The Upstairs Room Summary

Johanna Reiss

The Upstairs Room

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The Upstairs Room Summary

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The Upstairs Room is an autobiographical novel by Johanna Reiss published in 1972. It is a survival story that details Johanna’s experiences as a Jewish girl in hiding in occupied Holland. Although it mirrors many of Anne Frank’s experiences, it is filled with its own particular gravity, as the main character realizes the great danger she is in.

In 1938, six-year-old Annie de Leeuw is listening to the radio with her family. She doesn’t understand everything that is happening, but she knows that the adults in her life are anxious. There is a war, and a man named Hitler is advancing through Europe.

As the months pass, she notices changes in her town. The Jews are no longer allowed to do many things that they used to be able to do. Her father can’t conduct his business anymore. One day, her mother falls ill and must be hospitalized. Many people are taken away on Hitler’s trains to work camps.

Her aunt and uncle flee to America, but her mother refuses to leave her home, denying that Jews are in any real danger. By the time her father realizes that the threat is all too real, it is too late to get the required papers to leave the country. He decides to split the family up and that they will go into hiding separately.

They aren’t able to all go to the same place. Annie’s oldest sister stays with their mother in order to care for her, but their mother dies in the hospital soon after. Annie and her second sister, Sini, move to a different town called Usselo to live with a family named Hannink, while their father stays closer to their home city.

The Hannink family is kind, and they develop a bond with the girls. They allow them to live in the house for a time, but soon they are worried that the Nazis will discover they are hiding Jews. The girls spend an entire day in an underground hiding place while Mr. Hannink searches for a safer place for them to hide.

He places them with the Oostervelds. They are also kind to the girls, but they are not as well off as the Hanninks. Their house is smaller, and Annie and her sister cannot wander the house the way they did at the Hanninks’.

The girls develop a bond with the Oostervelds as well, but despite how much they love each other, the girls are not allowed to be seen. They begin to suffer from the long hours being locked away. Towards the end of the war, when they are finally liberated by Canadian troops, Annie has almost lost the ability to walk.

Despite their pain at having had to be locked away, Annie and Sini are deeply connected to the Oostervelds, and at first refuse to leave them. Their sister Rachel comes to retrieve them, but they continue to live with the Oosterveld family until their old home is ready. Eventually, Annie’s whole family moves to America to begin a new life and to escape their wartime experiences and memories.

Years later, after Annie has grown and had children of her own, she returns to Holland. She shows her children where she stayed in hiding all that time. She even tries to crawl into the small space behind the closet where she used to hide, but she cannot stop crying. Though it has been many years since it happened, returning to Holland brings back all the dark emotions Annie experienced.

Annie exhibits a great deal of conflict about her time in hiding, acutely aware that she and her sister are in great danger. Although she survives, her experiences extinguish her spirit for a time, and this trauma leaves a mark. She becomes fearful and always ready to hide. She cannot get over the stress of having been hunted down for reasons she cannot change, and she experiences emotional trauma over having been separated first from her family, and then, at the end of the war, from the family that hid her.

A key theme of the novel is survival and the will to live. Annie survives her ordeal, but she is irreparably changed by her experiences. The stress and trauma of the war, and of having had to stay in a cramped space for extended periods of time, take a toll on her mind. She leaves the experience fearful and anxious. There are many close calls in her story, including a time German soldiers are searching the house and are inches from the entrance to the girls’ hiding place. Another time, soldiers glimpse Annie as she slips downstairs.

Survival is a complicated thing. Guilt and elation mix and Annie’s story allows us to see the revolving feelings that result from being one of the few to survive such a traumatic experience. Reiss’s account of her experiences help us to see a clear picture of what happened during World War II, and hers remains a touching, emotional story.