The Borrowed House, Hilda van Stockum’s juvenile novel about World War II, opens with a German girl collecting eggs in a barn when the farmwife orders her to kill a chicken for dinner. Janna cannot do it. How could she kill a creature that has a name? And yet what can she, a child, do against the authority of an adult? She makes an excuse— she has a Youth meeting to go to— and runs away. This opening scene is vital to the story because it establishes Janna as a sympathetic character and one that children everywhere can identify with as much as they identify with Fern in Charlotte’s Web. She is kindhearted and she is willing to push back against an order which violates her sense of right and wrong. It’s crucial that we like Janna off the bat because in the second scene we find out that the farmer’s wife is afraid of Janna and lets her off the hook because Janna is a member of the Hitler Youth.
What can a child do when all the adults around her are wrong? That is one of the most important questions the novel asks. And: How can you even know right from wrong when your teachers are unreliable? The Borrowed House shows a child who comes to her own understanding that the Nazis are bad through her own observations of the German occupation, the persecution of the Jews, and the behavior of the SS officers as well as through her friendships with a handful of Dutch people.
Recently I was disturbed when a friend reported on a conversation she’d taken part in where a couple of people insisted that no “good people” could have ever been deceived about the Nazis or believed they offered anything good. I wonder if those people would even give the story of The Borrowed House a chance or would they rather put it down after the first chapter and insist on it being removed from schools and libraries as a “dangerous book.” The fact that people believe that no good people could ever have been taken in by the Nazis, shows how very necessary this story is.
Bella and Sophie read The Borrowed House before I did and I admit it gave me pause when they first told me that the story was told from the point of view of a German girl during World War Two and that she loved Hitler and was a Nazi Youth. And as I read the book myself the anti-Jewish sentiments that Janna spouts at the beginning of the novel were very disturbing. But Van Stockum is a novelist I trust on this subject. She won my trust by her portrayal of the moral issues during the German Occupation of the Netherlands in the first novel she wrote about this period, The Winged Watchman. So I wasn’t surprised really but I can say that I was delighted at how realistic and human Janna’s growth in understanding is. She isn’t enlightened in one thunderclap moment, she makes little baby steps and does unlikable things along the way. But over time her moral compass becomes stronger and stronger and her ability to think for herself matures.
Just as it was her relationships with the Hitler Youth leaders Kurt and Hildegarde (and Hildegarde’s stirring narrations of the stories of the Ring Cycle, especially about the character of Brunhilde) and the other young people in the Hitler Youth that Janna was indoctrinated into Nazi doctrine— both through her relationships and through the stories that her friends tell— it is through her relationships with Mina and Corrie, Hugo and Sef, and her mother — and the stories that they tell her– that Janna grows in understanding of the evil of the Nazis.
By the end of The Borrowed House Janna comes to reject the Nazi way of thinking of people in terms of categories and instead comes to see them as individuals. There is no such thing as “a Jew” Janna muses, there are just people. The Nazi brand of categorical thinking is so reprehensible because it allows people to dismiss, or even to hate whole groups of people without ever having to consider them as unique persons.
Taking part in several recent discussions of racial tensions in this country have led me to ponder how this kind of labeling, categorizing, putting people into boxes is not only wrong when the oppressors do it to the oppressed, but it is equally wrong when the oppressed do it to the oppressors. It’s wrong when whites do it to blacks and just as wrong when blacks do it to whites. It’s wrong when the Irish— Protestants and Papists— do it to each other. It’s wrong when the Serbs and Croats do it, when the Turks and Armenians do it, when the Tutsis and the Hutus do it. Anytime we put people into boxes, label them, and refuse to see their personhood or to hear their stories, we deny the imago Dei, we spit on the face of Christ.
One of the beautiful things about The Borrowed House is that the Dutch servants in the house, Janna’s tutor, and the underground forger all accept Janna as flawed as she is. They come to see in her not “a German” or “a Nazi” or “a Hitler Youth” or “the enemy” or “the oppressor” but as a lonely young girl in a foreign, war-torn land, as a person worth knowing and loving.
In her book Forming Intentional Disciples Sherry Weddell says, “never accept a label in place of a story”. She meant it in the context of evangelizing, of bringing the Gospel to people where they are instead of where we think they should be based on the box we have put them in. But I think it’s a good universal rule of thumb for all human encounters. Never accept a label in place of a story. To hear someone’s story requires patience and time and trust and relationship. It requires that we listen and accept the wholeness of the person instead of the two dimensional label that would be so much more comfortable to slap on them.
And last week I remembered what Sherry said when I was listening to an interview that Seamus Heaney gave in 1999, an interview in which Heaney and the interviewer speak of hopes of peace in Northern Ireland. And one line from Heaney really struck me. He says that he is “rejoicing” that “a common story is achieved.” He goes on to say:
“. . This isn’t the terminus, it’s a beginning, a middle, a wobbling around, nevertheless it represents somewhere everybody has arrived together . . . whether you think of yourself as British or Irish, if you live in the northern collective. . . the story has somehow become one story . . . ”
A common story is achieved. It’s not just a fancy poetical way of seeing, it gets to the heart of what true reconciliation must mean, does it not? Wherever division between neighbor and neighbor has been deep, where grievous generational wounds fester. . . this is the aim: that we somehow can come to the point where we can have one story that brings us together and makes us whole. And no matter who you are, whether you are victim or oppressor, if you refuse to listen to other people’s stories, if you refuse to let the other side have a voice, no matter how reprehensible you find them, no matter how terrible they truly are, or what horrific things they have done, we will never be able to achieve a *common story*. It is only by listening to each other’s stories, by refusing to accept labels in place of stories, that we can ever hope to achieve peace, healing, wholeness. Of course this assumes that peace is what we are aiming for and not an eye for an eye until everyone is blind.
In The Borrowed House Dutch-born Hilda Van Stockum, makes a rather surprising choice: to tell a story of the German occupation of her native Netherlands from the point of view of a young German girl, a member of the Hitler Youth, who at the beginning of the novel spouts the typical Nazi lines about racial purity, the evil of the Jews, and such. As the novel unfolds Janna is confronted over and over again with evil in various forms: an old woman being dragged off because she is handicapped while a Hitler Youth who Janna admires tells her not to worry, she doesn’t matter anyway; a frightened man on the train who is almost taken up by the police until Janna redirects them to a camera smuggler who was trying to use that frightened man as a human shield; cities devastated by bombs; cattle cars filled with people; a Jewish mother and her baby attacked by soldiers; a Dutch family ousted from their home and separated from each other; rumors of gas chambers and camps; and a brave young man shot to death in the street defending an innocent baby.
Although Janna comes to be aware of evil, it only happens over time. And in the meantime she is often selfish. She wears the clothing of the girl whose room she is living in. She loathes the lonely German boy who lives in the house with her. She takes a ring that doesn’t belong to her. She continues to wrestle with the Nazi ideas. And she recoils when she finds out her friend is a Jew. The novel asks us to imagine being Janna. Imagine that your parents are far away and that the Hitler Youth is the one place you feel you belong, that there you hear beautiful stories, myths of rings and heroes. Imagine that you are taken from the place you know and love to a place where you are a stranger, an invader, the enemy. And imagine how very hard it is to change.