- The Occupied Garden: Recovering the Story of a Family in the War-Torn Netherlands
The core of this engaging and very readable book is the story of a Dutch couple in the years before the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, during almost exactly five years of occupation, and in the postwar period until they emigrated to Canada in 1951. The focus is on the war years, but the rest of the family's story is also well worth reading.
Gerrit den Hartog and Cornelia (Cor) Post married in 1935 after a long engagement and moved in with his parents. Gerrit was a market gardener who within a short time acquired a small property in Leidschendam, just outside The Hague. He and his wife started a family that ultimately consisted of a daughter, Arigje (Rige), and four sons. The eldest of the boys, Jacobus (Koos), eighteen months younger than Rige, is the father of the authors, Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski. Koos and his elder sister are of key importance in the creation of this book, because their childhood memories are the main source for the tale the authors tell.
In the absence of interviews with Gerrit and Cor, who died before this book was planned, much of the story is an imaginative recreation of what they, other family members, and a number of friends did and thought. Thus it falls somewhere between biography and historical fiction, but so long as the story sticks to the principal characters the approach works well. There are touching and genuinely gripping accounts of life in wartime, especially of a bicycle expedition that Cor and her sister Truus undertook to the northern Netherlands during the 'hunger winter' of 1944-45 (Gerrit would certainly have been apprehended and set to work as a slave labourer). The two women did what many others did, seeking to obtain food in exchange for goods with intrinsic value. (Farmers wisely declined to accept paper currency, the German occupiers having debased it.) The account of a bombing in early 1945, which cost Koos a leg and his brother Gert an arm, is splendidly realized. There is also a fascinating account written by a Jewish acquaintance who managed to escape to Switzerland with his sister.
The book is at its best when the authors write about their family and friends such as Rie Batelaan, who kept a diary during the war. Unfortunately, however, they decided to include a good deal of material from other sources, such as Queen Wilhelmina's memoirs, the diary of Joseph Goebbels, and an interview carried out after the war with the widow of Arthur Seyss-Inquart (Reichskommissar for the Netherlands, tried at Nuremberg and executed). Not only do these detours add little or nothing to the story, but they distract the reader from the central subject. They are also the source of several mistakes. One of the more egregious is the utterly unfounded assertion that Prince Bernhard, the [End Page 384] German-born husband of Crown Princess Juliana (she and several of her daughters spent the war in Ottawa), changed his name from Bernhardt so that it would seem more Dutch.
To most readers it will not matter that the authors' knowledge of Dutch seems to be rudimentary at best and of German non-existent. Among immigrant groups in Canada few if any show a higher degree of language loss than the Dutch, and I do not blame the authors for not commanding their father's first language. Under the circumstances, however, they would have beenwise to get someone competent inDutch andGerman to proofread the book. This would have prevented lots of more-or-less small errors, not only in spelling and use of language but also in geography.
Michiel Horn, Department of History, York University