With impressively clear recall of his childhood and early teens – he was 11 at the outbreak of the war – Lex Lesgever writes of his years on the run and in hiding in Amsterdam and beyond.
It is unusual because Lex was never deported to a death camp, but managed to escape when his family was taken, and then spent about two months on his own, mostly in Amsterdam, sleeping rough in shelters and stairwells, stealing food, trying to keep clean and, occasionally, receiving help from adults. He is caught in the middle of Nazi raids more than once – is hunted, shot at and interrogated at Nazi headquarters – and he grows ever more alert and resilient without losing his sensitivity and humanity. His many lucky and instinctively brilliant escapes are quite breathtaking, and are beautifully described through the eyes of a resourceful but very frightened child. Painting a picture of the unfolding events in Amsterdam during Anne Frank’s time in hiding, Lex’s memoir complements the reading of her diary.
Before recounting his time as a fugitive, Lex Lesgever describes what life in Jewish Amsterdam was like before the war, focusing on the long-established, close-knit, mostly working-class, loosely religious and vibrant life of Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter around the area of Waterlooplein, in which his large family comfortably took part: the Jewish festivals in the streets, the market stalls, the mutual support, the easy living alongside the rest of Amsterdam’s population. This gives a historically interesting prelude and highlights the horrific contrast with the devastating events that entirely destroyed this old way of life within such a short time.
Today’s visitors to Amsterdam are surrounded by greenery. There are trees along the canals, lavishly planted flowerbeds, wild grasses and weeds growing undisturbed between tram rails, and the inhabitants have been permitted to lift paving stones abutting their houses where flowering climbers are now growing around their front doors and up the brick walls.
It wasn’t always so. For about thirty years after the Second World War, Amsterdam was a relatively bare place. The dire need for food and fuel, especially during the Hunger Winter of 1945, had caused many of Amsterdam’s trees and even floorboards to go up in flames.
Amsterdam seemed bare in the 1950s and 1960s, but there was something else as well. People walked with their heads lowered, not looking each other in the eye. Evasion was in the air; people were wary of each other. Bullying was rife. Teachers bullied pupils, children bullied younger or weaker ones, anyone in authority bullied citizens, neighbours bullied each other. I lived there and witnessed it.
Lex Lesgever died on 31 December 2019 at the age of 90. Not until he retired did he write down his experiences during the Second World War. After the memoir was published in the Netherlands he gave interviews on radio and talked in schools about his life. Shortly before his death Lex was filmed at home giving testimony for the new National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam to be opened in 2024. Holocaust education was close to his heart.
I admire Lex’s dedication to teaching the devastating consequences of a regime’s complete loss of moral compass and share his hope that we will ‘never forget’.
Babette Lichtenstein, February 2023
Extracted from Nobody Lives Here by Lex Lesgever