Hetty: A true story

hetty-imageBy Hetty E Verolme 

History: Released this month (March 2010), this is one of the remarkable, largely untold, stories of the Holocaust, a story of hope. It is a heart-warming tale that traces the extraordinary struggle and survival of a family through those terrible years. 

The Australian said the adult version of this book was a “powerful and chilling account” of the holocaust. The Australian Book Review called it “profoundly moving” and an “uplifting story”.

Review: “Ultimately Hetty is a story about the strength of the human character to not only survive, but live”

In May 1940 Holland surrendered to Nazi Germany and a new regime sympathetic to the Nazis was introduced.  The life of over 140 000 Dutch Jews changed dramatically.  Hetty Verolme was one of these Jews, but her book reminds us that every Jew (Dutch or otherwise) and other prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were individuals.  Indeed, Hetty regularly revisits the issue of the dehumanisation of the prisoners by the Nazis.

hettyThe book begins 1941.  We are introduced to the Hetty (aged 11), her two brothers and her parents at the time when the Jewish population is forced to relocate to the ‘Jewish Quarter’ of Amsterdam.  The first chapter traces the experiences the Verolme family and friends through to late 1943, as they live through the constant fear of being deported to concentration camps.  Though Hetty’s family has been able to secure an exemption from deportation, which initially kept them ‘safe,’ eventually they too were sent to Westerbork and, ultimately, Bergen Belsen.

In early 1944, when the Verolme family arrive with 1000s of others, Bergen Belsen was a prisoner of war camp containing people captured from occupied territories, not a ‘death camp’.  One of Hetty’s early recollections of the camp is of visiting the washroom and coming across an older inmate.  Her description of the encounter captures the descent of the inmates from individuals to people so degraded that they cease to show shame, or any emotion.   For Hetty and her family, their next ten months are filled with hardship and deprivation but they are able to show a resourcefulness and determination to care for each other.  The dreadful conditions - the overcrowding resulting from the arrival of Jews from eastern Europe, food shortages, humiliating roll calls- are interspersed with recollections of the kindness of the dentist or the luxury of butter on bread.

Life changes again for Hetty in December 1944 when the SS deported the adults in Yellow Star barracks, leaving the children behind.  As the oldest child, Hetty takes on the responsibility of looking after the children and babies, and continues to do so when they are moved to the Children’s House. Essentially forgotten by the SS, except when the Red Cross come to visit, the children’s days are filled with hunger and boredom.  Hetty and the camp Sisters spend considerable time each day trying to secure food from the kitchens, sometimes returning empty handed.  Despite the conditions, there are also opportunities of shared joy: the securing of salami from the kitchens, the children putting on a recital for each other, the gift of a mouth organ from a SS guard, the children working together to organise a birthday party and present for their camp Sister.  As the Allied forces approach, Hetty reveals the growing chaos and disorder within the SS in the camp.  The hope of the inmates is tempered by a wave of typhus running through the camp, which affects Hetty at the moment of liberation.

Whilst children’s fiction on the Holocaust finishes with the death of the main character or the liberation of the camps by the Allied forces, Hetty’s account gives an unique insight into the conditions through to her repatriation to Holland.  There is no instant happy ending.  The lack of food and water in the first few days of liberation is followed by the growing number of dead from typhus and the huge task of identifying and relocating the inmates, whilst everywhere in Europe is experiencing rationing and curfews.  The long wait after the war for news of her parents, and even longer for their return, is beautifully captured in the final chapter, as is her return to Bergen Belsen 50 years later.

As an author, Hetty does not sensationalise or over-sentimentalise events.  She recounts events in a manner that allows the reader to see the difficult choices made day by day in order to survive.  In one paragraph she describes the woods within the camp, noting it would make an ideal summer camp, before rounding a corner to where corpses cover the area the equivalent of a football field.  Throughout the book there are pictures from Bergen Belsen but, unlike the oft seen mass graves that shock us due to their sheer size, this book includes pictures with the names of the individuals in the photo, again humanising the victims.

Reading about the Holocaust should not be an easy task.  What Hetty manages to achieve is a book that draws in the reader with details that make each person in the book real, rather than two-dimensional.  We see that each person has the capacity for good and bad, depending on the choices in front of them at the time.  Ultimately Hetty is a story about the strength of the human character to not only survive, but live.

Hetty is based in Perth and is available for school visits.

Reviewed by Louise Secker
Shenton College


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