasn't a hero.
Yesterday, for the first time in years, I listened to her tell her story again, a story I'd been over time and time again years ago, when, months later, she called me to ask if I'd like to help her. It was a Sunday night, after church, and she called from Grand Rapids, and told me--I was standing at our library in the living room--that I should open up the Psalter Hymnal to a certain hymn and read the second verse, which I did. I don't remember the song or the exact words, but it was something about "telling the children." She told me they'd sung that hymn in church that night and she'd come to the realization, right then and there, that, if no one else, her children should know the story. Would I help her write it?
I did, and it became Things We Couldn't Say.
Yesterday, on my way to Blair, Nebraska, where I told middle school students something of Diet's story, I listened to her tell her story again, 22 years later, and I remembered how often she'd said it, even when I was at her condo in Michigan, my tape recorder humming through the hours of a week-long session in which she tried her best to remember every last shred of the harrowing Resistance work she did during the war: "I'm not anything special. I'm not a hero. I only did what many, many others did."
It wasn't hard for me to think of that assertion as a species of false pride, an odd kind of reverse-action vaingloriousness, dang it! because she was a hero, and there was no denying in and denying it only made it more true. I didn't know how to take that assertion really, so finally I began, simply, to roll my eyes.
Yesterday, all those years later, I think I began to understand better why she maintained--and still would, I'm sure--that she wasn't a hero.
Herman--her Jewish friend, Herman--told her one day at the bank where they worked that the Nazis had given him notice to appear somewhere late at night--at a park maybe--having packed one little suitcase, because the Germans were taking the Jews away for their protection, of course, an act of mercy, they said, because the climate wasn't good for Dutch Jews. It'd become hostile.
Herman knew better. So did Diet. "What must I do?" he asked her.
She told him he simply couldn't go. She told him not to listen. She told him her fiance, Hein Seitsma, had read Mein Kampf and was absolutely sure this little fiendish German madman hated Jews, hated all of them. "Don't you listen to them!" she told her friend Herman.
"Then what'll I do?" he asked her.
"We have friends," she told them. "Hein has lots of friends out in the country, places where you'll be safe."
They honestly thought it would be maybe a year at most and there would be no more war, this mustachiod lunatic would go down to bloody defeat. They were innocents. They were rescuers, resistance fighters, but when it all began they were simply childlike innocents.
The truth is--and I thought about it yesterday as I drove through all those barren fields along the Missouri River--there was, at first, so impossibly much they didn't know and couldn't have.
Who could have guessed--honestly!--that thousands of good people could build death factories--design, construct, and operate entire industries with no other function than to murder millions with purebred German efficiency? Who could have believed that in 1941?
We simply aren't wired to imagine that other human beings--good Lutherans, good Catholics, good souls--could build and operate death factories. And neither could Diet.
It began in a kind of innocence. Herman said Diet was right and he shouldn't show up as the Nazis ordered. But when he got back to her, he said his girlfriend needed a place too, as did his mother and family, and even a few other Jewish friends from Den Haag; so what they began to do at the very outset didn't seem at all like heroism, but rather simply something any right-minded man or woman would do: they'd take care of their friends. That doesn't require heroism.
Diet Eman never considered herself a hero because to her mind, she wasn't. She had no way of knowing the cost of what began with Herman. She had no clue that there was a death place called Dachau, or that her beloved would never return from its horrors.
In the beginning, when they were innocent, they had no idea what they were doing.
But the Nazis exterminated 100,000 of the 140,000 Dutch Jews, a higher percentage than any other occupied country in Europe. Not everyone got into the operation. No matter how innocent their resistance work seemed in 1941, hundreds of thousands didn't, hundreds of thousands looked the other way, turned the other cheek and allowed their neighbors to be slaughtered--and not themselves.
Still, she was wrong: the rescuers were heroes and are heroes. "He who saves one life," the old Jewish proverb says, "saves the world.
But yesterday, so many years later, I came to understand at least some of the things they couldn't say.