The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith
Published by: Patrick Crean Editions
Publish Date: 2018
Genre(s): Fiction, WWII Lit, Historical Fiction
HB&W Rating: 3.5
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His instructions passed through me. I was no longer Marijke, not even number 21522. I was a whore.
Amsterdam, May 1943. As the tulips bloom and the Nazis tighten their grip across the city, the last signs of Dutch resistance are being swept away. Marijke de Graaf and her husband are arrested and deported to different concentration camps in Germany. Marijke is given a terrible choice: to suffer a slow death in the labour camp or—for a chance at survival—to join the camp brothel.
On the other side of the barbed wire, SS officer Karl Müller arrives at the camp hoping to live up to his father’s expectations of wartime glory. But faced with a brutal routine of overseeing executions and punishments, he longs for an escape. When he encounters the newly arrived Marijke, this meeting changes their lives forever.
Woven into the narrative across space and time is Luciano Wagner’s ordeal in 1977 Buenos Aires, during the heat of the Argentine Dirty War. In his struggle to endure military captivity, he searches for ways to resist from a prison cell he may never leave.
From the Netherlands to Germany to Argentina, The Dutch Wife braids together the stories of three individuals who share a dark secret and are entangled in two of the most oppressive reigns of terror in modern history. This is a novel about the blurred lines between love and lust, abuse and resistance, and right and wrong, as well as the capacity for ordinary people to persevere and do the unthinkable in extraordinary circumstances.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Yup, another WWII novel. I think I may have to either go on a WWII sabbatical and read none of it for a good while, or maybe re-read my favorites in this genre (The Nightingale, The Book Thief, and All the Light We Cannot See) just to feel something again for it.
This book was good, but just didn’t wow me. The most interesting thing about this book for me was the part of it that took place in 1970s Argentina. I don’t think it’s widely known that several high-ranking officers in the SS escaped to Argentina (and other South American countries) and avoided being brought to justice immediately following the war. Some were eventually caught and brought to justice, but others were not.
Side Note: If you’re interested in more about high-ranking Third Reich officials, party members, and collaborators escaping justice, check out this story.
There is even a whole conspiracy theory out there about how Hitler didn’t actually commit suicide but actually escaped to Argentina and began his efforts anew there. But I digress, my point is that I always love it when historical fiction writers pen some lesser known aspects of history, because all too often, we want to be able to say, “good, we won, that’s over. Good guys win, bad guys go to jail.” In our desire to move on, sometimes things get swept under the rug. We want to believe the boogey man is gone so we can sleep at night, we want to believe the happy ending, if you can call that a happy ending. I can’t. But again, I’m getting off point.
I find it interesting that Keith both brought up the Argentina angle, and that she even brought the Catholic Church’s part in escaping Nazis to light…that they aided fleeing Nazis is confirmed, but again, not widely known.
I also found that the author’s use of Karl as an example of what happens when “good” people let bad things happen was incredibly illuminating and grounds for introspection. In what ways have I allowed bad things to continue by not speaking up? It kept making me think of two quotes. The first, from Edmond Burke, is: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” The other, from a YA Fantasy series I enjoyed, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor: “It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.”
There were plenty within the SS who were pure evil, but I doubt any would perceive themselves as such. We humans have a natural instinct for self-preservation, but we are also social creatures, and the desire for acceptance and love is tantamount to breathing for our survival. And so it is easy to see how Karl, for example, who wouldn’t see himself as a bad person, allowed bad things to happen. His desire to please his unappeasable father encouraged his upward trajectory in his career, causing him to look the other way when his Jewish best friend of many years called out a hello to him on the day of his promotion. That same desire to impress his father caused him to aspire to do well within the SS and at the camp, which meant not allowing himself to be seen as weak and thus enforcing things that turned his stomach to watch. I also think that this created a conflict of conscience inside him which made him more volatile.
Docile and concerned as he acted around me, he had a temper that fired up like an engine when he’d had a long day. One minute, he’d praise the meticulous nature of the prisoners tending the camp garden, and in his next breath, he’d accuse them of hoarding potatoes and threaten a flogging. This gave me the sense that he was trying to be two men at once, and I worried what could happen if he ever turned on me.
I think that Ms. Keith addressed it very well with Luciano’s POV in his on-going composition of letters to his father he writes in his mind.
Papá, when this ends, when the military is defeated, the truth will come out. The people–no, we–we will restore this city, this country to its rightful state. And the dead, the missing, we’ll offer them whatever shred of honor we can. You think its best to stay quiet, stick with the flock, even if the flock is headed in the wrong direction. You’re wrong. We have to fight. We have to do something, we have to do anything we can, to show them they won’t succeed with their plans. That we won’t let them win. Argentina needs us, all of us.
Aside from all that, I also thought that the way Marijke told Karl that excusing his bad deeds as following orders, telling himself he was a nice guy because he had one Jewish friend, kind of applied to current events and white fragility. I saw several parallels in this novel for that, whether the author intended that or not, or whether it is just that current events are so closely repeating history, I can’t say.
The other thing that appealed to me in the book, in a tickled my funny bone kind of way, was the scene not quite 100 pages in, where the girls are told to start knitting socks for the Wehrmacht. Marijke had just met Karl the evening before and the other girls were peppering her with questions about him, while she was attempting to knit a row.
“Eighteen,” I counted, raising my voice. “nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.” I didn’t meet their stares until I finished knitting that row.
Clearly Ms. Keith knits (or crochets or both), because for real, don’t talk to me when I’m counting! I do this same thing, count out loud, increasing in volume the longer someone talks to me while I’m counting.
Then there was the bit about sock sabotage, by working parts of the heel just a bit too tightly, enough to be uncomfortable and cause blisters.
…we’ll have part of the Wehrmacht limping its way across Russia.
All in all, a good read, and it raises some interesting points about how easily we can allow evil to flourish, and even take part in it, without ever really seeing ourselves as bad or evil. I think it gives readers a chance for self-exploration.
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