The Walls Came Tumbling Down

May 1945. Three women from the Dutch resistance movement are languishing in a German Nazi prison. The thunder of war outside tells them that the Allied forces are advancing, but they could still end up being executed at the eleventh hour. After the Russian army has liberated them, they find themselves faced with an unexpected question: how do you find your way home without help in a country that’s completely in ruins?

Original title
De muren vielen om
Henriette Roosenburg

Henriette, Nel and Joke were sentenced to death by the Nazis in 1944 for helping Allied pilots who’d been shot down and smuggling military intelligence to England. Before their sentence is carried out in the Netherlands, they find themselves in a German prison, where they keep up their spirits by singing and doing embroidery.

Their euphoria upon being liberated is followed by the sobering realization that no one will be coming to help them. No one in the Netherlands knows if they’re even still alive or where they are. Germany is in ruins and flooded by hundreds of thousands of survivors from camps and prisons. Without identity documents, the women – weakened from their time in prison – are not allowed to leave the Soviet occupation zone.

They set out on foot for the River Elbe with a Dutch sailor, Dries. Here they steal a row-boat called the ‘Montgomery’ in hopes of making it to Hamburg, in the British-occupied zone. They have hilarious encounters with Russian soldiers, but they are also cautious – the Russians frequently rape women. Before they get to Hamburg, they are forced off the water by gunfire and put in a Russian camp. Eventually they are handed over to the Americans as former ‘political prisoners.’ They can finally go home.

A moving yet light-footed memoir, The Walls Come Tumbling Down tells the true story of a journey, with women as the unexpected leads. Their liberation and journey home required just as much courage, inventiveness and humour as their dangerous work in the resistance and their imprisonment had. The literary style almost makes you forget that this book is a historical eyewitness account of an unexposed period in German history: the chaotic first weeks after the end of the Second World War.

The afterword by historian Sonja van ’t Hof provides more context on Roosenburg’s life and the impressive role she played in the resistance.

It’s an absolute knockout.

Viking Publishers, 1957

Here is a book full of utterly unselfconscious heroism.

The Washington Post, 1983
Henriette Roosenburg
Henriette Roosenburg (1916-1972) was born into a wealthy family of doctors in The Hague. During the Second World War, she worked for an influential illegal Dutch newspaper, Het Parool, until a secret agent recruited her to a clandestine route for smuggling people and intelligence over the border into Spain.
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