By Len Lear
Mary Fillmore went to Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Holland), in 2001 for a sabbatical from her consulting practice and to get some travel writing done. Little did she know that her stay with a local family would change her life dramatically, produce 13 years of research, a compelling book and a passionate crusade that would take her to countless speaking engagements.
Mary, 68, who says, “It is never too late to publish something you deeply care about,” discussed her book “An Address in Amsterdam,” at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy on Sunday, Feb. 12.
“An Address in Amsterdam,” published by She Writes Press, Berkeley, CA, is about a young Jewish woman who risks her life in the anti-Nazi underground. Initially a naïve 18-year-old falling in love, the fictional Rachel Klein grows up fast after the Nazi invasion hits closer to home. After 18 months working as a messenger for the underground, she pushes her parents to go into hiding, where new adversities and possibilities await them all.
How did the book come about? “In 2001,” Fillmore told us last week, “I discovered (while in Amsterdam) that I was staying inside the Nazi-defined Jewish Quarter, which was a shock to me, especially when I saw a photograph of a roundup happening right in front of our apartment. I realized that the people who had been murdered were literally my neighbors. It brought the Holocaust much closer to me.
“When we returned to Amsterdam the next year, we were staying just a few blocks from the Anne Frank House. After we got to know our landlord, he told us that Jewish people had been hidden in the attic, literally right over our heads. They were last seen fleeing over the rooftops as the Nazis shot at them.”
As a result, Mary could not get the images from her foreign travel out of her head, so she began writing character sketches in early 2002 based on the Jewish people who lived in Amsterdam during World War II, most of whom, like Anne Frank, were murdered in the Holocaust.
“I wanted to know who those hidden people were,” Mary said, “how they came to our attic and much, much more. I felt their presence. Although there would never be exact answers, I wanted to learn as much as I could about people in their circumstances. As I learned more, I began to imagine Rachel Klein and her parents and write about them.”
Fillmore proceeded to spend years with books, histories and memoirs in the Jewish History Museum, Dutch Resistance Museum, libraries and archives in Amsterdam, in Washington’s Holocaust Museum library and at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
“I also listened to people closely and in all spent five periods of about six months in Amsterdam. Walking the canals and looking for addresses, just as my heroine does as a messenger, was also an important part of my research. I had read nothing about the Holocaust except ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ when I began. However, it has been my main interest and commitment ever since I was gripped by the subject in 2001.”
Fillmore finished writing the book in December, 2015, and it was published on Oct. 4, 2016. Since October, she has given more than a dozen talks in libraries, synagogues, churches, a museum, private homes and bookstores. “I have enjoyed every single one because of the opportunity to meet readers and talk with them about issues that matter, especially now.”
Kirkus Reviews, which has been reviewing books for 84 years, chose “An Address in Amsterdam” as one of its “Indie Books of the Month” last March. “I don’t know which is more gratifying,” Fillmore said, “the kind comments from people I already know and respect or reading reviews from strangers.
“People are finding the book uncomfortably relevant to our present moment. Rachel Klein shows so much spunk and determination, but she does have flaws. The single reaction which meant the most was from a Dutch woman whose father was a resistance leader. She liked the book so much that she’s getting copies for her grandchildren in the Netherlands.”
In the course of her research, Fillmore “learned a lot about the questions which interest me most: how did ordinary, well-meaning Gentiles like me allow the Holocaust to happen, and how did the rare people who resisted find the inner strength to do so? By learning about the Holocaust and the resisters, we can recognize our own complacency or despair and see where it can lead — and find the courage to act in our own times.”
Fillmore grew up mostly in segregated Durham, North Carolina, where “I learned my first lessons in collusion, collaboration and resistance.” Now she lives with her partner in Vermont, where she is an enthusiastic supporter of her Senator, Bernie Sanders.
What does Fillmore consider her greatest achievement? “I took on one of the most horrifying and disturbing possible subjects to research and write about, the Holocaust and the evil which produced it. I stuck with the job for 13 years, producing a credible, well-crafted historical novel that speaks to my own time. ‘An Address in Amsterdam’ both sounds the warning about how quickly a civilized society can change and holds up the example of an ordinary woman who takes action, even in peril of her life. I am proud to have done this at all, but especially in my 50s and 60s”.