Culture & Conversation

Life During Wartime

In the first months of 1945, having suffered more than four years of German occupation, the city of Amsterdam is a bleak and demoralized place.  Its streets and buildings, parks and schools are crumbling with neglect and despair.  Citizens have watched as friends and neighbours are brutally loaded on trains to oblivion, while some benefit by collaboration with the enemy.  It is a city of fear and suspicion, of guilt and regret.  And now, as its diminished resources are being shipped away to replenish those of an increasingly devastated Germany, Amsterdam is a city on the brink of starvation.

Lena Berg and Sarah Cohen were inseparable companions when the war began, together in the hallways of their high school, strolling the pathways of Vondelpark.  But soon the park is forbidden to Jews so Sarah may not enter it, while the fears and resentments of their families make the girls’ association increasingly uncomfortable.  Eventually the Cohens are moved to a ghetto, ultimately deported, and Lena is not only left alone but wracked with guilt, feeling she has abandoned her only friend.  Little more than a servant now to a greedy and abusive father, a mother incapacitated by pregnancy and deprivation, an elder sister aloof and self-absorbed, Lena is easily drawn into an alliance with her mercurial new classmate Sofie Vogel.

Increasingly, residents of Amsterdam are forced to go on “hunger journeys”: perilous excursions into the countryside in search of food.  Lena and her sister Margriet are sent on one such trip, constantly in terror of arrest or rape or both.  Yet when Sofie offers to produce train tickets to distant Almelo and promises the shelter of family in that town, Lena agrees to go along, desperate to escape the drudgery and depression of her life in Amsterdam.  En route, they are taken under the protection of two young German soldiers.  One is immediately smitten with Lena, but kept at a distance both by her moral reserve and her revulsion at the idea of consorting with the enemy.  Sofie has no such qualms.

Maggie de Vries has written a deeply involving story in a direct and accessible style.  Her spare descriptions and the simplicity of language that makes the book approachable by its intended young adult audience should also serve to create, in a reader with a broader frame of reference, an inescapably sinister undercurrent:  told from the perspective of an inexperienced teenager, the novel’s events and characters are presented without embellishment or analysis in the same way as are the occurrences and personalities one encounters in life.  There are few sympathetic figures in this story, because we are not provided with any of the background detail or motivational explanation that allows us to comprehend (and thus, perhaps, to excuse) self-preserving callousness, expedient cowardice, or the genesis of evil.  Thus we are left to make the same journey Lena must, through a dark uncertain world in which no one can be trusted, clinging as best we can to what is best within us and trying to survive until the shadow is lifted.

Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes. He has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.

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