Johanna Reiss’s autobiographical novel “The Upstairs Room” recounts her experiences hiding from the Nazis during World War II. The novel is a Newbery Honor Book, American Library Association Notable Children's Book and Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book; it also won the Jewish Book Council Juvenile Book Award and Germany’s Buxtehuder Bulle. This book is compelling because of Reiss’s unflinching portrayal of a child’s perception of the Holocaust, seen through the lens of adult recollection.
Annie de Leeuw, Reiss’s childhood name, is an 8-year-old Dutch Jew living in the town of Winterswijk when the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands begins in 1940. Two years later, in danger of being captured by the Germans and sent to so-called “labor camps,” Annie’s parents send her and her older sister Sini into the care of the Oosterveld family, who conceal them in a cramped upstairs room in their farmhouse. Annie can’t understand why they have to hide, thinking that life in a labor camp sounds more comfortable. She and Sini struggle through boredom, anxiety and physical confinement through more than two years of hiding.
The main figures in “The Upstairs Room” are Annie herself, Sini and their rescuers, Johan and Dientje Oosterveld and his mother, Opoe. Sini serves as a mother figure for Annie, teaching her basic school lessons such as counting and reading, but she sometimes does so only half-heartedly; she frets about her life passing her by while she hides and misses the opportunity for romance. The Oostervelds exude a quiet courage, and Johan in particular demonstrates ingenuity when he constructs a tiny compartment in a closet to hide the fugitives from a Nazi inspection. On another occasion, after a German soldier staying in the house spots Annie, Johan sends for his niece to come visit in order to provide a reason why a child might be there.
Like the more famous “Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, this true-life depiction of the Holocaust is chilling because of the real story that surrounds the narrative. Young Annie may think the “labor camps” sound promising, given German pledges of good treatment, but that was a euphemism for concentration camps, where millions of Jews and other minorities were killed. In 1941, Nazi troops and officials embarked, after years of increasing oppression, on a systematic policy of arresting Jews for deportation to the camps; mobile units known as Einsatzgruppen followed German military advances to more efficiently kill undesirables. The Holocaust killed more than 6 million Jews and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, most of whom emigrated to the newly established state of Israel or to the U.S.
Reiss’s father and sisters were among the few survivors who returned home; 35 Jews came back to Winterswijk, about a tenth of the prewar population. Reiss did not write the book until decades later, with the encouragement of her American husband. While she was traveling to revisit the setting of the book, however, her husband committed suicide, and it was in the context of this family tragedy that she completed the work; her 2009 book “A Hidden Life” explores her husband’s story. She has explained that, although her books are written in novel form, she uses true-life stories and examples. For “The Upstairs Room,” for instance, she did not dare invent any details, lest she provide fuel to Holocaust deniers.