One of the few happy memories Ann would share from her childhood was the time she spent in a Dutch orphanage. She talked about it often—the endless fields of red and yellow tulips that surrounded the place; the Dutch princess who sometimes stopped by to visit; the day trips to Amsterdam to visit the Rijksmuseum. Every time Ann reminisced about her time there, her pale blue eyes would light up her thin, wrinkled face and a small smile would sneak across her lips. Tulips were her favorite flower.
Ann Buchsbaum was already eighty-nine years old when I first met her in 2012, and her body was beginning to betray her. Only a few years earlier, Ann was going to parties in Manhattan, volunteering at her beloved museums, and reading voraciously. Now, she used a walker; her tiny, hundred-pound frame was slightly hunched; and her outings were limited to a three-block radius around our Forest Hills apartment building. Her social circle had been whittled down to her home-health aides and a few hallway neighbors. But Ann still had her stories and an enthusiasm for life. I could never tell if that enthusiasm was genuine or just a habit.
Born to an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna in 1923, Ann was barely fifteen when the Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938. That November, she watched from her bedroom window as the Nazis, alongside her Christian neighbors, set fire to Jewish-owned businesses and destroyed Vienna’s centuries-old synagogues. Kristallnacht—the night of broken glass, as it came to be called—was the moment when Ann and her family knew the only way to survive was to escape. “We could look out the window and see the trucks go by. Men standing on them...going to Dachau. We knew. Everyone said it didn’t exist. It existed,” Ann told the Center for Jewish History.
Not long after Kristallnacht, Ann’s father was able to get her a coveted spot on a kindertransport out of Vienna to Holland. Fifteen was the cut-off age and Ann just made it; a year older and she would have been ineligible. “If I hadn’t gotten out then, I would have been killed in one of the camps,” Ann once told me. Holland was the country that first saved her life.
When I told Ann that I was making a two-day trip to Amsterdam, my first visit to the Netherlands, she was elated. Because Ann always spoke so highly of the Dutch during the war, I decided to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum, which memorializes Dutch efforts to combat the Nazis during the German occupation of Holland in 1940. The museum was dimly lit—appropriate given that so many Dutch resisters were executed for their efforts. But there was little information about the Jews. Only a small section, relegated to the corner of the museum, mentioned them at all, and that was merely a tangential reference in a story about a one-day strike held by Dutch workers to protest the anti-Semitic laws imposed by the Nazis. Was this all they did? I wondered.