Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2020

The Unsung Family Hero, by Paul Gardner

I don’t know if there is much of a Dutch film industry. but if there is, they should think seriously about turning this remarkable book into a film…

The Unsung Family Hero is the story of anti-Nazi resistance fighter Gerhard Badrian, whose story has recently come to light via the author’s interest in his own family history.  Paul Gardner was only a four-year-old boy safe in Melbourne when Badrian was murdered in Amsterdam, and he spent most of his life knowing nothing about Badrian, who was his mother’s cousin.  But a chance contact led to his research into the story of this extraordinary man, and the result is this book.

It’s not a memoir, and it’s not a history and it’s not a conventional biography: it’s an engrossing adventure story framed by the real-life occupation of Holland by the Nazis.  Gardner has chosen to write the story as a narrative with invented conversations, thoughts and feelings, underpinned by the biographical, genealogical and historical facts and based entirely on documented evidence, which is provided in an extensive epilogue at the back of the book.  In this way, the book avoids the traps that have led to criticism of The Tattooist of Auschwitz and has an authenticity which adds to the power of the story.

Gerhard Badrian (1905-1944) was a German Jew, from a family long integrated into German society.  However, his parents evacuated him to Holland for the duration of WW1 when he was a boy, and the author has used his own childhood experience of receiving a gift of a camera when he was a boy, as a fictional catalyst for Badrian’s eventual career as a commercial photographer.  It was with fond memories of his foster family that he turned to Holland as a refuge when he realised the risk to his parents, sister and nephew in Germany under the Nazis.

Gerhard Badrian at work in the PBC office in the Amsteldjik, The Unsung Family Hero, p 96

But as we all know, Holland turned out to be no safer than Germany for Jews, and before long this quiet, unassuming man transitioned from an inconspicuous photographer to a valuable member of the Dutch Resistance.  At first it was a matter of using his photography skills to make false ration cards and identity documents, but when his parents Hermann and Frieda Badrian were stripped of their assets and deported to their fate at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland, his involvement became more personal.  He became involved in brazen rescues, sometimes dressed in Gestapo uniform and issuing orders to compliant Nazis in his native German.  For three years, working with another Resistance hero Gerrit van der Veen in the Verzet group, he lived undercover with multiple identities before finally being trapped and killed in an ambush.  He was only 39.

This gripping story retells one nail-biting incident after another, and it flows like a well-plotted novel, the only difference being that it includes more characters than most novels would venture to include. Badrian’s betrayal and death comes as a shock because it’s only half way through the book when the reader isn’t expecting it: the remaining pages are Acknowledgements and an extensive Epilogue of sources and notes.  The Unsung Family hero is written in sturdy prose, leavened with flashes of sardonic humour at the expense of the Nazis outwitted by Badrian.  (So many of those who served the Nazi regime in Holland and elsewhere were stupid, inadequate men, guaranteed to abuse power because they had never had it before.)

The book also pays homage to other heroes of the Dutch Resistance: Cokkie Dickson (based on Elisabeth van Lohuisen, Anne-Marie Deij, Walter Süskind, Jacques and Rachel de Vries and Frans Meijer who ran the network.  Yet despite the sombre purpose of the work these people were doing, there are glimpses of satisfaction in their enterprise:

A man who is in hiding, an illegaal, living in the midst of a brutal fascist regime motivated simultaneously by aggressive imperialism and murderous antisemitism, is hardly likely to describe himself as happy.  And yet, once he joined the PBC and became deeply involved in its work, Gerhard felt happier than he had been for a long time.

If not joy, then at least he felt satisfaction in being able to participate in a project that potentially saved lives.  The feelings of boredom and uselessness that he had expressed to Cokkie in Groningen quickly dissipated.  He gained pleasure from being able to work with others who shared his humane values and demonstrated the same commitment to producing high quality work that he valued in his former work as a commercial photographer.  And there was camaraderie, the enjoyment of being with men and women who could do serious work and still find a little time for sharing a joke, a story, a friendly smile.  (p.98)

The author also pays homage to the leadership of Gerrit Van der Deen.

It did not take Gerhard long to discover the range of skills that made Gerritt so effective in his role as head of the PBC.  He was more than just a generator of creative ideas, more than just a skilled organiser who could delegate tasks to the right people.  He was a true leader in the fullest sense of the word, a man who brought people together, enthused them, valued them, helped them to continually learn and improve.  (p.98)


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Premier Dan Andrews, working from home

I paid particular attention to this snippet because across the world we are all witnessing different kinds of leadership at the moment, on stages grand and small. In my State of Victoria, we have a leader who inspires us to be our best during this difficult period, reminding us that we are cooperating with stringent regulations not just for ourselves, not just for the people we love, but also for the people we don’t know, because everyone matters.  And in my street, we have a Facebook Neighbourhood group led by a real estate agent,  Trevor Bowen, whose leadership has brought us together as a community to share and help each other, keep the kids happy with a Teddy Bear hunt, to chat from one side of the road to the other when we’re out taking the dog for a walk, and to make sure that the elderly are not alone and lonely.  The generosity and kindness and good humour in our neighbourhood makes everything a lot easier, and we feel secure knowing that help is nearby if anyone has to go into isolation.  Not everyone is so lucky, and I know it.


Amsterdam street scene, 1944, The Unsung Family Hero p182

B&W photos and reproductions of documents are included to amplify the text.  This is one of them:  it is a photo of a mass arrest of hidden Jews, on their way to Gestapo headquarters, unremarked by the pedestrians in the rear.

The cover design of the book cleverly reproduces the tools of Badrian’s trade as an expert forger of documents!

See also the review at JWire.

Image credits: (listed among others on p345 of the book)

  • Gerhard Badrian at work in the PBC office in the Amsteldijk, Frans Meijer Archive/annefrank.org
  • Amsterdam street scene 1944, Jack Dudok van Heel/New York Times blog ‘Bamboozling ourselves’, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

Update 20/4/20 A couple of minor details have been amended on the advice of the author.  Thanks, Paul!

Author: Paul Gardner
Title: The Unsung Family Hero
Cover design: Gittus Graphics
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2020
ISBN: 9781925736366, pbk., 350 pages
Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers

Available from Fishpond: The Unsung Family Hero: The Death and Life of an Anti-Nazi Resistance Fighter or in print or as an eBook direct from Hybrid Publishers, where you can also read a sample chapter.

 


Responses

  1. It’s hard to fathom how such people could behave with such selflessness and bravery in the face of brutal tyranny and state-sponsored mayhem. Your parallel with the current pandemic crisis is timely; the behaviour of a certain despotic leader of the West’s most powerful state seems to be heading in the opposite direction, and advocating resistance to the forces of reason and fellow-feeling.

    Like

    • Well, yes, but we should never forget that just as Hitler could not have done what he did without the support of other powerful men and an acquiescent society, That Man in America is supported by equally powerful people and an acquiescent society, in a democracy, what’s more.

      Like

  2. Sounds remarkably good Lisa. Agree with what you say above – the parallels are scary, but the fact is that That Man over in the USA, and indeed That Man Here are elected. Which makes me worry about my fellow humans, particularly footage some of the behaviour I’ve seen over the pond recently…

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    • Exactly. What I did not perhaps express too well, was that while we excoriate Those Dreadful Men, they are but symbols of our fellow humans who put them there in power. And that is the real problem… because if something happened to them, their replacements would be just the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Definitely sounds like a story that should be more well known. I often wonder about some of the historical fiction that is written in other countries and how their stories are told. I know this isn’t fiction, but still. Of course, the other side of it is when stories are told by outsiders. For example, there are a couple of new books out about Nancy Wake, but neither of them are written by Australian authors.

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    • Yes, Australians were very slow to recognise her contribution whereas she was awarded honours in France long before she was honoured here.
      From memory, she wrote an autobiography…

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  4. After all these years and lots and lots of books it is still difficult to tell which side the majority of ordinary people supported during the German occupation, in France, in Holland. And it’s good to know that some were fighting back, and that some of those fighting were Jews, which I don’t think is often written about.

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    • Yes, this is a rare example of one that is written by a relative.

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