Off the Shelf: Resistance, betrayal and survival

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

If I had to summarize Roxane Van Iperen’s “The Sisters of Auschwitz: The True Story of Two Sisters’ Resistance in the Heart of Nazi Territory” (Harper) in three words they would be resistance, betrayal and survival. Janny and Lien Brilleslijper did the unthinkable: They opened a safe house in the woods of Holland that hid partisans and members of the arts community who were threatened by the Nazi invaders. What made the sanctuary known as the High Nest even more amazing is that the sisters were Jewish. Unfortunately, their betrayal, which came after the Allied invasion, placed them, their family and friends on the last train to Auschwitz. How the sisters helped each other survive makes for riveting, if distressing, reading. 

Although the Brilleslijper family was not rich, the girls had a warm and comfortable childhood with their parents and younger brother, Jacob (known as Japie). Van Iperen notes that while Janny and Lien were good friends and devoted sisters, they had very different temperaments: “Lien is spontaneous, outgoing, light-hearted like her father and a dreamer. Janny is down-to-earth, at times reserved, and has a strong will like her mother.” Although her father believes Lien’s interest in the arts is frivolous, Lien defies him: she becomes a dancer and singer, even though she leaves home to follow her dream. At first, Janny has more difficulty settling on what to do with her life, but becomes involved in politics, originally with the International Red Aid, a group supporting Dutch volunteers who were fighting against the fascists in Spain.

Neither sister married someone Jewish: Janny married Bob Brandes, but was never accepted by his family, who disliked her lower social status and her Jewish background. Lien lived with, and later married, Eberhard Rebling, a German who left his country when the Nazis came into power. When the Germans invaded Holland, both couples worked with the resistance, risking their lives to help those who were in danger. When it become impossible for them to remain in Amsterdam, they found the house known as the High Nest and moved there: going with them were their children, the sisters’ parents and brother, members of the resistance and others who were seeking shelter from the Nazis. 

The last chapters of “The Sisters of Auschwitz” were particularly difficult to read because they discuss in great detail what Janny and Lien faced during their time in detention and in concentration camps. It’s amazing that the sisters survived, although it is heartbreaking to read about their family and friends who perished. In the work’s conclusion, Van Iperen lists all major figures who appeared in the book and tells what happened to them during the war and after (if that information is available). 

Writing this book was a personal experience for Van Iperen, partly because she now lives in the High Nest. She and her family restored the house and invited the children who had hidden there to visit: She notes that those children “are now in their seventies. They came back to the house from various corners of the globe to see the places where they had played during war, and where my children now play in freedom. The desk where this book is written is right above the hatch where all the important papers were hidden when Jew hunters surrounded the house.” As for Van Iperen’s feelings about the Brilleslijper sisters, she writes that “the memory of the war seems to fade, but their fearlessness is now carved into the stone of The High Nest for ever.”