BETWEEN 1940 and 1945, over 100,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands and murdered. Of these, 18,000 were children.
A few years ago, Dutch historian Guus Luijters was writing a book about the Jewish, Roma and Sinti children killed during the German occupation of the Netherlands and came across the name of Sientje Abram, a nine-year-old girl from Amsterdam, but he could find out nothing about her.
Everyone who had ever known her was also murdered by the nazis. And, unlike Anne Frank, she did not keep a diary. The only proof that Sientje Abram ever existed is the paperwork left by the nazis who killed her.
Determined to memorialise the short life of this little girl, Luijters began an imaginary conversation with her, asking her questions and writing down her replies as little chatty poems. The result is Song of Stars (Smokestack, £8.99, translated by Marian de Vooght), an extraordinary book about childhood, fascism and public memory.
At first most of the poems are spoken by Sientje. “Me my name is Sientje/but when I’m older/I’ll be Sina/or maybe Sien/who knows because who/can know his later/name I can’t.”
She lives on Rapenburgerstraat, in the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, with her parents Abraham and Mientje and her three older brothers Isak, Mozes and Aron. Her father is a shoemaker and a grave-digger for the local synagogue. Sientje spends most of her life playing on the street. This is the only world that she knows.
“The market is around the corner/with swans nuts whistles/and chunks of nougat praised/
in song on the bridges swans/hang from their feet on/the line and jumped-out/fish still heave breath ... My skipping rope beats/on the cobbles I jump and sing/the songs you sing when/skipping with your rope.”
But there are bewildering changes in her world that Sientje cannot understand.
“All of us wear a big star/now on our jackets/the whole street is looking/yellow except the little ones/they cry and they whimper/they too want such a star but/it isn’t yet their turn/My father doesn’t like/our star my mother wants/to stay inside but I do/think it’s nice my brother/fancies he’s a sheriff/shooting bandits/I am just a star.”
As the lives of Sientje and her family become more circumscribed, she has less and less space in which to tell her story, which ends when she takes her first and only train journey. “Walked from the train to/a camp where we got food/and slept in high beds/I dreamed of a land far/away where clouds/drove pain along the sky/tomorrow another train leaves.”
There was nothing remarkable about Sientje. But that is the point of the book. She was one of two million children murdered in nazi-occupied Europe. Her story is theirs and their story is hers. The last 10 pages of the book contain a list of the names of the 331 children from Sientje’s street who were murdered by the nazis. As Sientje’s voice falls into silence, Luijters’s unanswered questions become more painful.
“Little Sientje did she/hear Bach see the sea... Could she cycle swim play checkers/did she favour chicory or/kale I cannot even find/her school she is lost/vanished gone her pencil/and her slate her name erased/her skates never found ...”
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