Sunday, December 4, 2016

WW2 | Foreword to "The Borrowed House," by Hilda van Stockum

New Purple House Press edition.
The following was written in early July 2016 to serve as a Foreword to the new Purple House Press edition of The Borrowed House, by Hilda van Stockum, my mother. The book was originally published in 1975 by Farrar Straus & Giroux. My mother was born in Holland.

The Borrowed House is about Hitler’s Occupation of Holland in 1940-1945.

It is told from the perspective of a German girl, Janna Oster. She travels from the Black Forest in Germany with her parents to Amsterdam. When we first meet her, Janna is memorizing Hitler’s theories of racial supremacy for a school test. How could she know, or even imagine, the ultimate implications of these theories, fulfilled in death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka?

Later, when Janna discovers that someone she actually cares about is from one of the races she was taught were “inferior”, it comes as a shock to her. She is angry that the theories she was carefully taught conflict with her warm feelings for a real human being. Can she reconcile her feelings with the theories?

Those who resisted Hitler paid the ultimate price. Many people in World War II were reluctant heroes, acting against a monstrous evil. When Queen Juliana in exile called Dutch Resistance leaders heroes, they objected. “We only did our duty,” they said. “Can you say No, when you are the only person who can prevent someone’s death?”

Today, we often complacently believe our country would ever succumb to a demagogue like Hitler. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we saw widespread signs in America of selflessness, of men and women in uniform rushing to save innocent people, and our hearts were with them. But the same uniting behind the victims of 9/11 also generated a wish for revenge and exacerbated fears of people with certain religious beliefs or appearance. If a time comes when we again have to make difficult choices, how thoughtful and brave will we be?

As a young boy growing up in Washington, D.C. and then Montreal, I heard a lot about bravery and moral choices made at great personal cost. My mother, Hilda van Stockum, talked for hours with her mother about the wartime suffering and courageous acts of their Dutch relatives. They didn't want to upset a boy of five or six so they spoke in Dutch. But I heard and understood the pain in their voices.

They had reason to lament. Dozens of my mother’s Dutch cousins died. Many were very brave and some are buried in the Dutch Cemetery of Heroes. More are honored with Yad Vashem awards for sheltering Jewish people. We know the story of Anne Frank; here we see that she was one of many. My mother’s closest relative, her brother Willem, was an RAF bomber pilot; he was shot down in June 1944 and he is buried in Laval, France.

Through the wartime letters, my mother was frequently in touch with her Dutch cousins. The Borrowed House is dedicated to one of them, her “twin cousin” Nella de Beaufort.  Just as Hilda's brother Willem was killed by enemy anti-aircraft ordnance, Nella’s younger brother Hans de Beaufort was a Resistance hero. He wrote a moving letter from prison in Dijon before he was killed by the Nazis. The closing lines (translated by my mother) were:

I did what I thought my duty. I did what I could but at a certain moment it is too much and you can't manage any more. From that moment you have to leave it all to God's care. Now I can happily say: "Thy will be done" and give body and soul back to Him from Whom I got them. I greet you all with deepest love, all without exception just as I take leave of life with gratitude, hope of forgiveness, and trust in God. 

For two decades, the losses were too painful for my mother to write about. But nearly 20 years after the end of the war, she wrote the first of her two books about the Dutch Occupation, The Winged Watchman, which tells the story of how a rural family living in a windmill fought against Hitler and his followers. It was, like this book, fictionalized, but is based on her deep knowledge of Holland and the war, and wartime and postwar letters to her, and postwar visits with her relatives.

In 1975 she wrote this sequel based on a true story, The Borrowed House, about a German girl uprooted from her Hitler Youth program to accompany her parents to an Amsterdam house that is “borrowed” from a Dutch family. The 2013 Dutch translation by Boekencentrum calls it The Stolen House. It follows Janna from her first introduction to Amsterdam, where her parents were entertaining German troops, to her questioning of Hitler’s theories of racial superiority.

Both of her books lead the reader to ask: “Would today's generation show such courage or be willing to make sacrifices of the kind that people made in World War II?” Many people say no, but we don't know what people are made of until they are faced with a crisis. B. Kelly, a graduate in English Literature from Bard College, has thoughtfully noted two compelling features about this book:

First, this book offers views of the Dutch Occupation from the contrasting perspectives of the occupying Germans and the occupied Dutch. We meet many kinds of German and Dutch people, ranging from committed Nazis to people who are politically ambivalent. We glimpse the owners of the house, the van Arkels, through their home, art works and other possessions. We see how a transplanted German family adjusts to the sheltered life on Amsterdam’s Emperor’s Canal under the patronage of a German Baron and General. (The building on the back cover is surely the famed Keizersgracht 324.)

Second, Hilda van Stockum shows how Janna is startled by her experiences, such as the contradiction between the propaganda she has been taught and the reality she sees. This gradually rising moral awareness may well be uncomfortable for us readers, because it forces us to ask: “Would we have accepted Hitler’s racial dogma just the way Janna does, when other children and people in authority were aligned with these theories?”

Hitler’s propagandists were extremely good at what they did for their evil purpose. They linked Nazi views to ancient German and Greek myths through monument-building, music, children’s camps and theater. Hilda van Stockum shows us through Janna just how effective this can be. 

If we are sure that we would have been a hero like Hans de Beaufort in wartime, we should look closely at ourselves in the reflection from the windows of the van Arkel house. How immune are we really from racist and other ideology that continues to be sold and bought in a world where propaganda is a big business?

Hilda van Stockum’s granddaughter Christine has written a brilliant analysis of the place of this book among van Stockum’s writings. It appears at the end of this book. The Winged Watchman is being considered along with The Borrowed House for a television miniseries. I am grateful to Jill Morgan and The Purple House Press for re-issuing this book.

John Tepper Marlin, July 2016