I clearly remember the time I was cycling through the leafy Veluwe woods, some 50 miles from Amsterdam, when I came across an extraordinary place I never knew existed in all the years I’d been taking family holidays in the area. I never realised it at the time, but this chance discovery set me on the road to writing my first historical novel, The Hidden Village, set in wartime Holland.
What attracted my attention was a large granite memorial stone by the side of the cycle path bearing a metal plaque and inscription to the local community who had sacrificed so much to help those in need during World War Two. Nearby, was an information board with with illustrations of a woodland village that had been created in 1943 to protect a group of persecuted Jewish people and others who needed to escape detection by the Nazis. It was remarkable that this village remained hidden for so long when Nazi soldiers constantly patrolled the area for signs that Jews were hidden in their midst.
Intrigued, I ventured along a rough path through the trees and came upon an underground hut, a facsimile of those that had been built on that exact spot. I discovered two other huts on this woodland site, their roofs covered with branches, moss and bracken, the perfect foil against anyone searching for signs of habitation.
The huts were dark and cramped, accessed through a low wooden door. Furniture was sparse: wooden bunk beds, a roughly hewn wooden round table and stools and barely room for a cooking stove – yet the inhabitants were forbidden to light fires or make any noise during the day when the danger of discovery was at its most acute. I found it hard to imagine what kind of a life it must have been. How could so many people have lived there for so long and not be detected by the Germans who constantly patrolled these woods in search of Jews, defectors, members of the Resistance, fallen pilots etc? The reconstruction of the hidden village provided me with a chilling insight into the difficult conditions these onderduikers* must have endured.
I came away wanting to know more, but also was starting to formulate the idea of writing a novel based on the life of these people, who were forced to leave their family and friends and to live apart from society for nearly two years. I needed to do my own research.
However, compared to France and Italy, much less has been written about the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War Two. As a small country squeezed between Germany and the Allies, the Netherlands had little chance in withstanding the invasion, occupation and oppression that lasted from when Rotterdam was bombed in 1940 to liberation in May 1945.
A little-known fact about the Netherlands is that 75% of its Jewish population was murdered in the Holocaust in concentration and extermination camps. The remainder managed to escape with the lives, either over the borders into allied territory, or hidden in attics, cellars, barns and outhouses thanks to the generosity of a local population who refused to stand by and watch their fellow citizens hounded and destroyed by the Nazis.
My Dutch mother was a young woman of 19 at the start of the war and I grew up listening to her extraordinary stories. There was the time the Germans came banging on the front door and she made off with a stack of anti-German leaflets under her arm and ran away over the rooftops. As the Germans tightened their grip on the Dutch and cut off energy supplies and food, she and her male friends set about chopping down an enormous lime tree in the road outside her house and divided it up for firewood. My mother was, if anything, intrepid, and during the long freezing “Hunger Winter” set off on her ancient bike out of town and into the countryside to dig tulip bulbs from the frozen earth. Without this source of sustenance, my mother and grandparents would quite simply have starved.
Thanks to first-hand experience, stories from my mother and original documents and interviews I discovered in Aart Visser’s book Het Verscholen Dorp (tr. the hidden village), I was able to my historical fiction novel based on the true story of an entire town who put themselves in danger to keep strangers safe.
*People in hiding