Dutch War Secret in my Handbag

Do you know the Dutch built a village for the Jewish community in World War Two?  Imogen Matthews tells the inspirational story in ‘The Hidden Village’.  She has written to her readers to explain more about the forgotten history and to introduce her dramatic extract.

Dear Readers

I’m so pleased to tell you about ‘The Hidden Village’, my novel set in WW2 Holland, deep in the Veluwe woods. It’s a story about survival, hope, despair, and ultimately, love, as a community pulls together to build a purpose-built village to shelter those persecuted by the Germans. The lives of young Sofie, Jan and Liesbeth become entwined with devastating consequences for their future.

About half-way through the book, Jan and his brother, Oscar, are arrested by the Gestapo for helping a fallen American pilot. This extract describes what happens after their terrifying journey in the back of the Nazis’ vehicle.

I chose this extract because it represents a dramatic turn in the story and shows how ruthless the Germans could be towards the Dutch people, even children.

I hope this extract will tempt you to read the book.  I am delighted to present more context about the novel.

Best wishes

Imogen Matthews



‘Is this a prison?’ he whispered to Oscar, who stood, white-faced, next to him.

‘It’s a police station but there are cells through that door,’ said Oscar.

‘They’re going to lock us up?’

‘Looks like it.’

Jan wished Oscar could be a bit more encouraging.

It was their turn next and they went up to the desk together.

‘Name,’ said the man behind the desk without looking up.

‘Oscar Mulder and Jan Mulder,’ said Oscar.

‘One at a time.’

‘We’re brothers. He’s only eleven,’ said Oscar.

Jan pushed close against him.

The man lifted his gaze for a brief moment, before going back to his form. After a short pause, he pulled out another from a pile and wrote Jan’s name in capitals across the top, followed by a line and a squiggle Jan couldn’t read.

Jan decided to let Oscar answer the questions. When he’d finished, they were both led by the smirking SS-er to the door leading to the cells. Again a feeling of panic rose from Jan’s abdomen at the prospect of being separated from his brother. They were marched along an echo-y corridor lined with closed doors. Jan had to break into a trot to keep up. At the end was a metal door that needed four keys to open it.

Jan and Oscar didn’t need telling. They walked through and the door swung back behind them with a decisive clang.’


More about the Novel

Deep in the Veluwe woods lies a secret that frustrates the Germans. Convinced that Jews are hiding somewhere close by, they can find no proof.

The secret is Berkenhout, a purpose-built village of huts, many underground, sheltering dozens of persecuted people.

Henk Hauer, head woodman, is in charge of building of underground huts and ensuring the Berkenhout inhabitants are kept safe, But could his friendship with certain German soldiers endanger the very existence of Berkenhout?

Sofie, a Jewish Dutch girl, is one of the first inhabitants of Berkenhout. At first she refuses to participate in village life and pines for her friends and family. But she realises there is no choice and comes to appreciate the support of the local community who make their survival possible.

Young tearaway, Jan, finds the woods an exciting place, but they pose danger from the patrolling German soldiers. His discovery of Donald, an American pilot, changes everything.

The Reviews

Ms E. Holmes-ievers: “From the first chapter you are engaged with the characters and I even found myself warning them when they were due to be raided – OUT LOUD! Sensitively written, with a page-turning plot, this is a wonderful new book from Imogen.”

Gilly Cox: “This skillful blend of fiction within the factual events happening to many at those times, holds you till the end. I couldn’t put it down, nor did I want to until the final page.”

Clarky: “Though the subject matter is tough, there are lighter moments and the book rattles along at a good pace. The varied cast of characters, especially the younger ones, keeps your interest. Highly recommended.”

The Characters

This was a story I felt I had to get down, so when I’d finished I was pleased I’d told a story that so many people won’t have known anything about. It left a big hole as I’d spent so long on the book and I realised just how attached I’d become to my characters.

I miss Sofie’s feistiness and determination not to let her life change by hiding away from the Germans. And I miss her best friend Liesbeth, who sticks by Sofie through thick and thin, even though she also has to make her own big sacrifices. I even miss the enigmatic Henk, the head woodman, who’s instrumental in getting the hidden village built, but struggles with his loyalties. I particularly miss Jan, who’s always getting into scrapes but is only trying to help others and do good. He goes through so much that I just want to give him a big hug and tell him that everything will turn out alright.

The Author

My Dutch heritage has shaped me and influenced the writing of this novel, which is set in the woods where my family and I have cycled for the past 27 years.

This is a story about events in WW2 that hardly anyone knows about. Once you start reading The Hidden Village you’ll be gripped and won’t want to let the book out of your sight!

The Hidden Village’ is a bestseller in the US with over three hundred reviews.  The novel explores wartime Holland and asks: Who can you trust?  You can read my review of this book at……

Imogen re-visited the setting of the novel and has mailed an article to Books in my Handbag Blog.


Please see all my extracts at Book Extracts and my blog at jessiecahalin.com.


A forgotten history in my handbag

The Hidden Village


Imogen Matthews





This novel takes you back in time to World War Two, in Holland, and is based on fact.  You will find yourself in the village of Berkenhout, hidden deep inside the woods.  Reading this narrative, with the hindsight of a 21st century reader, you fear for the people throughout the book.  Turning each page with dread, you try to hope…

From the outset, Jewish people disappear in the Dutch village.  There is ‘A windowless van parked up ahead, its back doors open and the German soldiers were shouting at the elderly couple to get in.’  Such occurrences become part of everyday life for a community that decides to ‘stand up’ and support their Jewish neighbours.   It is an incredible story!

The community hide their Jewish neighbours in attics and summerhouses. Eventually, an entire village is constructed, in the woods, to protect these vulnerable people.  It is intriguing to observe how a community work together.  In turn, Matthews examines how the hidden villagers feel trapped.  It is sad that ‘freedom seemed an impossible dream’ yet we know it is better than the fate of their counterparts outside of the village.  How could they have realised the danger?  The German occupation is an ever-present menace that pursues the characters.  ‘All it took was a stray German to bump into’ one of children running through the woods with supplies.  Will they be caught?

The pathways, the darkness and the sounds of the forest help to personify the menace that is present throughout the novel. Sofie observes that:

‘for now, the sun was shining and it filled her with the warmth she’d forgotten existed’

The woods that symbolised freedom and adventure for children become an uncertain place.  As in a nightmare, the shadows of fear begin to dominate but will the monsters ever become real?

A society is developed with rules, regulations and leaders but there is tension.  Matthews explores the pressures of a community within a community.  She presents some very strong central characters who grow up in this unnatural world.  It is heart-breaking to observe how the children lose their innocence.  These children live with uncertainty and broken families – they have to find an inner strength.  The community spirit is heartening yet wanes under the burden of war.  Some of the younger characters rely on friendships to support them but they learn about cold, brutal betrayal.

This isn’t a fairy-tale in the woods and ‘you just have to keep hoping’.   You won’t go hurtling from one resolution to another.  You know that not all the characters will survive.  But you will take a look at how brave, unselfish people can work together in the face of injustice and discrimination.  Children will play a real game of cat and mouse, with the Germans, as they risk their lives to deliver food to hidden villagers.

The woods also conceal a village that provides sanctuary for lost souls. You will find Englishmen, Russians, a defective German, an American. World War Two was fought in villages by brave people. Sometimes these brave people feel the weight of responsibility; sometimes these people go missing and sometimes they return.  The narrative successfully captures the world of chaos.  There are raids by German soldiers and some news of the outside world but even this information is in the shadows.  The reader is distanced, with the villagers, from the outside world but niggled by their twenty first century knowledge.

Imogen Matthews

As more and more refugees arrive in the village to seek sanctuary, one cannot fail to see the parallel with the refugees in Europe.  Matthews gives an insight into how desperate people are driven into circumstances. The author guides you towards the uncertain ending.  Find out about Lisebeth, Sofie, Jan and Oscar as they ‘soundlessly’ creep through their adolescence, in a chaotic world.  Get inside of the hidden village and find out more about the impact of the exceptional circumstances on the very real characters and dilemmas.  The characters of this book will never leave your memory and it will make you reassess the terrors in our own world.

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Please see all my reviews at Books in Handbag and my blog at jessiecahalin.com.