In the decades after a country is occupied, two groups get the lion’s share of attention from historians: the occupiers and the resistance. They are, after all, the villains and the heroes, sources of good copy in any age. Meanwhile, the thousands or millions of people living under occupation remain largely anonymous.
The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland, a new book about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, aims to offer a fresh take on World War II by examining the experiences of a Dutch family. But it succeeds more as a traditional history than a tale of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Kristen den Hartog, a novelist, and her sister Tracy Kasaboski wrote “The Occupied Garden” to memorialize their grandparents, who were in their 30s when the war began. Their grandfather, who made his living as a vegetable seller, and his homemaker wife rarely talked about the war later in life.
“We were compelled to search out their story when we realized it was disappearing,” the authors write, “and to recreate their experience based on the remaining fragments.”
But the authors fail to answer a crucial question: Which of the richly detailed scenes in the book are pure invention and which are based on diaries and recollections? It’s not clear, and the sparse footnotes only refer to traditional sources like books and newspapers.
The authors do capture the changing flavor of Dutch life, progressing from the groom nervously choosing a lily of the valley for his bride’s corsage to the horrors of the war’s miniscule food rations.
“Occupied Garden” is best, however, when it pulls away from the den Hartog family and looks at the war through the prism of the country at large and its suffering.
The authors carefully trace how the war affected the Dutch, who had been neutral during World War I and crumpled in days under a Nazi onslaught. Their freedoms disappeared and, over time, everything from electricity to food began to dwindle. But passive and not-so-passive resistance did not, leading Germans to complain of Dutch “pigheadedness.”
Tenacity is a theme throughout “Occupied Garden.” The authors acknowledge that their grandparents weren’t heroic figures of resistance, but write that “[I]n the end, their courage was less meaningful to us than their emotions and their means of enduring....”
The chief symbol of grit in “Occupied Garden” isn’t one of the den Hartogs, however, but a woman as far from their run-of-the-mill existence as possible: Queen Wilhelmina, who served as the Dutch monarch for an amazing 58 years.
A decided enemy of Germany – although the Netherlands had taken in its exiled kaiser after World War I – she did her best to avoid the country and Hitler, even though she couldn’t get out of sending him birthday greetings every year.
When the war began, Queen Wilhelmina fled to Canada, disappointing some of her subjects, almost certainly to a greater extent than the authors acknowledge. But she still became a symbol of Dutch hope and courage, a woman who abandoned her people physically but not emotionally.
An odd modern statue of Queen Wilhelmina stands today in The Hague, the Dutch capital, next to a royal palace. She is stout and featureless, lacking even a discernible face, but manages to appear sturdy and unyielding all the same.
Perhaps the statute represents the queen’s people as a whole, anonymous yet at one with her stubborn will. If we can’t fully understand the lives of ordinary Dutch people during the occupation, maybe it’s enough to understand that they endured.
Randy Dotinga, who’s half Dutch, is a freelance writer in San Diego.