Book

Marga Minco

Bitter Herbs

Moving and memorable

Marga Minco is the only member of her immediate family to have survived the Second World War. Her father, mother, brother Dave and his fiancée, her sister Bettie and husband – all were deported to concentration camps. None returned.

Minco’s entire oeuvre is informed by these dreadful, incredible facts. She once said in an interview, ‘Whether I want to or not, I always return to 1940-45. Those were the years that made the most impression on me.’ The inability to let go of the past is undeniably the overarching theme in Marga Minco’s work.

Bitter Herbs, which dates from 1957, was Minco’s debut novel. The title refers to a ritual which is part of the Jewish Seder, when unleavened bread and bitter herbs are eaten, partly to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, and partly to symbolize the hospitality offered to strangers. She calls her ninety-page novel ‘a little chronicle’, and in it she evokes her memories from the war years: the evening the whole family gathered to sew Jewish stars onto their coats, the day the call-up came for the ‘work camp’, a forbidden train trip, and the razzias which emptied whole streets.

As in the work of Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz, it is not only simple facts that make Minco’s work so impressive, but the manner in which those facts are presented. Bitter Herbs is written in a limpid, immediate, almost casual style. The scenes in the book are deceptively ordinary, except that their context is vicious. Minco is never explicit; she says more by saying less. Her reminiscences leave a lasting impression upon the reader, because of the open sincerity of the writing and her refusal to resort to any form of literary dramatisation to tell a story that is in itself poignant and dramatic.

The family’s incorrigible optimism enhances the nightmarish effect of this impressive little book. Moving and memorable.

The Times Literary Supplement

The simplicity and complete naiveté of Marga Minco’s account sharpen the impression it makes.

The Jewish Chronicle

The book deserves a wide audience.

Die Zeit

Europe’s catastrophe is here in microcosm.

The Times

Translations

Marga Minco

Marga Minco (b. 1920) grew up in a Jewish family of five in Breda. Unlike her sister, brother and parents, she escaped being arrested and went into hiding during World War II. In 1957 she made her literary debut with the short novel Het bittere kruid (Bitter Herbs), the laconic and devastating…

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Details

Het bittere kruid (1957). Fiction, 90 pages.

Publisher

Bert Bakker

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NL - 1017 CG Amsterdam
Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 624 18 34
Fax: +31 20 622 54 61

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Website:
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