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Excerpts from Gift of Darkness

The beginning of Gift of Darkness: Growing Up in Occupied Amsterdam (Willow Press, 2015)


Someone I loved once

gave me a box full of darkness

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

—Mary Oliver, The Uses of Sorrow, from Thirst


This is the story of a determined, bright, and fortunate Dutch adolescent who, despite being Jewish, survived the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. (His schoolmate, Anne Frank, did not survive, after her family’s hiding place was betrayed).


This is “The Greeting,” an appendix to Gift of Darkness: Growing Up ion Occupied Amsterdam (Willow Press, 2015):


At lunch in the San Francisco Bay Area, before this project began or was ever mentioned, Robbert told me a little story set in the zoo that was located across the street during part of his childhood in Amsterdam. Telling the story can’t have lasted longer than a few minutes while we looked at the menu, and he related it, as you would expect, from his own point of view.


That evening I kept thinking about the story, imagined it from another perspective, scribbled some words, and gave Robbert a quick draft, which I have included below in slightly shortened form. It was after reading this sketch that he asked whether I would consider eliciting the story of his adolescence under Nazi rule and writing it.


On the savanna we eat together, move as a group, value family, stay even tighter when lion smell warns that to be alone could lead, especially if old or small, to a gash in the neck, gray skin being torn from a rib cage, to a gap in the circle we’re part of, an empty space like a dry water hole, a leafless tree.


We recognize each other by the edge of our ears, the shape of our tusks. We are known by songs that we sing, which include a rumbling too low for you humans to hear; known, too, by the way we hold our heads, the way we push a tree, the way we teach our young, the way we greet one another.


They took all this away from me: a dart in the rump, sudden brief paralysis, separation from the others, a long conveyance by land and then sea, till I ended up in this watery northern city, concentrated with other specimens in what they call a zoological garden. It’s less than paradise. True, the keepers feed us well. Nobody hunts us for sport. We are protected against the insidious climate.


I have everything any elephant could ever want except the savanna, my group of elephants, my freedom. Human families amuse themselves by watching how I eat food that I’d never seen back home, offered by children with hands so tiny and pink, with fingers like twigs, holding peanuts. They come on the warmer weekends, staying in groups as we do.


There is another visitor, a boy who comes alone, as if he had been forgotten when his family moved off to escape a pride of lions or find a stand of trees that would be dense with tender leaves. I see him almost every day, this solitary boy. He talks to me. Other children try, as a mime would, to imitate me, but this boy comes inside my language, listens, answers back.


I’d adopt him if I could, though he lacks the equipment to do what we do. I’d teach him. I’d shade him against the tropical sun. I’d pull branches down so he could eat the nourishing green. I’d show the boy how to locate watering holes, to keep watch for lions, to blow dust to keep away flies. He and I are kept apart by bars as thick as his thigh.


There is trouble in his world. What is wrong, I do not know. Perhaps he is separate from his family, as I from mine. All I know about him is that he talks to me. More than talk. He seems to be able to enter the negative space between thoughts, the flux where consciousness plays prior to speech.


In my eyes, he sees the Serengeti plain. In the boy’s mind, I see pale merchant house facades of brick set on green canals, hear Mendelssohn, sense a solitude that will either kill him or show him a way through to the other side. He stands on the pavement. I extend my trunk. We meet where no one can see us.


One day I hear the hum of planes. Troubles begin. I see, beyond the edge of the zoo, people with stars on their coats. The boy does not come back. It’s as if time stops.


It does not start again until I have felt many winters darken the sky, until the troubles are long forgotten. Everything is normal again. Children are giving me peanuts from bags and pretending to be frightened, as if I were going to pick them up like a young tree.


Then I feel a special presence, near but not yet in view. I know who has come as I knew the skin of a zebra, the sleek frenzy of gazelles, lightning over the mountain. It is the solitary boy. He would be older now. Where has he been? What kinds of troubles have kept him away?


I lift my trunk and disturb the damp air with my joy. Children drop their bags of peanuts. Startled burghers begin to wonder—is their elephant going berserk? No one except me is looking toward the man who now comes, with a child of his own, into sight. It is my long-absent friend. Still trumpeting, I signal the crowd with my trunk to part and let this man come forward. I can tell he is timid, unaccustomed to our elephantine ways of greeting and celebrating someone we have missed.


We say hello as always, his tender hand barely caressing the sensitive tip of my trunk. A father now, he has kept the sense of wonder that I felt in him as a boy.

Available from:


Hasn’t Frank’s lovely “diary” said everything that needs to be said about events in occupied Amsterdam? Well, Robbert’s experience was very different from Anne’s. While her family was forced into early hiding, Robbert, as a social worker, was free to move around the city and witness first-hand what was happening. When the inevitable police raid finally came, he managed to escape, and fleeing the city, he was sent to hide--not with his family but alone, in what amounted to solitary confinement. However, this book is much less about hiding than about Robbert’s ability to watch, as a teenager, events in his native city that were hard even for adults to tolerate.


Why should we care about a story from long ago, no matter how engaging and dramatic? Except for deniers, we have long known that the Nazis did terrible things. Part of the answer is that the Nazis exemplified a general pattern. In its basic elements, as Robbert was keenly aware when we met, this could be the story of a young person in any group that is dehumanized, regarded as inferior, and persecuted.


“Never again” is a righteous slogan. But in the last century and so far in this, persecution and even genocide have not been uncommon, even after 1945. By the time the worst starts to happen, it’s often too late. Our best hope comes from the ability to recognize the early signs, having felt the cost through empathy with a particular person, perhaps a young person.

 This biography represents an experiment initiated with great courage by its main subject, Robbert Van Santen. He could write the facts on his own. What he needed was a friend simply to witness and support his return to difficult feelings and to piece together the arc of his story. Despite his generosity with thousands of facts, he initially and understandably didn’t want to go back into his feelings, but after we created a safe space he wanted to tell his story to a person, not a computer screen.

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