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by Yona Zeldis McDonough

When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew…

In this new memoir, Hendrika de Vries’ writes of the dark days in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam as a child, years as a swimming champion, young wife and mother in Australia, and a move to America in the sixties. She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis about how the brutality of her childhood fostered a strength and resilience she has been able to draw upon ever since.


Screen Shot 2019-09-19 at 2.45.22 PM YZM:   How did your mother’s decision to join the Resistance and harbor Nel, a young Jewish woman, affect you as a girl?

HDV: At the time that my father was deported to Germany, I was an only child surrounded by friends and cousins who all had siblings, and I longed for my own brother or sister.  I do not have a clear memory of how I felt when my mother decided to join the Resistance.  In a way it seemed a natural progression, because we regularly spent time at the home of the family where members of the Resistance movement met.  And when my mother told me we were going to hide a Jewish girl, I liked the thought that I would have an adopted older sibling. I was told that her name was Nel, but in order protect her secrecy I was not given her last name.

After she moved in with us, Nel and I formed a sisterly closeness and often slept in the same bed. In the manner of an older sister, she gave me a sweet diminutive nickname “Hennepiet,” and wrote about our “happy” time together in a poignant verse for the friendship album that girls my age carried around in those days.  A copy of her verse with the nickname “Hennepiet” appears in my memoir.

Having been a daddy’s girl for the first five years of my life, I now learned about the comfort and unique pleasure of being in an all-female household.  In my memory, my mom and my secret “stepsister” were always brewing pots of coffee and talking.  If I close my eyes even today, I can still smell the rich aroma of coffee that permeated our home, and being in the company of their female bantering and laughter made me feel safe. I remember my mom bringing out a coffee-table-sized Old Testament copy of the Bible that had been in her family all her life. It showed full-page sepia illustrations of the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt. There was one of the parting of the Red Sea, of course, but the image I liked best was of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and other women dancing as they celebrated their freedom with tambourines.  My mom, Nel and I would dance around our dining-room table clanging spoons and shouting “freedom” until my mom shushed us. I loved having an older sister.  But I could not talk about her. She had to be our big secret. I could never figure out at six years old why the Nazis wanted to kill her, or might kill my mother and me because we were hiding her.  I believe this confusion set me on my lifelong path to try to understand human behavior and my own eventual spiritual quest for the divine.

 

YZM:  Did your mother’s heroism provide you with a role model later in your life? 

HDV: By joining the Resistance and breaking Nazi-imposed laws, my mother sowed the seeds for my adult feminism; she modeled female strength and showed me the limitations of culturally imposed gender rules that taught women to be passive. I learned that active disobedience could be an empowering act of moral courage and love. 

My mother taught me not to let fear or feelings of helplessness turn me into a victim. She was the youngest in a family of ten children, and had seven older brothers. A couple, who were professional boxers, taught her to box.  A woman of deep faith, intuitive wisdom, courage and practicality, she had also been a champion runner and speed-walker in her youth. She believed every problem was simply a challenge to be thought through and overcome, and taught me that survival and success depended on a disciplined mind and a focus on the tasks over which we have power­––even if it was only to make your bed or brush your teeth during the most difficult time of the Hunger Winter.  She taught me to connect with the higher power in your life, whether it is God or your own conscience, trust your dreams and give thanks for what you have.  Her passionate belief in human freedom and dignity, her rituals of survival, her determination not to let fear turn us into victims and her daily practice of gratitude taught me more about emotional resilience than all my courses in psychology, and still guide and empower me at every turn of my life. 

We would also do battle, she and I, especially when I became a teenager needing to establish a separate identity.  A passion for freedom runs in the mother-line and she had taught me resistance too well.  We loved, we fought and we eventually established our clear boundaries, but whenever life throws me challenges, as it inevitably does, she is right there inside of me. A fierce internalized heroic mother, she nudges me and whispers, “You can do this.”  And suddenly I once again know that I can. 

YZM: You saw Nel shortly after the war; did you remain in contact with her?

HDV: Nel visited us a few more times after my dad returned, but as my parents struggled to recreate the marriage they had before their two brutal years of separation, my mother and Nel lost contact.  I never learned her last name.  I sometimes wonder where her life’s journey took her. There are times I wish that I could have seen her when we were both older, but I treasure that she lives in a sacred part of my heart where I am always her Hennepiet who can snuggle in her arms.  I reread her verse that I have kept all these years, and I thank her for her courage and the love she showed a little girl who was a stranger, while those who spread hatred controlled the streets outside our home.

My father returned from Germany with symptoms that we now recognize as PTSD.  My mother was not the same woman he had left behind.  Whenever they tried to discuss their separate experiences they got hopelessly tangled in an emotional morass.  Neither one could understand or ease the other’s pain. At one point when the marriage reached a breaking point, they needed to leave the past behind and focus on the future.  We would eventually immigrate to Australia. 

YZM: Tell me about your experience of the Hunger Winter of 1944-45.

HDV: My mother and I almost starved to death during that last winter. Our beautiful Amsterdam turned into a dirty, treeless city that smelled of death and decay.  While other parts of Europe had been liberated, the Allies were focused on conquering Berlin. The Northwest corner of Holland was forgotten, cut off from surrounding farmlands during one of the coldest winters on record, when all electrical power and gas had been indefinitely turned off.  Both Dutch citizens and German soldiers were dependent on rapidly dwindling food supplies. People desperate for warmth, cut down trees, park benches, and anything wooden that could burn. They even hacked pieces out of the stairs leading up to apartments where people were still living on upper floors.  Historians tell us that 20,000 people died of cold and starvation.  So many died in Amsterdam that the city ran out of coffins.

During the final months my mother and I had nothing to eat but one slice of bread a day. Our bread was made out of sugar beets, and when those ran out, out of bitter foul-tasting tulip bulbs.  Those of us who were school children took our little pans to the soup kitchen, where we waited in line for a ladle of watery soup that we slurped down immediately. My mother created small rituals to ease my hunger and anxiety, which I describe in my book. She modeled a deep faith, strength and discipline that she said would help us survive.  I always believed her, because her faith and strength were authentic and not just words to reassure me. 

We had to make choices, but sometimes fate makes the choice for us. I can still look back on one of those times with a smile of gratitude. All dogs and cats had, of course, disappeared off the streets.  They had been eaten, sold on the black market as rabbit meat, or mercifully put to sleep by owners who could not feed them. But one night a skinny black and white cat suddenly appeared on the garden wall outside our living room.  We eyed it with surprise and longing, but as potential food or companionship? Luckily, we could not catch it.

The Hunger Winter of WWII Amsterdam was not written or talked about much during the early postwar years.  The grotesque horror of the Holocaust with the slaughter of millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children confronted the collective psyche with our human capacity for unspeakable cruelty. The famine we suffered in the Northwest of Holland during the last six months of the war seemed, by comparison, almost insignificant.  We simply did not speak about it.  We were the lucky ones. We had survived and needed to focus on the future.

My family immigrated to Australia.  We needed all our energy to adapt to a new culture and language.  I felt at times as if my mother and I alone had experienced the horrors of the Hunger Winter. Only she understood and shared my anxious demand that our pantry or kitchen cupboards be well stocked with cans of food, “in case of another famine.”

Years later I went into therapy after moving to the United States. Part of my healing was a pilgrimage to Amsterdam for a brief intense analysis with a Dutch Rabbi who was also a Jungian analyst.  Almost fifty years after it had happened, I was surprised to hear people in Amsterdam still discuss the trauma of the Hunger Winter. I also found a book with photos taken by Resistance fighters that portrayed images of the malnourished and starving children of the Hunger Winter.  I had been one of them.  Suddenly I did not feel so alone with my memories anymore and began to heal the trauma.

YZM: Why did you decide to write this memoir now?

HDV: I have taught and lectured on the topics of trauma, life transitions and women’s empowerment, as a family therapist for over thirty years.  In that context I was able to share stories of my childhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with friends, students and colleagues, who often urged me to write my memoir.  I hesitated at first, because it felt somewhat self-indulgent to write about my childhood when I have lived a long successful life, while so many others were brutally tortured and died horrible deaths under the Nazis. But when I saw torch-bearing neo-Nazis carrying swastikas in Charlottesville, VA, on my television screen and I witnessed the resurgence of white supremacist rhetoric, hatred, prejudice, and the current Administration’s attacks on women’s rights, I realized I had an obligation to publish the book.  Unless we pay attention, history will repeat itself. 

I was only a child, but I was an eyewitness to Nazi thugs spouting white supremacist ideology as they dragged people they deemed “inferior” out of their homes and loaded them into trucks to be slaughtered.  It was a time in our history when we could be killed just for the act of owning and listening to the radio for information. I will always carry the vigilant awareness that freedoms we take for granted can be taken away at lightning speed and that hatred is easily fanned by leaders who gain power through stoking fear and prejudice. Those of us who survived the unspeakable brutality of Nazi tyranny have an unquestionable duty to future generations to share our stories.  As my mother said when she was asked why she joined the Resistance and hid a Jewish girl:  “I would hope that someone would do the same for my daughter if circumstances were reversed.” And then she added words that I have made my own: “Remember, not one of our children is safe, unless they are all safe.”

YZM: Did the trauma you experienced influence your decision to become a therapist?

HDV: Yes, it did.  But trauma is a complex issue, since traumatic events are often encapsulated within the psyche and not dealt with until a current event triggers the memories. I locked mine away for many years, while I enjoyed being a swimming champion, young wife and mother in Australia.  The full impact of my childhood trauma only resurfaced after a series of events––a permanent move to Denver, Colorado, for my husband’s career, the unexpected death of my father, and the break up of my marriage––shattered my defenses.  I entered Jungian analysis, went on an intense spiritual quest, and decided I wanted to become a therapist who could help others deal with their trauma. When I made the pilgrimage to Amsterdam, I worked with a Rabbi/Jungian analyst who had me visit the places where the trauma had taken place. He also encouraged me to tell him my story in Dutch, the mother tongue of the little girl who experienced the trauma.  Without my own healing, I doubt that I could have been a successful therapist to others

YZM: Can you explain the meaning of the title?

WHEN A TOY DOG BECAME A WOLF AND THE MOON BROKE CURFEW…

HDV: Many people who first hear about my memoir are curious about the meaning of the “odd” title. The images refer to actual events that I personally experienced and describe in the book, but they carry a deeper symbolic meaning that reflects the experience of many women today.  It began with my bedtime story-telling rituals with my father, who instilled in me the magic of imagination.  He and I would play imaginary games in which my tiny stuffed toy dog could transform magically into a fierce wolf, a protector. My belief in its magic strength empowered me to ask a German guard to pass the tiny stuffed toy dog on to my father, who we were allowed to visit before he was sent to the POW labor-camp in Germany.  He stood on the other side of a barbed wire fence, where I could see but not touch him.  I firmly believed that my tiny stuffed toy could protect my daddy and bring him home safe.  Later I recognized this wolf-like strength in my mother when she joined the Resistance against Nazi oppression, and modeled how to move from victim to heroic survivor, from helpless child to a grown-up empowered woman.

The image of the full moon came from another actual event, an event that my mother would often refer to with tears in her eyes for the rest of her life.  On New Year’s Eve of 1944-45, at the onset of the Hunger Winter, my mother decided we should attend a community church service, as part of a gathering to pray for peace. The Protestant minister who led the service was also part of the Resistance. The frosty cold winter had created dangerous conditions on the streets.  Slippery ice covered the sidewalks and bridges along the canals that we had to navigate carefully on our walk home in the dark after the service.  A heavy cloud layer had hung low over Amsterdam for days. An almost impenetrable darkness obscured the pathways that evening.  All streetlights had been extinguished, windows were darkened by blackout material, and a Nazi curfew threatened that anyone still on the streets after 7 or 8 pm (it depended on the mood of the Nazi patrol) could be shot.  The service lasted longer than anticipated.  I write in my book that I remember little from the service itself except that my mother worried about our walking home in the dark.  But when the church doors opened, a brilliant, gigantic full moon, hanging so low I thought I could touch it, lit up the whole landscape.  My mother would refer to it as God’s “miracle.” The “miracle” moon illuminated our path home.  That night, it showed us the powers of darkness that tried to extinguish all the light in our world did not have the final word.

In our patriarchal mythologies the moon is often seen as feminine.  Its cool reflective light deemed lesser than and merely passively reflective of the burning masculine sun.  But as a therapist, who worked with clients and students on the archetypal patterns that shape our life stories, a more exciting meaning revealed itself to me.

Born and raised in a time when women were expected to be obedient as little toy dogs and passive as the reflective moon, the enforcement of culturally prescribed gender roles that take away women’s rights remind me of gun-toting Nazis who threaten people they deem “inferior” or those that dare to disobey. The women who resisted the dark evils of prejudice and hatred in WWII drew down the moon to illuminate their path when the powers of darkness tried to permanently extinguish all the Light in the world.

 Brutal power thrives on creating fear and survives on human passivity and obedience. 

I discovered in my therapeutic work that my story of the traumatized child was not just mine, but the story of every person wanting the world to be healed.  Every experience, every story of victimization, whether of hatred, cruelty, abuse, betrayal or discrimination, also contains the courage to survive and the resilience to move on.  Like the waxing moon each story increases the light to reveal assaults carried out and hidden in the dark. I question the moon being symbolized as feminine because of her passive reflection. It is clear to me that when women reflect on their experiences and share their stories we beam an active light on every abuse that hides in the dark. In the sharing of our authentic experiences we create the “miracle” full moon that can break the curfew of oppression.  

 

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the Fiction Editor at Lilith and the award-winning author of eight novels and twenty-eight books for children. She is also the editor of two essay collections and her short fiction, essays and articles have appeared in numerous national and literary magazines. Visit her at www.yonazeldismcdonough.com or www.facebook.com/yzmcdonough

© 2011 Lilith Magazine