Imogen Matthews, I understand that you wrote The Hidden Village based on Aart Visser’s book, Het Verscholen Dorp as well as some stories from your mother and your own background. Could you tell us a bit more about how your background, family stories and Visser came together to translate into The Hidden Village?
It intrigued me that so little had been written about this hidden village, despite its importance during World War 2 in sheltering Jews from the Germans. Imagine my delight when I found a book called Het Verscholen Dorp (tr. the Hidden Village) had been written by Dutchman Aart Visser in 1984. The book was out of print, but I tracked down a copy on the Dutch book website bol.com. Written in Dutch, it took me many months, with the help of an online dictionary and my imperfect knowledge of the language, to extract the information I needed for my novel.
In his book, Visser had conducted interviews with survivors and relatives of those who had lived in the camp or helped in its construction, as well as the numerous people who pulled together to provide the dozens of onderduikers (people in hiding) with food, clothing, medicines, books and other essentials. The photographs and diagrams were an important source of information in my understanding of the success of the project.
A new edition of Het Verscholen Dorp was published in 2014 which included new material and photographs that Visser had uncovered and which proved invaluable when researching my next novel, Hidden in the Shadows, that takes place immediately after the village was discovered.
Visser’s book was my main source of research in addition to frequent visits to the site of the original woodland village. Walking through the woods and stepping inside the underground huts gave me a deep sense of place that I wanted to bring out in my story. In addition, I had collected many stories and memories from my Dutch mother who was 19 at the start of the war. A few years before her death in 2015, I compiled these into a family memoir, and I used some of these reminiscences to strengthen my story.
The Hidden Village was your first book of historical fiction. Was this the book that started your passion for the genre?
Completely. It was the discovery of the hidden village while on a family cycling holiday that gave me the idea of writing a novel. The fact that I had ridden past the place for almost twenty years without realising it was there was a compelling reason for me to want to write about an event in Dutch history that so few people had known about.
What is it about the Second World War that makes you want to write about it?
I suppose it’s the fact that I have a direct link to that time, even though I was born after the war. Although it’s 77 years since the end of the Second World War, stories keep being uncovered, either because the last remaining survivors have chosen to speak out, or through their sons, daughters and relatives, who want to ensure the memory of their family members is not forgotten.
One of the things that stood out to me after finishing your book, was how memorable and relatable the characters were. Who was your favourite character from The Hidden Village to write about and were they based on any specific accounts from your research?
None of the characters in my book were based on real people, but some were an amalgam or interpretation of those I’d read or heard about.
My two main characters, Jan and Sofie, were my favourite ones to write as they enabled me to explore what it must have been like for a young person to experience frightening situations in wartime. My mother was a teenager when war broke out and her memory was as much about the exciting times keeping one step ahead of the Germans as it was the fear of getting caught.
Other characters captured my imagination: Tante Else and Dick Foppen were instrumental in making the hidden village a success and were based on Opa Bakker and tante Cor, whose selfless actions helped to protect so many from being captured by the Germans.
I was also fascinated by the Russian émigré, Rus Koezma, who had a talent for carving and painting charming wooden toys for the children of the village. He made it into my story, almost unchanged.
Humanity – both the good and the bad – is explored in your novel. Did you find that your exploration of this revealed anything about yourself and your writing?
Much has been written about the horrors of the Holocaust, but I was interested in understanding more about the actions of local people who were prepared to work together keep a large number of people hidden from Nazi persecution. Even at enormous risk to themselves, this community showed such goodness and selfless desire to help others in greater need than their own. As I wrote about them, I asked myself if I would have done the same as they had. It’s hard to know, but it’s a question we should all ask ourselves.
Food, its scarcity, and ability to bring people together is something mentioned frequently in the book. I wondered if there was a favourite and memorable dish from the time or from your family that you would share?
Hutspot is a typical simple but nutritious Dutch dish that is still a favourite today, especially in winter. Translated as “hotchpot” in English, it consists of boiled mashed potatoes, carrots and onions. Traditionally it is eaten with “klapstuk”, a fatty meat from the short ribs of a cow, smoked bacon or “rookworst”, a ring of smoked pork sausage.
Can we expect another historical fiction book from you soon?
My next book is called Hidden in the Shadows, which will be published in April 2022. The story takes the reader back to the day the hidden village was discovered and the fate of a young couple who find themselves separated as they go on the run.