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The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Reviewed by WILLIAM EDWIN FANN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2070-a-2071. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2070-a
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By Henriette Roosenburg. Pleasantville, N.Y., Akadine Press, 2000, 222 pp., $15.95 (paper).

With the maturation of our nation’s post-World War II generation, growing up from "me-ism," ephemeral personal loyalties, and a culture of drugs and relaxed sexual mores (begetting, in the bargain, the most irresponsible generation of men ever), there has come a growing propensity to examine antecedents (e.g., the prolonged popularity of Brokaw’s reverent nostalgias [1, 2]). The events of World War II were so catastrophic, their toll so vast, that meaningful understanding may be available, as in Brokaw’s work, only through the subjective effects of it all on the individual. The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg, is a tale at once absorbing in its immediacy, beautifully instructive, moving, and personal. It is a compelling account of patriotism, heroism, incredible privation, surmounted odds, and survival.

Henriette Roosenburg was active in the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of her country, literally risking her life gathering and carrying Allied intelligence across Low Country borders, writing for an underground newspaper, and saving downed Allied airmen. She knew the penalties of discovery: the Nazis published, repeatedly proclaimed, and demonstrated their methods and intentions (summary executions, imprisonment, torture, deportation). Roosenburg was a graduate student at the University of Leiden when the war began and already an accomplished writer in Dutch and English. She could have lived a quiet life, resigned to wartime deprivation and neutrality at home with her middle-class parents, and made it through the war as did many of her countrymen, but she chose action with the Resistance.

Captured in 1944 by the Gestapo, Roosenburg was deported to a concentration camp in southeastern Germany to await execution as a Nacht und Nebel (NN), night and fog person, the lowest class of Nazi prisoner. Those NNs not executed immediately were considered officially dead, kept in solitary confinement, received no mail or medical care, allowed few amenities, and provided starvation rations (one slice of bread and a cup of watery soup daily). In May 1945, the prisoners were liberated by the Russians.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down is Roosenburg’s chronicle of the war’s conclusion as seen by the camp inmates, the process of their liberation by the Russians, and the daily tribulations she and her fellow ex-NNs endured as they made their way home through a devastated and hostile foreign country.

Roosenburg familiarizes the reader with the contrived inhumanities that characterized the conditions and environs of the concentration camp. We meet in brief sketches "Zip" (her Resistance code name) and her three fellow Dutch NNs, Nell, Joke ("Yokuh"), and Dries (the only male of the quartet). Their individual adversities, shared afflictions, personal affection, and ingenuity in confronting the daily dilemmas of their lives constitute the substantive elements of this saga.

Chapter 1 begins, "May 6, 1945, was a day of foreboding." An unfamiliar guard opened the cell doors and disappeared, leaving the milling prisoners awash in rumors and fearing the worst. As it became evident that the regular prison keepers had fled the area, the terror of possible imminent execution turned to joyful excitement. The prisoners’ assessment of their reality quickly turned their ecstasy to somber survival issues: securing food, caring for the more exigent of their members, and negotiating with their Russian rescuers. They soon became grimly aware that no arrangements had been made to transport them to their homes some 400 miles away.

The prisoners’ reorganization of the crowded facility displays the civility, decency, and discipline of this disparate multinational group whom the Nazis had decreed unfit to exist. In confronting one especially cruel ex-guard, Zip could not bring herself to gratify a repeated vow to kill or even physically punish her. The threat of deportation to a camp in Russia led the group to try to find their own way home. Honor-bound, they delayed their start to ensure medical assistance for their friends who were too disabled and sick to travel. Finally, with their pitiful possessions and provender in tow, the four set off without papers, funds, maps, or guidance over the dirt and gravel roads of the provinces. Getting past Russian checkpoints, German civilians, and the ubiquitous (often amorous or predatory) Russian soldiers in the countryside, scavenging food, finding shelter for the night, and coaxing their depleted bodies and blistered feet over the hilly miles were daily routines. They slept in barns, under improvised tents, on straw or hay, all a telling improvement from the bare prison cells. Scant meals were used as a celebration of their freedom with manners and rituals that mocked the crudity of their circumstances. Hovering constantly over them was the specter "that we were outlaws, without any means of proving our identity, far away from homes which might not even exist now, living by our wits in a country shaken by the chaos of defeat, but we were free and we were happy." River travel in a found boat gave relative safety from shore-bound dangers and warm, generous receptions from Dutch river-barge crews (some of the most moving vignettes in the book) but meant new hazards as well: gunfire from Russian sentries, treacherous passage through a collapsed bridge, and finally confiscation by Russians of their precious little craft.

The quartet made it to an American-sector air base, where Zip wangled their way onto a military supply plane to Belgium. When they got to Holland, they were treated like returning heroes and chauffeured to joyful receptions by their surviving families. Zip was later awarded a medal (the first woman ever to receive the Netherlands’ Bronze Lion) and became a correspondent for Time, Inc., famous both in the United States and abroad.

The reader will care deeply about these real people whose story reads like an improbable adventure novel. Their courage and exploits show that manifest kindness, unimaginable tenacity, and transcendent spirit are actual human qualities. As Noel Perrin writes of the author in his foreword to the book, "She even shows, without particularly meaning to, that patriotism can be a solemn and lofty thing. It may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but under the right circumstances it is also the first thought of heroes."

Brokaw T: The Greatest Generation. New York, Random House, 1998
 
Brokaw T: The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections. New York, Random House, 1999
 
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References

Brokaw T: The Greatest Generation. New York, Random House, 1998
 
Brokaw T: The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections. New York, Random House, 1999
 
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