Minco, Marga

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MINCO, Marga

Pseudonym for Sara Menco. Nationality: Dutch. Born: Ginneken, 31 March 1920. Family: Married Bert Voeten in 1945 (died 1992); two daughters. Career: Lives and works in Amsterdam. Awards: Mutator prize, 1957, for Het adres; Vijverberg prize, 1958, and Multatuli prize, both for Het bittere Kruid; Mutator prize, for De andere kant; Annie Romein prize, 1999.



Verzamelde verhalen 1951-1981. 1982.


Het adres: 3 bekroonde novellen, with Ingeborg Rutgers and Auke Jelsma. 1957.

Het bittere Kruid: Een kleine Kroniek. 1957; as Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle, 1960.

Het huis hiernaast. 1965.

Terugkeer. 1966.

Een leeg huis. 1966; as An Empty House, 1990.

De dag, dat mijn zuster trouwde. 1970.

Meneer Frits en andere verhalen uit de vijftiger jaren. 1974.

De val. 1983; as The Fall, 1990.

De glazen brug. 1986; as The Glass Bridge, 1988.

De zon is maar een zeepbel, twaalf droomverslagen. 1990.

Nagelaten dagen [The Days They Left Behind]. 1997.

Short Stories

De andere kant. 1959; as The Other Side, 1994.


Editor, Moderne joodse verhalen (anthology). 1965.

Kijk 'ns in de la (for children). 1974.

Editor, Onder onze ogen verhalen over de oorlog (anthology). 1995.


Critical Studies:

"Marga Minco, Het bittere Kruid: Ironie en tragielk" by Luc Renders, in Klasgids: By die Studie van die Afrikaanse Taal en Letterkunde (South Africa), 12(4), 1977, pp. 9-15; "Het bittere Kruid by Marga Minco: Paradise Lost: Paradise Regained" by A. van den Hoven, in Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Neerlandaises, 8-9(2-1), Fall 1987/Spring 1988, pp. 92-96; "Bitter Herbs, Empty Houses, Traps, and False Identities: The (Post)-War World of Marga Minco" by Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor, in Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies/Revue Canadienne d'Etudes Neerlandaises, 17(1-2), Spring/Fall 1996, pp. 184-89.

* * *

Almost everything Marga Minco has written is, to a greater or lesser degree, marked by her experiences as a Jew in The Netherlands during the German occupation (1940-45). Born in 1920 with the name Sara Menco, she was the youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family. As a young journalist she distanced herself from Orthodoxy and developed a sturdy independence that helped her survive by passing, with her blue eyes and dyed-blond hair, as a Christian. She was the only member of her immediate family to survive.

Minco's first book, Bitter Herbs (1960; Het bittere Kruid, 1957), describes through the eyes of an adolescent how her family, failing to see clearly and act resolutely against impending arrest and deportation, is deported and never returns. The young heroine, however, whose real name the reader never learns, manages to survive through the help of the Dutch resistance, living in numerous safe houses with false papers until liberation in April 1945. Bitter Herbs (the reference is to the unleavened bread and bitter herbs that are eaten to remind one of the Exodus from Egypt) was an instant success, earning several literary prizes, including the Vijverberg Prize in 1958. A Little Chronicle, as it is subtitled, was quickly translated into many languages.

A second book, The Other Side (1994; De andere kant, 1959), was intended to show that Minco could write on topics other than the recent war, occupation, and persecution of the Dutch Jews. It has the distinctly existentialist tone shared by much European literature of the 1950s and, despite her intention, contains material that pertains to the war and to anti-Semitism. The alienation common to much existentialist literature is also, of course, the experience of the Jew in The Netherlands and is central to the life of the lonely protagonist of the eight loosely connected stories of the book. The Other Side received the Mutator Prize.

The novel An Empty House (1990; Een leeg huis, 1966) also relies to a great extent on Minco's experiences underground in Amsterdam. Set in the immediate postwar years, it centers on two women who were in hiding and meet once more. Through their reminiscences, they exemplify and illustrate the different ways of responding to the harrowing past. The Fall (1990; De val, 1983) also makes use of reminiscence and, especially, flashbacks. It relates how an 85-year-old survivor plans a birthday party, only to fall into street excavations and die. Forty years earlier a fall had prevented her from being caught in a roundup, and she had thus managed to avoid deportation and death. The Glass Bridge (1988; De glazen brug, 1986) is likewise set in the aftermath of the war and occupation.

If the war, the occupation, and the fate of the Dutch Jews are central thematically and characterize much of Minco's work, her terse, sober, and almost jerky language and syntax characterize her literary style. Her novels consist of short, crisp, Hemingwayesque sentences. There are frequent flashbacks, which prevent any chronological linearity and which keep the reader in suspense and require care and concentration if one is not to become confused or even baffled.

Minco is one of The Netherland's most popular writers. Her books reveal not only what Dutch Jews faced once the Germans overran the country in May 1940 and what one was forced to do in order to survive but also how a survivor needed to come to terms with the past following liberation in April 1945. Nearly 90 percent of the approximately 140,000 Dutch Jews were deported and murdered. Those who survived relied on help from the Dutch, especially from the Dutch underground, as well as on their own resourcefulness and good luck. The Diary of Anne Frank is, to be sure, the best-known account of years spent in hiding before deportation and death. Minco's works provide another picture with different emphases. A cub journalist at age 18 before the war, Minco was destined to be a writer, and she has proven to be a first-class author. Her life determined that she also become a Holocaust writer, but the Holocaust did not make her a writer as, perhaps, it did of others such as Primo Levi . Like those of Levi or Elie Wiesel , her works excel as literature and do not depend on the Holocaust alone for their effect.

—David Scrase

See the essay on Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle.