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.


Stumbling Across History with Imogen Matthews

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 Pas-Opweg: Inspiration for the front cover of The Hidden Village

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.



Signpost to Het Verscholen Dorp -the real hidden village

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.


Reconstruction of an underground hut

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…


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Visit my Author Chat Room to meet Imogen Matthews.  Please see my review of The Hidden Village at My Reading.


Please see my blog at jessiecahalin.com.