Friday, 4 January 2019

Book Review: Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco horrors that alleged “enemies of the Third Reich”, most of all those with Jewish ancestors, had to endure under Nazi reign were so appalling that at the time many simply couldn’t believe rumours about them. When eye witnesses and hard facts of systematic atrocities turned up eventually – as they use to, in general –, the world was dumbfounded and reluctant to take them at face value. In a modern European country like Germany people couldn’t be so barbarous as that, could they? Therefore even when their countries were annexed or occupied, many Jews lulled themselves into a false sense of security until it was too late for escape. The narrator of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco observes the growing concern of her apparently calm family, notably her parents, as race laws are gradually implemented in the German-occupied Netherlands and deportation to the Polish concentration camps becomes a daily threat.

Marga Minco was born Sara Menco in Ginneken, The Netherlands, in March 1920. Until German invasion she worked as a journalist and then went underground with false papers to pass as Christian. She made her literary debut with one of the three novellas of award-winning Het adres (1957) that she brought out together with writers Ingeborg Rutgers and Auke Jelsma. Her first novel was semi-autobiographical Bitter Herbs. A Little Chronicle (Het bittere Kruid. Een kleine Kroniek: 1957) that won her several literary prizes. The author followed up with the short stories of The Other Side (De andere kant: 1959) and several novels, most importantly Het huis hiernaast (1965), Terugkeer (1966), An Empty House (Een leeg huis: 1966), De dag, dat mijn zuster trouwde (1970), Meneer Frits en andere verhalen uit de vijftiger jaren (1974), The Fall (De val: 1983), The Glass Bridge (De glazen brug: 1986), De zon is maar een zeepbel, twaalf droomverslagen (1990), and Nagelaten dagen (1997; tr. The Days They Left Behind). Marga Minco lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

In May 1940, the teenage narrator got a first taste of the Bitter Herbs that German occupation would force down her throat. With others she and her family had fled from Breda in the Southern Netherlands, but the German invasion proved less atrocious than feared and they returned. While many are doubtful, the girl’s father is optimistic that their lives will continue as before. In fact, things change with every new decree curtailing the rights of the Jewish population in the occupied country. The narrator, however, notices little of it because tuberculosis confines her to a hospital bed in Utrecht for several weeks. During her convalescence back home, her father brings the yellow Stars of David into the house in a wrapped box under his arm like a magnificent surprise. And as if they were just an ordinary adornment the women discuss which colour the thread should be, before they sew the treacherous stars neatly to all frocks. Only the narrator’s brother shows misgivings and leaves for a last stroll as a person like all others. He also takes precautions to fail the medical exam that decides whether he has to report for forced labour. Seeing people disappear overnight, the family has a photo made of them all as a keepsake. Then the girl’s elder sister gets into a raid in Amsterdam and is instantly deported to the East. Soon after, the parents are ordered to move into the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam where the narrator joins them. In a raid her parents get caught whereas she, her brother and sister-in-law manage to escape. The three go underground and want to leave the city, but the girl’s sister-in-law is detained at the train station and her brother goes looking for her. Now alone, the narrator keeps hiding from the Germans…

The little holocaust chronicle titled Bitter Herbs is the first-person account of a teenage Jewish girl from the Netherlands who never discloses her name and exact age. The latter may have helped the author to distance herself to some degree from the semi-autobiographical story and at the same time it establishes the narrator as only one of too many in Europe. Notwithstanding some flashbacks, the plot follows the chronology of German occupation, but the fate of the narrator’s family is never dealt with directly. Events surrounding their disappearance are known by hearsay at best and it’s up to the readers – as it was to the survivors – to use imagination to fill the gaps. The novella’s ending is hardly happier than that of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl because in the end the narrator needs to come to terms with having outlived virtually all her family. Nevertheless, the language remains unpretentious and unemotional, not to say matter-of-fact throughout which doesn’t prevent it from creating a powerful atmosphere with growing fear and grief as palpable overtones. Skillful use of imagery and symbolism adds to this. As a result, the author’s debut novella is an amazingly impressive and touching read.

Although Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco is a slim volume that I easily finished in a few hours, its story pleasantly lingered on in my mind for days. The unconcern, if not naïvety of the narrator’s family in front of the imminent danger that being Jewish in a Nazi-occupied country inevitably meant baffled me most of all even taking into account that much of it may well have been show for the teenager’s sake. I also appreciated the more pronounced religious component of this read compared to other holocaust novels that I know. I enjoyed taking part in a Shabbat and it was interesting to discover that the book title refers to the bitter herbs eaten with unleavened bread during the Jewish Seder ritual to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a great pity that this novella is so little remembered outside the Netherlands and therefore I gladly recommend it.

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