The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith
Reviewed by Gail Murray
The Dutch Wife, Canadian author Keith’s debut novel, opens in 1943 occupied Amsterdam with the arrest of resistance workers Marijke de Graff and her husband, concert violinist and history professor, Theo de Graff who are sent by cattle car to Ravensbruck and Buchenwald German concentration camps respectively.
Chapter Two introduces thirty-three-year-old Karl Muller as he begins his assignment as Schutzhaftlagerfuhrer, second in command, at Buchenwald.
Chapter Three suddenly jumps ahead thirty years to The Dirty War in Argentina as a journalism student, Luciano Wagner, is kidnapped by the military junta. His crime – attending a student rally. He’s accused of involvement in terrorist activities opposing the government and provoking student disobedience i.e. a political prisoner just like Marijke and Theo. Innocent Luciano is destined to become one of the desparecidos – the disappeared ones.
These are both oppressive regimes where innocent people suffer atrocities but the connection is tenuous. Luciano and the desparecidos are better served as a separate novel.
After forcing myself to read Luciano’s horrific torture, I skimmed over the chapters dedicated to his story, finding that they detracted from the main story line of twenty-five-year-old Marijke’s daily struggle for survival in the concentration camp. Luciano’s connection to these characters is only revealed in the thin yet shocking epilogue. Be advised the gruesome beatings, graphic rape, and torture Luciano endures were too disturbing for this reader, not to mention the hopelessness of his situation.
Keith divides up the chapters evenly between Karl, Marijke and Luciano. In the end, I did read the chapters with a focus on Luciano to ascertain his story.
Marijke wills herself to live. “I was determined not to be worn down, not to transform into one of the skeletons that moved through the camp like the living dead . . . I would do whatever it took to make it through the war alive.”
An S.S. officer selects young, blonde Aryan women to service the prisoners’ brothel, offering hot water, separate quarters, and decent food to those who would volunteer. Marijke seizes the opportunity to survive starvation, dysentery, typhus, heavy labour and for a chance to locate her husband.
In writing this novel, Keith strives to honour the almost two hundred women prisoners who served in camp brothels. In 1942 Himmler ordered prisoner brothels opened in ten significant Nazi camps to increase production efficiency among the forced labourers. Keith explains:
During the course of my research, I came across information about the concentration camp brothels that were designated for prisoner use. This came as such a surprise, and I was so drawn to the idea of the women who were forced to work there. Few people have heard of these brothels, in part because of the stigma that would have been attached to the forced prostitutes and the men who visited them. This discovery developed into Marijke’s story, which quickly grew to take over the focus of the novel.
Through our main character, Keith shows us in painstaking detail the physical pain and humiliation these women suffered, from probing questions about their sexual history, disinfection baths, rough vaginal exams, injections to ward off V.D. to the raw pain of ‘assembly line' fifteen-minute sex sessions with eight prisoners every night.
The Dutch Wife, dark at times, is an absorbing read as we are drawn in by main characters so deftly drawn. Keith’s writing is fluid, easily read, despite the horrors she conjures. Her richly developed characters compel the reader to empathize with them, even the Nazi commandant. The young Schutzhaftlagerfuhrer, Karl Muller, is Keith's most complex character, with shades of light and dark; tenderness and arrogance. Perhaps he represents innocent German youth seduced by Hitler’s propaganda. Then there is his strained relationship with his father. Striving for paternal approval, young Karl gives up biology for economics and joins the S.S. in an administrative position, climbing the ranks. While thinking of his father’s service in WWI, he acknowledges the blood on his hands “there was nothing glorious or heroic about what lay within a barbed wire world.”
When asked about her purpose in characterizing a Nazi officer in such complexity, Keith explained: I kept wondering about the motivations and beliefs of the perpetrators, what could make so many everyday Germans capable of carrying out such atrocities. My initial goal was to examine the psychology of an SS officer, trying to unpeel the layers of hatred and propaganda to find the person beneath it all. How did he rationalize his behaviour?
Karl seeks out Marijke as a distraction from his repugnant duties. Their growing relationship drives the novel as she fights her own inner demons. Although she loves her husband; she is attracted to Karl. She sees beneath his austere manner a hidden vulnerability yet “he was still the enemy.” Karl is her protector at the camp yet dare she refuse or anger him? It is the powerful and the powerless. She struggles with her passions. Is she his lover or his whore? The lines between love and lust are blurred. Karl loses my sympathy with his single vengeful act on her innocent husband.
Keith tells us “while all of the characters in The Dutch Wife are fictional, their stories are rooted in facts.” She has told a powerful story that portrays the best and worst in mankind and illuminates the human spirit.
The Dutch Wife is published by HarperCollins Canada.