In November, I received some mail from Nunspeet, Holland. Imogen Matthews posted an article to Books in my Handbag Blog, during her annual holiday. On opening the email, I was delighted to read about how she stumbled upon history and the real hidden village.
Imogen Matthews is the author of The Hidden Village, an intriguing historical fiction, and it is a pleasure to hand over my blog to her, today.
The real hidden village and why I wrote a novel about it
The woods are perfectly quiet at this time of year and the only sound is our bikes crunching over fallen beech nuts. We’re on the long straight avenue of tall beech trees arching upwards to meet in the middle. Their leaves still cling on, burnished gold by the sun’s setting rays. It’s a scene I never tire of. At the crossroads, we stop briefly to take photos, as we always do, and carry on towards the hidden village. We know it well after discovering it only a few years ago.
I always look forward to our annual holidays in Nunspeet, where we stay in gezellig holiday houses tucked away in the woods. We know all the cycle routes that track across the heath, past improbable sand dunes and along narrow paths leading deep into the woods.
At least, we thought we did until one day back in 2011, we cycled past a large boulder with something written on it. I stopped to discover it was a memorial stone to the local community who had sacrificed so much to help people persecuted by the Germans in World War 2. I was astonished to learn this piece of history. In 21 years of cycling holidays, no one had ever mentioned this place, nor had I ever read anything about it.
Across the path was a sign to Het Verscholen Dorp, Dutch for hidden village. It wasn’t easy to see what was there, which was probably the point. We followed a rough path through the trees and ahead of us was a hut of some sort, only partly visible. The roof was covered with moss, vegetation and branches to look like the ground beside it. It was a reconstruction of an underground hut that had stood on this spot.
These huts were as dark and secluded as the one shown here, designed to be invisible to the naked eye. Whole families lived inside these cramped spaces and many were so relieved to have somewhere safe to live that they were prepared to put up with less than perfect conditions.
After discovering Het Verscholen Dorp, I was enthused to find out more, but there was very little written material or information on the internet. This made me even more intrigued: so few people today know about what happened on this spot that I wanted to write my own story visualising the events and their effect on these brave people. I knew I didn’t want to write a historical account, but a narrative based on imagined characters who flee to safety inside the village and others who put their own lives at risk to help them. The reality was that there was a huge community who devised the plans to build the village, clandestinely helping to bring people there and provide them with everything they needed, including food, clothing, medicines books and news from the outside. It was remarkable that this village stayed hidden for so long from the Germans patrolling these woods. They suspected something was going on but were unable to uncover the village however hard they tried.
Every year we go back and I walk around the “village” which today consists of three underground huts. There would have been more back in 1943-1944, housing nearly 100 Jewish men, women and children, fallen English and American pilots, Dutch men who resisted going to Germany to work for the Germans and other nationalities looking to escape the Nazis. People were in hiding all over the Veluwe woods, in farmhouse attics, cellars, outbuildings and other purpose-built dwellings, but this was the only organised village.
Today, the woods are a haven for people looking to escape busy lives in towns and cities. The Veluwe is a popular holiday destination, but deep in the woods it’s always tranquil. I imagine how quiet it must have been 74 years ago, although for many the peace was tempered by an undercurrent of threat and fear.
In my story, Tante Else and her helpers do all they can to keep up people’s spirits by visiting every Sunday with coffee, cakes and news.
Tante Else put down her basket and took out a packet of coffee and a cake wrapped in a tea towel. The smell of cinnamon filled the room. She must have baked it that morning. Everyone crowded round to see and soon the hut filled with chatter and laughter.
‘It’s real coffee,’ cried Corrie, taking a deep sniff as she spooned it out into the pan. Tante Else smiled, but wouldn’t let on where she’d obtained such a rare commodity. None had tasted real coffee for months. Everyone had grown sick of the ersatz stuff made from roasted chicory that didn’t taste at all like coffee, just burnt. The smell of coffee filled the air and its effect was as intoxicating as alcohol.
Soon their conversation becomes subdued as Liesbeth, Oscar and tante Else bring them the news from outside. Sofie, just 16 years old, has recently moved to the village and is having difficulty settling in and following all the rules.
‘They’re forcing Jews to wear a big yellow star when they go out. Everyone and anyone can be stopped and searched and if they don’t have ID on them, they’ll be arrested. Every day we’re hearing about people disappearing,’ said Liesbeth.
‘My uncle was arrested in Amsterdam last month. He only just avoided being sent to Vught. Father’s been so angry about this. It’s why he wants this village to be a success,’ said Oscar quietly.
‘This is why it’s best you’re here for the time being. I hope you understand now why we have these rules, which might seem petty, but are for everyone’s safety,’ said tante Else, whose gaze landed on Sofie.
It was too much to bear. Sofie looked away…
Contact Imogen at:
Please see my blog at jessiecahalin.com.