This Faithful Book: A Diary of World War Two in the Netherlands

by Madzy Brender à Brandis, translated and edited by Marianne Brandis

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My latest book is actually a collaboration with my mother, Madzy, long deceased.  During the Second World War, while we were still living in the Netherlands, she wrote a diary, and I’ve translated it from the Dutch and edited it, providing extensive background information and explanations.

The diary covers the years 1942 to 1945.  The Netherlands was occupied by the Germans, and the Dutch population was suffering not only the dangers of warfare and of arbitrary “government” by a foreign power but also a shortage of food and other daily necessities.  

When she begins the diary, Madzy has just (five days earlier) given birth to a baby boy, Gerard.  (She already had a daughter – that was me, three and a half years old.)  Two days after the birth, Madzy’s husband, Wim, a demobilized cavalry officer, was taken prisoner and sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  To deal with the shock of his abrupt and alarming disappearance, coming on top of a difficult birth, Madzy began to write the diary, and she continued it until Wim’s safe return, three years later.  She wrote about daily life, not only that of our own little family but also that of the village, Maarn, where we lived.  She recorded what life was like for civilians in wartime – the loneliness of women whose husbands were absent, the difficulties of feeding and clothing a family when everything was rationed, the fear that came from knowing that at any moment a bomb might land on our house, or that the house might be requisitioned by the occupying troops.

“This faithful book” is how Madzy referred to the diary that she was writing.  In a stressful and very unsafe time, it was a refuge for her.   What she wrote is a very personal story, but it has wide reverberations: it throws a vivid light on the lives of civilians – mainly women and children – in wartime.

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By the time she began the diary, Madzy was already a writer.  She was an educated woman, knowing several languages and having studied law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.  In 1936 she had married Wim Brender à Brandis, also Dutch, who was working in New York at the time, and she joined him in the United States for two years until they returned to Holland in 1938.  During those two years she wrote columns for a well-known Dutch newspaper about life in the U.S.  After the war she would write a book, Land for Our Sons, about our life on a pioneer farm in the north of British Columbia (Canada), a number of short stories, many memoirs, and dozens more newspaper columns.  She was also a copious letter-writer – in fact, the diary is framed and worded as a letter to Wim.

So diary-writing came naturally to Madzy.  Her skill is visible everywhere.  She enlivens a picture by including well-chosen details.  She flips from narration into dialogue to create vivid little scenes that could have fitted in a novel.  She deals frankly with her longing for Wim and describes the emotional stress resulting from living with almost constant danger.

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My interest in this diary goes back a long way.  After Madzy’s death in 1984 her papers came to me, and the diary was among them.  I had not known about its existence, but I recognized immediately what a treasure it was, not only for the family but as a historical document.  I drew on it for the “war” chapter of Frontiers and Sanctuaries (see “Earlier Work / Books in Print”), the biography that I wrote of Madzy, though there I could use only relatively short passages.  

Wim, my father, was still alive when I was working on Frontiers and Sanctuaries, and he did an extremely rough translation of the diary and, more important, identified people and places mentioned in it. 

In the course of translating and editing, I had to make innumerable decisions.  My primary goal was, of course, to be as faithful as possible to what Madzy had written, not only the contents but also the tone and style and feel of it.  However, I also had to produce something that was readable.  So I edited out some of the repetition that is inevitable in diaries, and I provided explanatory material – preface, introduction, headnotes, footnotes, conclusion, and appendices – that put the diary into a context which explains many aspects of Madzy’s life and enriches the significance and relevance of the story.  My aim was to allow readers to get inside Madzy’s life, so that they could feel what it was like to live in that situation.  In this, I was completing the process begun by the vividness of Madzy’s own writing.

This Faithful Book, my fifteenth book-length project, drew on many of the skills that I had developed in my earlier work: historical research, recreating historical living conditions, bringing characters to life.  As with Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset (see “Earlier Work / Rare, limited-edition, and out-of-print books”), I was dealing with a real person and had to work within that framework.  I had to make the most of the rather limited material that was available – because, however detailed the diary is, there are gaps.  (There were innumerable questions that I would have liked to ask Madzy!)  The editing required careful pruning to make the “story” more clearly visible and easier for readers to follow, while not removing anything essential.  Writing the framing material required many decisions about what to include, and how much (not too much!).  

I said at the beginning that this was a collaboration, and it was.  In 1945 Madzy took the story as far as she could, and in her old age she prepared an extensive commentary on it, which was of great use to me.  She also wrote other memoirs and semi-fictionalized narratives about the war.  I searched through all of this material for anything that would illuminate what she wrote in the diary, and from it I created a coherent whole.

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