Night of the Girondists, or Breaking Point (De Nacht Der Girondijnen)

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Novel by Jacques Presser, 1957

Night of the Girondists is a work of fiction, although both the main character and the events portrayed in the novel bear striking resemblance to the person and experiences of the author, Jacques (or Jacob) Presser. First published in The Netherlands in 1957, Night of the Girondists appeared in English translation the following year. The English translation has also appeared under the title Breaking Point.

As the novel opens, it is mid-1943, and the narrator and main character, Jacques Suasso Henriques, is interned in the penal barracks of the Westerbork transit camp in the east of The Netherlands, where he is frantically attempting to record how he got there, or to make the "figures add up." He has tried to write it all down twice before but without success, and this is to be his final attempt.

In the beginning of his recounted story, it is obvious that Henriques, a secular Dutch Jew of distant Portuguese descent, feels himself more Dutch than Jewish. In fact although Henriques hates the Germans, he also hates the Jews attempting to flee them. He now belongs to the ranks of this accursed people, despite the fact that his mother was a convert to Protestantism (and even applied, unsuccessfully, to the Dutch Nazi Party) and his father had renounced his family's practice of the Jewish faith.

Henriques traces much of what has happened to him—and, more important, what he has become—to his experiences teaching at the Jewish Lyceum in Amsterdam, and in particular to a meeting with Georg Cohn, one of his students. Cohn is the son of the "uncrowned king of Westerbork," the head of the camp's Jewish administration. In early 1943 Georg confided to Henriques that he too hated the Jews but that he knew they were all doomed to a common fate. He then offered his teacher a position with his father at Westerbork: as Georg saw it, the naive and unsuspecting Henriques could shield himself from this fate only by accepting his offer.

Henriques returned to his teaching position in Amsterdam, although each day students went missing and never returned. Following an incident involving a student whose mother had been arrested the night before, Henriques quits his job in disgust and decides to work at Westerbork. He becomes the adjutant to Siegfried Israel Cohn, the "Blond Beast" of Westerbork. As such, he is a member of the Jewish SS (Ordedienst ), the group of men that assists with the transports from Westerbork to Auschwitz and other eastward destinations. His primary responsibility, however, as stated by Cohn, is to "grow hard as iron, hard as concrete," or else board the train.

Henriques describes one disturbing encounter after another: the incredible terror brought about by the arrival of the trains, the constant administrative haggling over the deportation list, the language used to mask the horrible realities of the situation, the crazed behavior of those called for transport, and, most devastating, the roundup and deportation of his former students, including one that he was "completely crazy" about. Henriques must constantly reaffirm the current state of his existence: though someone reading his story may think him mad, he is not. If he were, then at least the awful things his eyes have seen could be attributed to delirium and the ravings of a lunatic.

In the course of his stay in Westerbork, Henriques had become close with one of his barrack-mates, a man by the name of Jeremiah Hirsch. Through his relationship with Hirsch, whom he calls "the Rabbi," Henriques becomes less of a Jew-hater, learning, for the first time in his life, Jewish prayers and readings. It is this relationship that leads him to confront both Cohn and everything he represents. In the final pages of the novel, the reader learns that Henriques' bold act against Cohn and in defense of Hirsch and his religion has caused Henriques' internment in the penal barracks.

The reader last encounters the narrator the night before he is scheduled to leave on a transport. He has finished writing and is kept company by Dé, the wife of a former colleague at the Jewish Lyceum, who was sent to the Westerbork penal barracks after she was arrested during a check of identification papers on the train. She too is scheduled to leave on the next day's transport but not before she has smuggled Henriques' writings out of the camp. Dé, who reaffirms Henriques' identity as a Jew, also reveals the final destination of their transport and, thus, their ultimate fate as Jews under German occupation.

In exploring these events and themes as experienced through the eyes of a former outsider to the Jewish community, Night of the Girondists succinctly but forcefully examines the wartime situation of Dutch Jews. Henriques, Cohn, and Hirsch demonstrate the various behaviors and reactions that were possible, and their actions demonstrate how, in the face of increasing German persecution and Dutch complicity, ethical and religious concerns often collided with the sheer struggle for survival. The historical context selected by Presser for this struggle is particularly poignant: during the four-month period of early March to late July 1943, 19 trains carrying 34,000 people left Westerbork for Sobibor, where all but a few Dutch Jews were killed upon arrival.

—Jennifer L. Foray

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Night of the Girondists, or Breaking Point (De Nacht Der Girondijnen)

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