ORANGE CITY, Iowa | During World War II, Diet Eman and her fiance, Hein Sietsma, risked everything by hiding Jews in the Nazi-controlled Netherlands. She lived. He died.
As active members in the Dutch Underground, Eman was imprisoned and released but Sietsma was sent to Dachau. Though she would later be lauded as a hero of the Holocaust and be included among the "Righteous Gentiles" at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, for a long time she kept quiet about her story despite the insistence of friends, family and strangers to share it.
One of those strangers was James C. Schaap, an English professor at Dordt College.
He arrived on her doorstep 24 years ago, armed with a list of questions that he wouldn’t need.
Schaap led off by asking, “In a group of people, would Hein be the person who tells the first joke, tells the best joke, doesn’t tell a joke until the end? How would you describe Hein Sietsma, this man that you loved?”
She said, “Why don’t you read his letters?”
He knew nothing of these immortalized words exchanged between two Dutch resistance fighters in the 1940s. That discovery changed the trajectory of their subsequent meetings and the entire narrative of the book.
Actors will perform the reader’s theater version of “Things We Couldn’t Say,” which captures the love story of Eman and Hein set against the great human tragedy of World War II.
Schaap plays a minor role in the production, introducing the story before Diet Eman, played by Leanne Bonnekroy, begins to tell it. Soon, her younger self, played by Teresa Ter Haar, appears, along with Hein Sietsma, played by Jason Alons.
Schaap first met Eman, who is now in her 90s, after she spoke at a “Suffering and Survival” conference hosted at Dordt College in 1991, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Captivated by her story, the plucky English professor approached her and said something along the lines of, “If you ever need a writer to tell your story …”
The conversation was cut short. Eman said no.
She explains her kneejerk reaction in the postscript of “Things We Couldn’t Say.”
“To write a book about these difficult years was the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to forget, and I even left the Netherlands after the war to do that. To start a new life in a country where there were no memories and never talk about that time again.”
It became difficult to stay silent after Corrie ten Boom published “The Hiding Place” in 1971. The two women were sent to the same concentration camp and survived. In time, ten Boom’s public appearances prompted Eman to speak about her experience, too.
Years later, after meeting Schaap, she reconsidered his offer and called him to be her biographer. He went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1992 and spent a week with her.
Little did he know, the day before he arrived, Eman opened a box of old letters and diaries -- hers and her fiance’s -- for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“She was like trying to tame a geyser. She was so full of stories and so full of emotion,” he said. “I couldn’t control her.”
She would talk and Schaap would listen from 8 a.m. to midnight, and Eman laughed as much as she cried. He came away with about two dozen 90-minute audio tapes that would become “Things We Couldn’t Say.”
The play attempts to capture that incredible moment when Eman finally revealed some of the darkest, most joyous moments in her life that had been tucked away.