Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2021

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg

When I was a child, I read The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. I remember it vividly as the story of four children making their way across the ravaged landscapes of postwar Europe to find their parents.  Now, more than half a century later, reading Henriette Roosenburg’s gripping memoir of her postwar journey home to Holland from the Waldheim camp in Germany, I feel the same sense of awe at the human courage and indefatigable quest for home that pervades the book.

First published in 1957, and now reissued by Scribe Publications, The Walls Came Tumbling Down begins with an Introduction to set the context and introduce the four companions who were liberated by the Soviet Army from the Waldheim Concentration Camp in May 1945.  They were three young women who were members of the Dutch resistance, caught by the Gestapo and sentenced to death—Nell; Joke (pronounced Yokuh); the narrator Henriette Roosenburg codenamed ‘Zip’; and Dries, a merchant seaman caught trying to escape to Britain in 1944 and also sentenced to death.  All four were members of the Nacht and Nebel (‘Night and Fog’) group of political prisoners (NNs) who were treated more harshly than any others and whose whereabouts were always obscured in order to magnify the deterrent against resistance.  This Introduction includes a remarkably restrained description of their brutal treatment and the ways in which they managed to communicate despite solitary confinement.  Although at all times Roosenburg understates the horror, the narrative also includes a sobering explanation of the (strictly forbidden) embroidery that they did, using needles stolen when they were forced to mend uniforms and socks for the German army,

From the very beginning, I also managed to hold onto a square linen handkerchief of my father’s that I happened to have when I was caught.  As time went on, this piece of linen became more and more valuable, for as I passed through each prison I embroidered in small characters the name, my cell number, and dates, plus in a half circle around them, the song we associated with that particular jail, and some microscopic drawings of the things that happened to us.  (p.9)

So, for example, when they were at a prison near Aachen in September 1944, ‘Zip’ embroidered a crude drawing of a gun (in field-grey thread pulled out of uniforms I was supposed to mend) to convey the fact that we heard what we thought was Allied gunfire.  

The Introduction concludes with the harrowing ten days when the liberation of the camp was imminent and they did not know if the rumour was true that they would be executed beforehand as ordered by Himmler.  (It was true, and in the dying days of the war that order was indeed carried out in other camps.)

The memoir then begins with the group’s freedom, though it was a circumscribed freedom.  Despite their yearning for home and their desperate anxiety to know the fate of their families, they could not just set off for Holland.  With millions of displaced persons (DPs) and slave labourers throughout Europe, there were constraints against movement, both official and practical.  Transport was chaotic or non-existent; airfields and bridges had been destroyed; and debris blocked roads and river crossings (even if a vehicle or boat could be found).  Because of the Nazi policy of concealing the existence of the NNs, they were all undocumented so they had no identity papers, which were essential when the Allies were keen to round up any Nazis and their sympathisers.  To make matters worse for the Dutch DPs, the Nazi blockade of Holland caused the 1944-45 famine known as the Hongerwinter, and although the Allies were flying mercy missions and organising relief operations, they deferred repatriation until the famine was brought under control.  The camp inmates were also in perilous health and very weak.  With their tormentors gone, camp inmates raided the kitchens and stores in the camp but…

The following days brought the full realisation that, although we were free, the prison was still our only home, and that no arrangements had been made by the conquering armies to take us back to our own homes some four hundred miles away.  It was a cruel disappointment, especially to Nell, who had had visions of flagged Red Cross buses that would drive us triumphantly through a defeated Germany, stopping every two hours or so for succulent meals to be served by humiliated Nazis.

Instead we were left to shift for ourselves. (p.45)

The qualities that made these women of the Resistance invaluable served them well in terms of ‘shifting for themselves’.  ‘Zip’ was resourceful, resilient and optimistic, and she was a quick thinker able to take advantage of whatever opportunities came their way. She had also learned to master her demeanour when deceptions were necessary; she was an accomplished thief; and she had an intolerance for rules.  The solidarity of these prison companions was entrenched: they were loyal to each other though thick and thin, and as they made their way across the blasted landscape where everyone was hungry, they shared everything even when it was desperately little.

Roosenburg is frank about her hatred of Germans but was able to recognise that they were not as individuals all vile perpetrators of evil.  She was also well aware of the threat of Russian rape but recounts numerous examples of their help and kindness.  She also recognises how ‘childlike’ they were: many of the Russian soldiers were illiterate country folk struggling with a Babel of languages in a situation beyond anyone’s experience or comprehension.

The tone of this memoir is upbeat, and surprisingly amusing.  The joy of freedom and her delight in being able to take independent action after their long captivity pervades each chapter. Roosenburg doesn’t labour their sufferings but rather portrays each difficulty as merely a hurdle to be overcome.  She does, however, have brief moments of self-doubt about deceiving kind people or officials who might face disciplinary action for helping them:

…as I settled myself comfortably on the steel springs of my bed, I wondered sleepily whether the captain had really been taken in or whether this had been his way of giving us a chance that he could not officially allow.  Rather regretfully, I decided that the former was more probably true, for he had signed his name and rank and used official stamps, which he would have tried to avoid if he were playing our game.  But my conscience wasn’t strong enough to keep me awake.  I turned over, and in a few minutes was sound asleep.  (p. 237)

The Afterword by Sonja Van ‘t Hof, and translated by Laura Vroomen, goes into more detail about Roosenburg’s life after liberation, her Resistance activities, the success of the memoir and how it came to be forgotten until now.   As she says, the book

…is a thrilling adventure with women in the unexpected leading roles.  It is also a historical document that provides a glimpse of the chaos in Germany immediately after the end of the war. (p.275)

Highly recommended.


About the author, from the Scribe website:

Henriette Roosenburg (1916–1972), known as ‘Zip’, was part of the Dutch resistance during World War II, collecting news for the underground press and helping maintain an escape route for crashed Allied pilots. After being arrested in 1944 and condemned to death, she survived internment in a Gestapo prison in Germany before being liberated by the Russian army in May 1945. After the war, she emigrated to the United States, and started to work for Life Magazine. She wrote the first draft of what would later become The Walls Came Tumbling Down for The New Yorker.

Henriette Roosenburg died aged only 56 in France.  You can read her obituary at the New York Times.

Author: Henriette Roosenburg
Title: The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Afterword by Sonja Van t’ Hof, translated by Laura Vroomen
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2021, first published in 1957
ISBN: 9781922310156, pbk., 304 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications


Responses

  1. Hi Lisa
    I read both of these books (The Silver Sword and The Walls Came Tumbling Down) in my early teenage years, more than 50 years ago, and was deeply moved by both of them at that time. I have not read them since then, but will now try to get hold of both of them to re-read, and to try to recall, if possible my initial reaction and relate it to what I would think now. Thanks for raising awareness of these two books and prompting me to revisit them.
    Best wishes
    Chris

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  2. Hi Chris, it’s interesting, I wanted to borrow The SIlver Sword from the library and have placed a reserve on it, but #amazing, they have two copies and both are out on loan. So it’s still a book that kids are reading even today.

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    • Hi Lisa
      I have just chatted to my wife about these books. She also read The Silver Sword in her youth but not The Walls Came Tumbling Down. She distinctly remembers reading The Silver Sword as a Puffin paperback, whereas I remember reading it in hardback, looking just like the image you show. A little research has revealed that it is still in print with Penguin/Puffin, and that the hardback was published by Jonathan Cape in 1956. A 50th anniversary facsimile edition was published by Cape in 2006, and I have just found and bought online a second hand copy of that edition from a local Oz dealer.

      I also remembered the original BBC TV childrens’ serial in B&W of The Silver Sword (1958?) that was apparently remade in 1971. I still remember Frazer Hind’s stunning performance as Jan, although he became more famous for his role as Jamie, one of the early companions of Dr. Who. See what memories your review has stirred in me!
      Best wishes
      Chris

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      • I think I must have read it from the library because I don’t have it on my shelves. I used to get a book every Christmas and birthday and I’ve still got nearly all of them, from the time I arrived in Australia. All of them are hardback because I left my paperbacks at school when I retired.
        Perhaps I shouldn’t feel nostalgic but I think it’s wonderful that we share this childhood reading. People of our age mostly read the same things because there wasn’t so much to choose from, especially not when we were children and most of what we read came from the UK.
        But I loved discovering Australian children’s literature at teachers’ college. Ivan Southall and Patricia Wrightson were my favourites then, and I went on discover many more when I was a teacher-librarian.

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  3. My view of Australian children’s books is rather distorted, as I came out to Australia from the UK when I was 25, The only Australian children’s book I can recall from my English childhood was The Magic Pudding, which I found in the local council library (in Oakham, Rutland of all places). So, as a collector of children’s literature, I have had to become acquainted with Australian children’s literature as an adult reader. This is probably why I still mainly collect UK children’s books, as one of the drivers for collecting juvenilia is out of a sense of nostalgia for one’s own childhood.

    Like you, I always received books as birthday and Christmas presents, but unlike you, most of them were handed down to my two younger brothers, so I have had to re-find them as an adult in Australia. I have had mixed success at this, as one does not always accurately remember titles and authors from childhood. What I have also tried to do is find the exact version/edition of the book that I read as a child…easier for those that I owned and was visually familiar with, but it is much harder to remember what the borrowed library books looked like.
    Yours in nostalgia
    Chris

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    • Oh so true! I had to leave books behind when we came to Australia and it is so frustrating when I can’t remember the title of something that is a vivid memory!

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  4. Sounds a very powerful read, Lisa. I’m sure I read The Silver Sword back in my school days but I can’t remember a thing – may be time for a revisit soon!

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    • I would have said the exact same thing, until I read this book and then it all came back to me:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I would love to read this book. Just fascinating. I’m afraid living in a town of 5000 in mid Michigan with a small library I was never exposed to either of these books you mention. Books were censored from children in our public library and we were relegated to books we often could not choose. Typical midwestern religious community of the 50s and 60s. If we wandered into the adult section (Hemingway, Steinbeck etc) we were quickly escorted back to children’s area. Makes me angry in hindsight.

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    • I think we were all much more ‘protected’ in our childhoods, from edited access to libraries to being forbidden to watch the news. I can remember being escorted back to children’s books too, when I was about 12, I think.

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  6. I’ve read a couple of accounts of people trying to get back to the Netherlands from concentration camps after the War and it all sounded very chaotic. I don’t think anyone was doing any planning in relation to returnees.

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    • I think you’re quite right that at the beginning the Allies had no idea of the scale of human misery hidden at the camps. I’ve read a number of books which clearly convey the shock and horror the Allies experienced when they liberated the camps, and it’s true, they had very little idea of how to deal with the immediate situation, which was to bury the dead, treat the sick and starving, and provide food and shelter for everyone else which included the Germans. This memoir tells the story of liberated prisoners at a time when Germany had not actually surrendered, when, clearly, the Allies’ priority (apart from winning the ongoing war) was to help vulnerable survivors and to keep people from adding to the chaos by going into war zones or flooding home to ruins and in the case of the Netherlands, mass starvation because of the famine.
      But there was planning going on, and well in advance. Wikipedia tells me that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was set up in 1943, to provide humanitarian relief to the huge numbers of potential and existing refugees in areas facing Allied liberation. UNRRA provided billions of US dollars of rehabilitation aid, and helped about 8 million refugees. UNNRA played a major role in helping Displaced Persons return to their home countries in Europe in 1945-46.
      The same thing happens here every year after bushfires. People want to go home immediately, when the fires are still smouldering, when there are live powerlines everywhere, and the roads are full of emergency vehicles. Tabloid newspapers report sentimental stories and valorise people who break the rules that are there not just for the safety of the bushfire victims but also the first responders. I admire Roosenburg’s courage and determination, but if everyone had done what she and her companions did, it would have been disastrous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nadia Wheatley’s mother worked for UNHRA. Wheatley’s hybrid biography/memoir is about more than that, but I really enjoyed the insight she provided into that work.

        I remember The silver sword being around, but I don’t think I read it. I reckon I would have liked it, and this one. Like you I am awed by the courage of people like Roosenburg.

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        • It really shows you that powerful longing for home.
          And also that anxiety about whether family had survived. The Red Cross did a brilliant job of reuniting families, and when you think that they did it all with pencil and paper and no computers, there’s a story there to be told as well.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I read The Silver Sword and blogged about it last year, but I hadn’t heard about The Walls Came Tumbling Down, even though it has been republished a couple of times in Dutch over the years. Of course, if I borrow it from the library and read it in Dutch, I’ll miss the backstory about the English version. Dilemmas!
    https://marketgardenreader.wordpress.com

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    • *chuckle* I’m curious about the 1957 edition. There’s no translator mentioned, though that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one because it’s rare for translators to be acknowledged in books from that era. (None of my editions of RussianLit, for example, name the translator). But Roosenburg made her postwar living as a journalist in the US before moving to France, so maybe she wrote it in English? Maybe your Dutch edition will explain that?

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  8. I loved The Silver Sword as a young reader. I’ve just checked my local library catalogue, and three copies of The Walls Came Tumbling Down are available, so I’ll be sure to borrow a copy very soon. Thanks for the recommendation.

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    • Three copies, that’s terrific, they must be expecting it to be popular:)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve not read either of these (although, as you’ve mentioned, there were lots of library loans that I read and reread but don’t necessarily recognize as old favourites by either title or author at this point) but I’m sure I’d enjoy them just as much.

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    • It’s a fascinating period of world history…

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