Bitter Herbs: a Little Chronicle (Het Bittere Kruid: Een Kleine Kroniek)

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BITTER HERBS: A LITTLE CHRONICLE (Het bittere Kruid: Een kleine Kroniek)

Novel by Marga Minco, 1957

In most of her writings Marga Minco returns, to a greater or lesser extent, to the period of the German occupation of her native Holland (1940-45). Her experiences of this time are central to her first novel, Bitter Herbs (1960; Het bittere Kruid, 1957), which consists of 21 chapters and an epilogue. Each chapter is devoted to one event or one aspect of life under the Germans. The epilogue is set in the postwar period and poignantly states the difficulty many survivors had in coming to terms with the loss of family.

The first-person narrator, who is never named and whose age is never given, begins with the return of her Jewish family who, along with everyone else in their community, had fled when the Germans invaded in May of 1940. Back in their hometown, they meet other returnees and briefly discuss the situation. Offhand comments reveal differing reactions: some have left The Netherlands for France, as yet not under German control; some feel that the German presence will be brief; and others are more pessimistic. The narrator's father shows no great concern. Life, he feels, will go on more or less as before, so why worry?

Other chapters describe the relatively benign anti-Semitism that Jews in The Netherlands experienced in their communities, along with the anti-Jewish measures introduced by the Germans almost on a daily basis. The narrator misses much of what happened in the early period of the occupation because of a sickness and lengthy hospital stay. With her return to the community, she is shocked by the changes that have occurred. Her family, however, shows little concern. Even when Jews are forced to wear the Star of David, they accept the measure with, for the most part, no great apprehension. The father buys more than are needed, and the mother sees that they are sewn on neatly. Only the narrator's brother seems a little worried—he would like to remain "normal."

Minco describes the reactions to each new measure, each fresh development. Dave, the brother, resorts to the contents of a mysterious bottle to render him temporarily unfit for labor when he is obliged to report for a medical examination. Fearing separation, they, along with many other Jews, have family portraits taken as a reminder of times when they were together. Gradually families disappear, either through deportation or because they go underground. The narrator's sister is caught in a razzia (raid), and the rest of the family begins to pack and acquire useful objects for their own impending deportation. Suitcases and certain rooms in their apartment are sealed, but still the father remains optimistic. The ghetto will be like a large parish, he believes. Jews will be together as one united community. Dave and the narrator have medical certificates and remain in their pajamas throughout the day to appear ill should they unexpectedly receive official visitors. Non-Jewish "friends" turn up and ask whether they might have this possession or that, because, after all, Jews are not going to be able to keep such objects. The parents, over the age of 50, are forced to move to the ghetto in Amsterdam. One day the narrator decides to cast off her pajamas, remove her yellow star, and visit them. In the ghetto she is forced to hide as a roundup takes place. Meanwhile the Sabbath is celebrated and some semblance of normal Jewish life continues, even as the family's fear begins to grow, and they are accosted in the street by sinister men seeking out individuals for arrest and transportation. Finally, they are sought out by the authorities. The narrator escapes and at last goes underground, staying in a series of safe houses arranged by the resistance. After liberation she discovers that her parents, brother, and sister have perished. The narrator encounters an uncle who waits at a tram stop on a daily basis, convinced that his brother is about to return. He does so in vain but continues his vigil until, grief stricken, he dies.

Minco's style throughout is sober and understated. Sentences are short, description is minimal, and many details are omitted—the reader is expected to fill them in. Chapters often revolve around a central image: a child's toy top figures prominently in one chapter. It is crushed by a German truck and, at the end of the chapter, a little girl cries over her broken toy. Minco does not graphically describe how her family disappears. Often there is simply a report by a third person or an allusion with no mention of name. The growing fear of the narrator's parents is also not stated but is patent by virtue of their actions and responses. Bitter Herbs —the title alludes to the ceremony in which the youngest in a family asks why they eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs and is then told the story of the Exodus from Egypt—is, as the subtitle states, "a little chronicle." It is also a very effective, understated account of how a Jew survived in the occupied Netherlands.

—David Scrase