Marga Minco, a Dutch novelist who was one of the last of a generation of European Holocaust authors whose works are widely considered literary classics, died on Monday at her home in Amsterdam. She was 103.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Jessica Voeten.
In her writing, Ms. Minco described the stark crisis of Jewish life in the Netherlands during World War II, based on her own experiences. Her first and best-known book, “Het Bittere Kruid,” published in English as “Bitter Herbs,” chronicled her life as a young woman from the time of the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940 until after the country’s liberation in 1945.
In just 89 pages, in spare, wry prose, she described incremental shifts to her life as Nazi persecution gradually degraded and dismantled the Jewish community. In one scene, she depicted an absurdist conversation with family members in which they discussed the most attractive stitch to use to sew the yellow Star of David onto their clothes to mark themselves as outcasts.
She used the real names of her family members but fictionalized other details, including her age. For a pen name, she dropped her given name, Sara, and chose Marga, one of the aliases on the false ID she had used when she went into hiding.
Ms. Minco had written much of the book in diary form while living in Amsterdam with her parents, but she lost those pages when she had to flee. After the war, a few parts were published as short stories in magazines.
At the time, there was still little public discussion about the enormous toll the war had taken on the Jewish community — of some 140,000 Jews registered in the Netherlands before the war, about 104,000 were murdered in the Holocaust.
“Bitter Herbs” was released in its entirety in 1957, becoming a best seller in the Netherlands, and is now seen as a touchstone of European Holocaust literature. The Dutch version has never gone out of print, and the book has been translated into 20 languages.
“There are a lot of books about the war, but many of them carry the burden of the period in which they were written,” Mai Spijkers, director of Prometheus Books, who was instrumental in publishing Ms. Minco’s later books, including “The Fall” (1983) and “The Glass Bridge” (1986), said in an interview for this obituary. “‘Bitter Herbs’ will still be a classic in 100 years; if you want to feel how this war was, it’s just a timeless book.”
Because the protagonist of “Bitter Herbs” is a young Jewish girl in hiding and the book is written with the immediacy of diary entries, Ms. Minco has often been compared to Anne Frank. In the Netherlands, “Marga Minco is for the older generation just as well known as Anne Frank,” Victor Schiferli, a fiction and poetry specialist with the Dutch Foundation for Literature, said in an interview.
Although she wrote about other subjects — in her 1959 short story collection, “The Other Side,” for example, she told a fictional tale about a housewife trying to explain to a detective why she shoplifts — Ms. Minco always returned to her personal experiences from the war and the postwar period.
She was influenced by the postwar European absurdist writers, many of whom were poets, Mr. Spijkers said. Her writing process usually involved whittling sentences down to their bare essence.
“She’s like the Raymond Carver of Dutch literature,” Mr. Schiferli said. “Everything that can be left out is left out, but the theme is huge, almost unbearable.”
He added, “It’s mostly what’s not said or not written that makes it so strong.”
Sara Minco was born on March 31, 1920, in the village of Ginneken, the Netherlands. She was the youngest of three children of Salomon Minco, a traveling salesman, and Grietje Minco-Van Hoorn.
Sara aspired to be a writer from a young age; at 18, as soon as she finished high school in the nearby city Breda, she got a job as an apprentice reporter for her local newspaper, The Bredasche Courant, writing reviews and news items.
In May 1940, not long after the German invasion, Ms. Minco was fired from her position because she was Jewish. Her parents believed that the occupation would not be dire, and they didn’t have the resources to flee, so the family stayed.
Her sister was the first to be deported, with her husband, followed by her brother and his wife. Forced to relocate to the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, her parents were arrested there in 1943. Ms. Minco, who was with them at the time, managed to flee through a garden fence and went into hiding for the rest of the war. After the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945, she learned that she was the only surviving member of her extended family, except for one uncle.
After the war ended, Ms. Minco married Bert Voeten, a poet who had been her boyfriend before the war and, although he was not Jewish, had gone into hiding with her. He died in 1992. In addition to her daughter Jessica, a journalist, Ms. Minco is survived by another daughter, Bettie Voeten, who was born in hiding during the Dutch famine of 1944.
“She was always a silent person,” Jessica Voeten said of her mother. “The sparseness of her written words — that’s her.
“In many interviews she gave over the years,” Ms. Voeten added, “she always said the reason that she wrote about her family was that she wanted them to be remembered for longer than they lived.”
Ms. Minco’s later books include “Nagelaten Dagen” (“Inherited Days”), published in 1997; “Storing” (“Disturbance”), from 2004; and a 2010 collection of short stories, “Achter de Muur” (“Behind the Wall”).
She received many awards for her work, including the prestigious Dutch P.C. Hooft Prize for her literary oeuvre in 2019. That year the foundation that gives out that award reissued her short story “Het Adres” (“The Address”), originally published in 1957 — a devastating tale about a young girl who returns home after the war to try to retrieve her family’s possessions, which her mother had left with a neighbor for safekeeping.
Although the girl recognizes her mother’s belongings in the strange house, the neighbor rebuffs her, and she leaves empty-handed. “I resolved to forget the address,” the girl says as she walks away from the house. “Of all the things that I had to forget, that would be the easiest.”
Nina Siegal has been writing about European art, culture and history for The Times from Amsterdam since 2012. More about Nina Siegal
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