Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience
By Carolyne Van Der Meer
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
In Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience, debut novelist Carolyne Van Der Meer creates a powerful interpretation of her family’s experiences in Nazi-occupied Holland. This is a story about the Holocaust told from a Christian perspective and based on the experiences of the author’s mother, who, as a child, witnessed her parents’ incredibly brave efforts to help Jews escape the Nazis.
With a clever weaving of fiction and fact, memory and history, Van der Meer pieces together her family’s story and, in doing so, creates a dramatic vision of the day-to-day-struggle to survive during the Second World War and its aftermath, not just for Jews, but also for members of the Resistance.
She begins by travelling to her mother’s hometown of De Krim, Overijssel, about five km from the German border, to see first-hand the house where her mother grew up and where her grandparents risked their lives by hiding Jews in a false floor. This is the start of a personal journey where the author reaches into the past to understand her mother’s roots and succeeds not only in discovering their deep connection, but also her own heritage – an inheritance she hadn’t fully appreciated.
Van Der Meer, whom I know from when we were students at the University of Ottawa, is a prolific and talented writer, journalist and poet now living in Montreal. Her feature articles and poetry have been published widely, but this is her first novel. While a short book at only 128 pages, Motherlode is dense with emotion, and it took me much longer to read than I’d expected, given its length.
The book is divided into four sections, each with a different perspective. Alternating between powerful poems, short stories and essays, Van Der Meer draws together the present and past, creating a dramatic and rich tapestry. Each piece of writing tells a story on its own and, as a reader, I needed time to digest and process the intense emotion each element left in me.
Indeed, Motherlode will affect you. Van Der Meer’s ability to recreate the fears, thoughts and dreams of her mother as a child is uncanny. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the red-headed, gapped-toothed little girl unwittingly singing Resistance songs in front of SS officers.
She also steps into the minds of the Jews her family protected, breathing in their fear and terror with poems told from their perspective hidden under leather hides from the family’s shoe store. Her ability to capture the feelings of others is tremendous. She shares all points of view: those of the survivors, the liberators – including Jewish soldiers – and even one poem told from the view of the family house itself.
It is in these sections where Van Der Meer’s writing is at its most powerful. In particular, readers will be wowed by her poetry, which adds layer upon layer to the poignancy of her family story.
It is no wonder that Motherlode has been added to the library at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. In fact, reading the book brought to mind the famous quote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The book is a tribute to those seemingly ordinary people who chose to act, heroes who refused to turn a blind eye and bravely fought for what they knew was right despite their own peril.
Yes, this family’s deeds, kept quiet for so many years, were undertaken simply because their morality knew what was right. They are an example of good in world and a lesson in righteousness.
Pauline Colwin is the communications consultant for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.