To the North
A hard-hitting story about children fleeing from starvation in WWII
Naar het noorden (To the North) is set in the winter of 1944-1945, the winter of starvation, and the book makes an immediate impact. Not just because of what happens in the first two chapters – Jaap (almost 11) has a baby sister who lives for only a few minutes – but mainly because of the way Koos Meinderts writes about this family tragedy: in his subtle style and with precise observations.
‘She lay in the shed in a shoebox that belonged to my father. Black shoes for men, made by Bata, size 45. She did not have a coffin. “We really need the wood for the stove,” my father said. He would take her to the cemetery soon.’ And then later: ‘My father carried the shoebox as you carry a baby, on his arm.’
The force of this book lies in the details, which are often harrowing, presenting a vivid picture of the era and making the suffering palpable.
Other than watery slop from the soup kitchen, Jaap’s family have barely anything to eat. His mother is a shadow of her former self, his brother Little Kees’s belly is swollen with hunger: ‘Kees weighed less than a balloon. One tiny breath of wind and he would oat away.’
Their parents decide to send Jaap, Little Kees and their sister Nel to the north, where there is more food. Between 40,000 and 50,000 malnourished Dutch city children were sent to the countryside that winter.
After a distressing journey by boat, the three children are sent to live at separate addresses in the province of Friesland. Meinderts sensitively describes this minor culture shock: urban, Catholic Jaap finds himself in a village with a strictly Calvinist couple who would rather he did not make the sign of the cross before eating.
Jaap misses home, particularly when he has to deal with a personal war, with his classmate Tjeerd. After four months, he is allowed to return to the city, but how has his family fared in the meantime?
The German occupiers are never mentioned as such. There are soldiers and bombings, but the emphasis is on the consequences of the war for these children, not on the politics behind the war. A beautiful book, which is also attractively designed and illustrated.