Must Read! Why This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands Has Important Life Lessons for Today

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One good thing about this pandemic: we have more time to read. This is a silver lining, and let me tell you all about a book that you MUST read: This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands, by Madzy Brender à Brandis, translated and edited by an author we just love: her daughter, Marianne Brandis.

Must Read! Why This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands Has Important Life Lessons for Today

This book is both timeless and relevant to today, and provides much resolution and advice for us in enduring, thriving, and making it through extraordinary times. It is an enduring chronicle of a life lived in unimaginable difficulty. While delving in, I was surprised by the deprivations of life during the war, as well as Madzy’s indomitable spirit. 

I’m quite impressed by Marianne’s hard work, thoughtfulness, and vision in completing this interesting, important book. I cannot stop thinking about Madzy, and how she did the best she could during a gruelling, challenging time–on her own, with two young children and war refugees to support and care for. Women’s lives are often overlooked during historical events, in exchange for something more flashy (war movies are a prime example of this). By looking at the daily life of a wife and mother, we learn much about another side of war–one experienced by at least half the population.

Madzy Brender à Brandis, born in The Hague, came from a sheltered background, but she was independent-minded and adventurous. She studied law and, before the war, lived in the United States for two years. There she began writing, and she wrote eight columns for a Dutch newspaper about her life as a young Dutch housewife in America. She was a prolific letter-writer, and a keen and sensitive observer. The war diary is therefore the work of a woman already accustomed to expressing herself in words.

Marianne Brandis, Madzy’s daughter and a character in the diary, is an author of historical fiction, biography, autobiography, and creative non-fiction – fourteen book-length works, in most of which there is a strong historical element. An important earlier book is Frontiers and Sanctuaries: A Woman’s Life in Holland and Canada, the biography of Madzy’s entire life. In working on the war diary, Marianne drew on the work she had done for that project and on her extensive experience of doing historical research and of bringing the past to life.

This is an excellent phenomenological read, one that teaches you much about life during wartime, as well as how we can survive our own difficulties, today. Highly, highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Marianne, and ask her about the book, inspiration, connecting with her parents in a different way decades later, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Must Read! Why This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands Has Important Life Lessons for Today

Please tell us about your new book, This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands.

Madzy Brender à Brandis was living in the Netherlands when the Second World War began and when the country – like most of western Europe – fell under German occupation. In 1942, about halfway through the war, Madzy’s husband, Wim, a demobilized cavalry officer, was taken prisoner and sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp. Madzy, then 31 years old, was left with a newborn baby and a three-year-old daughter (Marianne, the translator and editor of the diary) to cope with life under enemy occupation, shortages of food and clothing, wartime dangers such as bombing and possible eviction from the house – and longing for and worrying about her absent husband. Madzy records not only the outward conditions of life but also the physical and emotional stress. In one passage, she calls the diary “this faithful, truthful book,” and it was indeed a faithful friend and “ear.” It was her refuge, and we are allowed to be there with her.

Wim had been taken prisoner two days after the birth of the baby, Gerard; three days later, Madzy began writing the diary. It’s a single long letter to Wim, intended to describe our lives during his absence. She recorded the effort of resuming her life after her pregnancy and the birthing, and also of taking over the work that Wim had always done (for instance, she records learning to use carpentry tools and being unable to find things that he had carefully put away). Using vivid and moving details, she writes about what her life feels like to her, and we are fascinated by the way she deals with sudden catastrophes (sound familiar?), and how she manages her daily life as best she can.

Before the war, Madzy had studied classics and law. She was a great reader and had already done some writing: she had a gift for selecting significant details, and in the diary she writes scenes and quotes dialogue. Always aware that it will be read by someone, if only by Wim, she tells small, rueful jokes at her own expense. Detail by detail, she draws us into her life, and it is a life filled with often harrowing dangers and difficulties. 

On 5 December 1944 she writes: “Today I decided that we will sleep without bed-sheets. You’ve been doing that [addressing Wim] for 2½ years already, dearest, therefore why not we? Now that we do the laundry at home [no washing machine, no functioning commercial laundry] there is nowhere to dry them, and no soap.” 

On 25 February 1944: “Last night three V-1s [self-propelled bombs] flew over, one after another; one of them suddenly stopped and crashed with a big bang. Later in the night a fourth came over, so low that the house trembled and I held my breath to hear whether it stopped, but it went well. Marianne dead scared under my blankets.” 

These details create a strong sense of reality, of being right there with her, but they do more: they remind us that, during a war, civilian life continues. Civilians’ and women’s narratives rarely appear in most accounts of a war, which focus on the fighting and the weaponry, but Madzy’s account reminds us that it is the civilians who keep families and communities functioning. People have to be fed and clothed – at a time when nearly everything is rationed or completely unavailable. The village women – civilians are mostly women – grow vegetables in their gardens. (Wim had done the gardening before this, but Madzy had to learn – and learn fast, because growing vegetables was one way of providing food.) The women alter their own clothes to fit the children. When the official (and rationed) food supply becomes dire, they barter their belongings for food. Bombing produces refugees who have to be housed: during the last terrible winter of the war, we shared our small house with seven or eight refugees from the bombed-out city of Arnhem. As Annie Dillard writes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, “life … is always and necessarily lived in detail …,” and Madzy’s diary is rich in detail. 

For Madzy, writing it down was also a way of keeping sane, staying rooted in the daily life which, however distorted, had to continue. Recording the events and texture of her days was both creative and practical, laying down duckboards in front of herself so that she could navigate her way through to the other side, whatever and whenever that was. 

The stress of all this was almost unbearable. A number of times she was nearly killed while out foraging for food or visiting her handicapped brother; once a bomb dropped on the path a few yards behind her. It was a miracle that we and our house escaped destruction, but many others were not so lucky. The stress aggravated Madzy’s heart condition, and she was sometimes completely exhausted and overcome with the misery and stress of her life. The diary is a witness to the survival of the human spirit.

This Faithful Book is, therefore, a fine example of women’s life-writing. Several times Madzy writes that she is speaking for other struggling and lonely – and courageous, resourceful – women. We see not only the texture of a woman’s daily life but also her comments and reflections on what she was experiencing. She uses the diary as a mirror to observe herself – how she is coping, what she needs to do to keep going. And she writes it down in detail and with a high regard for honesty and truth. 

However truthful the diary is in what it does contain, though, there are many signs of self-censorship. Writing a diary in the occupied Netherlands was dangerous: houses were regularly raided by the German occupying forces who were looking for hoards of food or hidden people (Jews, for instance, or men evading conscription to labour camps). Madzy was silent about anything that would endanger her or her friends’ lives. In a narrative written after the war, she wrote that the wooded area where we lived was full of underground activity, and she certainly knew about this at the time, but there is almost no reference to it in the diary.

What inspired you to work on this project?

The obvious importance of the diary as a historical and human document inspired me, and the project was always interesting and rewarding.

The work that I did on it spanned about twenty years, though I also wrote other books during that period. The diary, along with Madzy’s other papers, came to me only after her death in 1984, so I was never able to discuss it with her. However, a few years before her death, she had reread it herself and taped a narrative based on it. (She had rheumatoid arthritis by then and could no longer write by hand or on a typewriter.) I transcribed that narrative, so I had both the original diary and the retrospective narrative available, as well as other relevant writings of hers. 

Her papers, which fill a good-sized cardboard box, include published newspaper columns and short stories, unpublished stories, family memoirs, historical writings, and fragments that might be the beginnings of book-length works. Her published memoir of our lives as immigrants on a farm in northern British Columbia contains flashbacks to the war. There are some letters, but only a small fraction of the thousands that she, a lively and loving correspondent, had written during her life. As soon as I received this box of materials, I realized that here were the raw materials for a biography, so in the years 1999-2006 I wrote the story of her whole life, Frontiers and Sanctuaries. The war years were a vitally important part of that life, so already at that time I immersed myself in the war diary, though I translated only the short passages that I needed for that book. I realized that it was an amazing document, not only for the family but also for the history of the war and for the picture that it gave of the lives of women during the war. “Her” war was the Second World War in the Netherlands, but the fundamental conditions are the same in all the world’s wars – feeding and caring for people, managing daily life under dangerous and difficult conditions, somehow keeping going.

The work of translating and editing the diary to produce This Faithful Book took place in three stages. First I had to translate the entire diary, which is about 90,000 words long. At the time, my father, Wim, was still alive, and I asked him to go through it and identify the people and places mentioned. He did this by producing a very rough translation (not nearly precise enough for publication), and in the course of that, he provided notes. My Dutch is good enough for the nose-to-the-ground translation that was necessary to convey Madzy’s tone of voice and attention to detail. I sometimes used a dictionary, and for slang terms not dealt with there, I consulted a cousin whose Dutch is more up-to-date than mine.

The next stage was editing and pruning. All diaries are repetitive, and this one was especially so because Madzy’s wartime life did not contain much variety. Because the diary was an outlet for her worries and her loneliness for Wim, there were many emotional passages, some of which could be trimmed without losing the sense of what Madzy’s inner life was like. Some other bits were completely obscure, and I cut them. In the earlier part there were many references to the feeding of the baby, and in the section covering the notorious “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, there were numerous reports of our meagre and un-nutritious meals, clearly reflecting a mother’s anxiety about not being able to feed her family properly. It was possible, and necessary, to do some trimming in all those areas, but it had to be done with great care to make sure that I was not deleting something which was needed to explain a later passage. That meant going through the diary over and over again. Some of the deletions were only a few words or a sentence, but altogether I reduced the length from about 90,000 words to about 75,000.

The third and crucial stage – about which I had of course been thinking all along – was supplying explanatory material. Madzy was addressing Wim (often the diary reads like a chat over a cup of coffee, which creates a wonderful sense of immediacy) so there was no need for her to explain people and places familiar to him. I recognized many of the names, but I was a child at the time covered by the diary (six years old when the war ended), and our emigration to Canada (when I was eight) severed many family and community connections. My father’s annotations and Madzy’s other writings were helpful, and I consulted relatives in the Netherlands.

I also needed to provide background information about wartime events and conditions. Readers of This Faithful Book would be easily able to look things up online, if they were interested, but that would interrupt their reading. So I did some of the looking-up, and I put the information in headnotes and footnotes – keeping the notes brief but giving enough information so that the reader would be able to keep reading and to understand what Madzy was referring to.

In addition, I wanted to sketch what Madzy’s life had been like before the war and how it evolved afterwards. The Introduction and Conclusion give the reader an understanding of what kind of person she was, what experiences and insights she was bringing to the writing of the diary, and what her post-war life was like. All this explanatory material adds to the chronicle’s resonance as both a human document and a historical one.

It was obvious that Madzy’s “story” was incomplete without some information about the life that Wim was leading in the camp: that was an essential part of her inner life. Her whole being was reaching out to him, and his letters gave her a mental picture of how he was living. I had to give readers some indication of what that mental picture was. The two of them were able to correspond, but the letters had to be written on forms issued to Wim in the camp, so they were very short, and they were censored. Only three of Wim’s letters from the camp survive, but in his old age he wrote two accounts of those three years of imprisonment, and I supplemented that with research. In the footnotes, I put a few bits of information to help the reader to understand specific passages, and in an appendix I collected all the information that we have and whatever additional material I felt was helpful.

As I worked, I realized that there were in fact two stories here. There is Madzy’s day-by-day chronicle of life in the wartime Netherlands, and then there is the story of the survival of the diary through all our many moves, of Madzy’s later retrospective narrative based on it, her other writings about those experiences, and finally my preparation of this edition. The first story is a chronicle of history as it is happening, and the second shows how that information was later remembered and presented. It seemed to me that this second story, given in the “frame” material, enhanced the diary’s significance by placing it in a larger, retrospective context.

Throughout all this, one of my main tasks was to transmit Madzy’s narrative as faithfully as I could. She herself, in a fragment of another diary, wrote: “My aim is to be as free and uninhibited [as possible] in putting down my very inner thoughts, knowing that no one will read them as long as I live. After my death I do not care what [any]one thinks or knows of me; the more of me and my thoughts the better, for then they won’t put me on an unearned pedestal. Rather let my real self appear, something I so often try to hide. For they often think or pretend to think that I am a better or more honest person than I am. This really worries or bothers me.” Being as truthful as possible to what Madzy wrote was central to my double role as daughter and historian.

Must Read! Why This Faithful Book: A Diary from World War Two in the Netherlands Has Important Life Lessons for Today

What was it like, to connect with your parents in a different way, through writing?

When I first read the diary, Madzy’s death was too recent and too emotional an event to allow me to be detached. The initial impact on me was enormous, and it affected me not only as daughter but as a historian. Madzy was instantly there before me as a young woman of 31, pencil in hand, creating a vivid picture of a life of danger and unbelievable stress. And, because I had been part of that life, she was telling me about my childhood and explaining things which I had not understood. For instance, my lifelong discomfort under a bright blue summer sky was explained: clear weather was, during the war, perfect weather for bombing.

I was about 50 at the time of that first reading, and the diary introduced me to my mother’s earlier life. It explained such things as her agonizing anxiety when Wim was away on trips: she was reliving the anxieties of the three years when he was in the POW camp. The diary enabled me to understand more clearly the need for personal safety and food security that motivated my parents to emigrate to Canada.

By the time I was working on the complete translation and editing, I was in my 70s, old enough to be the grandmother of the young woman who wrote the diary. By then I was far enough from that first reading to have achieved the combination of involvement and detachment that is needed for a project like this: I was both daughter and historian. I was in fact collaborating with her, completing what she had begun. It’s obvious that Madzy came to realize that the diary, in addition to being a letter to Wim, was an important historical document: the reader can watch her becoming consciously a chronicler. On 15 August 1944 she wrote: “These will be important days and I am planning to chronicle them carefully.” She was also the spokesperson for war victims and survivors who had not left their own record.

By the time I was doing that work, I had useful researching and writing experience to draw on. For years I had been writing historical fiction and nonfiction history. In my book Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset, a fictionalized biography, I had reconstructed a life from the many fragments found in the historical record. I had written Frontiers and Sanctuaries, the story of Madzy’s whole life. Almost all the books I’ve written involved historical research, and that experience meant that my emotional involvement in the diary as daughter was always tempered and balanced by the whole solid framework of my mental framework as a historian.

How did this book, the translation, editing, and writing of it, change your memories/perceptions of your parents?

Many of us hear our parents talking about their childhood and youth, and those accounts are always retrospective. What they wrote in their youth is likely to be very different. Our parents were different people then, living in a different world and with different attitudes and perhaps values. As I said earlier, the diary explained much about my mother – and about my father, though throughout most of the diary he is a shadowy figure. The narrative that Madzy wrote at that time shone light on a crucial period of her life while it was happening. As I compared what she wrote in the diary itself with how she later wrote about those experiences, I was struck by the differences, and I dealt with some of those differences in the footnotes.

What lessons do you think Madzy's diary has for readers today?

Madzy was writing as a civilian in the middle of a war. As I said earlier, there are always wars, and there are always civilians. War history tends to focus on the armed forces and the weaponry and the battles, but it is the civilians who keep families and communities going, preserving as much as possible of the fabric so that when the war is over there is something on which to rebuild.

The conditions and experiences that she describes took place in one specific place, but they are part of the history of North America because the survivors of all the world’s wars, who come here as immigrants or refugees, bring experiences like this with them. The diary gives some insight into what they experienced: this is what they are fleeing from; this is what they are contributing to the mix. Like Madzy, they are survivors, and their strengths are part of our world. As I also noted earlier, the diary is about the survival of the human spirit, and that is perhaps the biggest “story” of all.

What's up next for you?

I’m nearly 82 now and am winding down my career: there’s no time left for projects that will take several years to write and additional years to promote. But I wouldn’t know how to stop writing. I’m editing memoirs and genealogical narratives that Wim, my father, wrote, and I’m working on a project with my brother Gerard Brender à Brandis, the wood engraver and creator of handmade, limited-edition books. After that, who knows? There are a few other nebulous ideas hovering.

Learn more: 

The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indigo.

Interested in reviewing the book, and interviewing Marianne, for your website or classroom? Marianne, a much-published writer with a particular interest in history, has provided extensive explanatory and supplementary material so that This Faithful Book resonates with meaning for our time. Marianne is available for interviews, preferably by e-mail, at mbrandis[at] Review copies available.

All photos courtesy and copyright Marianne Brandis