REVIEW: The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Henriette Roosenburg
“How do you start a journey when the roads are blocked? Who can you trust in a country where the Nazi regime has only just fallen?
“This is the story of the liberation of four Dutch political prisoners at the end of World War II, and about their trek home to Holland…” So, modestly, begins this firsthand account of the adventures of three women and one man in the hellish aftermath of the war in Europe. Awakened from the nightmare of prison camp, freed from the fear of the firing squad that had haunted each of them since capture, the four compatriots find that they must still navigate horror itself without food, without papers, without funds. Virtues are all that remain in their possession, and it is these—nobility, friendship, honor, strength, pride in their bloody but unbowed humanity—that guide them home. This is a tale of bravery that will make you care deeply about its protagonists, and weep tears of wonder at their heroism.”
I usually feel slightly uneasy in trying to “grade” someone’s memoirs but Henriette Roosenburg’s account of her final days as a “NN” (Nacht und Nebel) political prisoner in the southern German city of Waldheim before being freed by the Russians as they overran Germany and then her journey to get home is amazing.
As she, along with her fellow Dutch resistance fighter friends Nell and Yoke, had been sentenced to death, they had already beaten long odds to still be alive over a year after being captured. But once the cell doors were unlocked, what would happen and how would they, along with the thousands of other prisoners and slave laborers, manage to get home? As this group was also in the area now controlled by the Russians, they had to cross those lines as well.
Roosenburg’s story is told quietly, for the most part succinctly, but with great precision. Embroidery, along with the determination to communicate with their fellow prisoners and not give in, kept them going while in prison. Single minded resolution to get back home and discover if their families had survived drove them to take what they needed from damaged homes and back gardens in order to get to the Elbe. A chance meeting with some Dutch river barge owners who had been forced by the Germans into slave labor got them a boat.
Snagged by the Russians and put in a DP (displaced persons) camp, they were forced to stay for two weeks while awaiting a mass exchange of freed Russians in the west for freed Europeans in the east of the country. Once across military lines, Roosenburg’s quick thinking and some deft persuasion of Western Allied military personnel zipped them along. But then her nickname during the war was Zip because of how quickly she could cross the Dutch/Belgian border and back.
Along the way, she and her fellows had to face those prison guards who had imprisoned and horribly mistreated them, common Germans – some of whom treated them well, and Russians who could flip between screaming at them and kindly assisting them. They crossed wartorn and devastated areas only to find themselves in a Brussels that was on its way to recovery before the final journey home to a country still desperately struggling with hunger and wrecked infrastructure.
Roosenburg’s writing carried me along and put me right with them as they looted the prison kitchen and began regaining the third of their body weight they’d lost, searched for shoes, struggled to ensure that comrades too sick to travel with them would get hospitalization and be reported to Red Cross authorities, then started out on the roads west with only maps, a few belongings and the resolve to get home. There was one section in the DP camp that dragged a little but the happy tears of joy when she finally got home had me smiling. B+
Breathlessly, I burst into my father’s study. He was standing there, holding a stethoscope to the chest of a half-undressed elderly man. I had forgotten that this was the doctor’s consultation hour!
Dad dropped the stethoscope, and we rushed into each other’s arms. “My child, my child!” he repeated in an oddly high voice, as I sobbed wordlessly against his shoulder.
[And despite the fact that her family had had to survive the last months of the war eating beetroots and tulip bulbs …]
Mother remained supremely indifferent to my Belgian gifts. “I’ve got you back,” she repeated over and over, “I’ve got you back!”