The Upstairs Room Summary

Overview (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Johanna Reiss’s story serves as both a history of the German occupation of the Netherlands, which lasted from 1940 to 1945, and a portrait of the writer as a young girl who survived the Holocaust. During this tragic time, Nazis slaughtered six million European Jews and millions of other victims. A short foreword states Reiss’s desire to write a simple, human book about this part of her childhood; a brief introduction then sets the scene, giving the historical context for World War II in Europe.

In twelve chapters, Reiss chronicles her experiences during the war. Her story begins in 1938; she is a six-year-old listening to the radio news report about Kristallnacht, the night of terror that marked the beginning of the end for six million Jews. Her father, a cattle dealer, realized the danger of living in Winterswijk, Holland, less than twenty minutes from the German border; however, her mother, an invalid, denied that Dutch Jews were endangered even when they heard that German Jews were trying to escape to Winterswijk. Within a few months, Annie’s uncle and aunt escaped to the United States. Mrs. de Leeuw still stubbornly refused to leave her home.

The next three years of tragic events that led to the family going into hiding in October, 1942, are seen through Annie’s eyes. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in September, 1939, then Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Soon after Holland was invaded on May 10, 1940, notices in the marketplace declared a series of oppressive restrictions on Jews, denying them jobs and ostracizing them from society. By the time Mr. de Leeuw was ready to ignore his wife’s protests and take his family to the United States, it was impossible to get the required papers. In October, 1941, the de Leeuws moved to a new house built outside Winterswijk; shortly thereafter, Nazi soldiers rounded up Jewish men in the town, taking them to a concentration camp. Mrs. de Leeuw, hospitalized for her severe headaches, died soon after the family went into hiding in October, 1942, after they were told they would be transported to a work camp. Annie (now ten) and Sini (twenty) moved in with the Hannink family in Usselo. Rachel (twenty-five) joined a family forty miles from Usselo, and their father hid with a family near Rotterdam.

After only two months with the Hanninks, Annie and Sini moved to the Oostervelds’ farmhouse in Usselo, supposedly only for a week or two, until Hannink could be certain that a German soldier who had followed him had not become suspicious. When Hannink failed to return for the girls, however, Johan Oosterveld, a poor farmer, promised to hide them for the war’s duration, despite his wife’s constant fear for their own lives. For the next two and one-half years, Annie and Sini endured the bad times as they waited out the war. Their most terrifying moments were spent cramped in the hiding place Johan built behind shelves in an upstairs closet. Once, when German soldiers searched the house for Jews, they clung to each other, barely breathing, only inches from the soldier on the other side of the partition. During another frightening time, German soldiers quartered in the house saw Annie when she slipped downstairs. Despite it all, the girls survived to welcome Canadian...

(The entire section is 1335 words.)

The Upstairs Room Bibliography (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

Day, Frances Ann. Multicultural Voices in Contemporary Literature: A Resource for Teachers. Rev. ed. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1999.

Kokkola, Lydia. Representing the Holocaust in Children’s Literature. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Riede, Paul. “Human Rights, Human Wrongs: Teachers Learn How to Explain the Lessons of Holocaust.” Syracuse Post-Standard, December 22, 1998, p. B2.

Sadler, Dave. “Author Spent Holocaust in Hiding: Johanna Reiss Tells Children How She Survived as a Child in WWII Europe.” Syracuse Post-Standard, April 22, 1999, p. 19.

Sullivan, Edward T. The Holocaust in Literature for Youth: A Guide and Resource Book. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1999.