Reading Group Guide for The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage by Mark Klempner

The Heart Has Reasons is a deceptively simple book.  Though short and not difficult to read, it may actually be approached as three books in one: 1) a recounting of the rescuers’ stories and the history they lived through, 2) an exploration of what they have done since the war, and their views on contemporary issues, and 3) the personal journey of the author, and the impact that meeting the rescuers has had on him.  

Reading groups may choose to discuss any or all of these elements.  Those groups more oriented toward historical discussion may choose to focus on the rescuers’ stories, and the historical essays that are found before or after some of the rescuers’ narratives.  

Those interested in the rescuers as life-long activists and humanitarians will be interested in their convictions about current issues, and how they have continued their activism and humanitarian pursuits into their elder years.  

Groups consisting of children of survivors or others who have been personally touched by the Holocaust may want to focus on the author’s personal story, his encounters with the rescuers, and the impact those encounters had on him. 

Faith groups will want to discuss the religious beliefs of the rescuers, and their unique approaches to living a spiritual life.  

The following are some recommended discussion topics and questions covering all of these areas, with an emphasis on the historical:

While looking for stories of men and women who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, Klempner could have gone to Denmark, France, or a number of other countries.  He chose to conduct his search in the Netherlands for reasons he reveals on pg. 167-168.  How do you feel about his decision to not meet with Polish rescuers?

Many people, having read the Diary of Anne Frank, associate Holland with rescue attempts.  But how does the Jewish survival rate in the Netherlands compare with that of Western Europe? Why do you think the vast majority of Dutch people cooperated with their Nazi occupiers?

Why were people of Holland inclined to believe that Hitler would not attack their country?  Is there any way the Dutch could have adequately prepared for a Nazi invasion?

During the occupation, what kinds of restrictions did the Nazis place upon Jews?  What purpose did these restrictions serve?  How was forcing all Dutch people to register for an identification card the critical step in isolating the Jews?

What was the Jewish Council?  Why did Jews cooperate with the Nazis?  What lesson might we draw from the fate of the members of the Jewish Council?  

What is it about the environment and the social structure of Holland that made it so difficult for Jews to go underground?  Could any Jew have survived without the help of non-Jews?

One of the rescuers profiled, Kees Veenstra (“Case Vein-stra”), had never before talked publicly about his attempts to save Jews during the Holocaust.  How did the author find him?  Like others that Klempner interviewed, he seemed hesitant to recall  memories long buried.  How did you feel about the author probing him about painful episodes from his past?

Do you begrudge Kees for not forgiving the Germans? If so, why? Discuss the rescuers’ feelings about today’s Germans.

Did most of the rescuers Klempner interviewed know Jewish people before they began to help the Jews?  Why did some of them feel strongly about Jews in particular?

Discuss the “behind the scenes” work of the resistance, such as the forging and falsifying of documents.  Was the contribution of those who worked in these area less important than those who found places for Jewish children to hide, or took Jewish children into their homes?

How did the rescuers find families to take in Jews?  Why were women often more effective at smuggling Jews out to the countryside, than were men?  Why do you think it is that people of modest means were often more willing to shelter Jews than rich people?

Discuss the huge labor strike, organized by the Communist party, in support of the Jews, in February 1933. Why did it end?  Was it effective? What is its historical importance?  

Discuss the “hunger winter” of 1944. Since nearly everyone in certain areas of the Netherlands were starving, how did the Jewish children and adults in hiding survive? 

The Nazis intentionally starved the Dutch, even after the Dutch had fed so many hungry German children after the end of the First World War.  How do historians account for the “hunger winter,” and what alternate explanation does Klempner suggest?

What was life like for a person in hiding?  Where did such people typically live, sleep, and eat? How was it possible for Heiltje Kooistra to hide Jews in her home without even her children knowing about them?

Even those not brave enough to rescue or to hide Jews sometimes helped in other ways.  What were a few of those ways?  What do you make of the notion that simply not betraying the whereabouts of a hidden Jew was an act worthy of praise?  Why would the rescuers give bystanders so much credit?

A number of the people profiled in the book acted out of religious or spiritual conviction.  Discuss how some of them answered Klempner’s questions about their belief in God after the atrocities they witnessed.   Discuss Klempner’s pre-interview dialogue with Mieke Vermeer (“Meek Verr-meer”) in which she questioned his right to collect the rescuers’ stories. In this passage, both the author and Mieke Vermeer attempt to answer the question “Where do you think God was during the Holocaust?” What do you think about their answers? What are some other possible answers?

Discuss the solidarity between members of groups that were doing resistance work.  What had Piet Meerburg’s (“Pete Meer-burg’s”) group decided to do, in advance, to protect members should one of them be captured and tortured for information? How often were rescue workers caught and what was their fate?

What role did the churches play in the resistance movement in the Holland?  Why were Calvinists so highly represented among the people who rescued Jews in the Netherlands?  

How many people did the rescuers collectively save?  What sort of relationships, after the war, did the rescuers have with those they rescued?

What kinds of concerns do the rescuers have about the world situation today?

In general, what are the rescuers’ views on war? Compare the statements made by Clara Dijkstra (“Dike-struh”), Piet Meerburg, and Ted Leenders.

What do you think about Clara Dijkstra’s convictions about parenting? Do you agree with her that the pursuit of material success and having a close loving relationship with one’s children are incompatible?

What do you think of Mieke Vermeer’s exhortation to step in as much as possible to stop the “little holocausts”?

Discuss what some of the rescuers are doing as elders to help alleviate suffering in the world and redress injustice.

What is Yad Vashem?  And what is their criteria for designating someone to be one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”? Why are Jews not eligible, as Piet Meerburg would like them to be?

Which rescuer did you most admire and why?

Can the rescuers be said to have a message for us today? If so, what is it?
How did the author change as a result of his experiences with the rescuers?

While a musician in Los Angeles, the author formed certain impressions as to the nature of people. How did meeting the rescuers affect those impressions?

Why is the Holocaust a “wound without memory” for the author?

As someone who grew up “in the shadow of the Holocaust,” how did meeting the rescuers help the author to deal with his fears about what his family had gone through?

What lessons can we draw from the Holocaust based on the rescuers’ testimony? 

©2017 Mark Klempner