Worth Reading

An interview with Hendrika de Vries

An Interview with Hendrika de Vries author of a When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew


You experienced a lot of uprooting from what a “normal” childhood might look like. How did that effect you and what did you learn most from your childhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam? 

As a therapist for over thirty years I have learned that a “normal” childhood is more of an illusion than we imagine.  Around the world we see children suffering violence, hunger and prejudice, and, as therapists and social workers we know that even behind the façade of our safe suburban homes, many children silently endure the trauma of incest, of physical or verbal abuse, and domestic violence.

I grew up at a time when people who were deemed “inferior” were dragged off the streets to be slaughtered, and when discovered listening to the radio could get you shot.  I will always carry the vigilant awareness that freedoms we take for granted can be taken away at lightning speed and that hatred is easily fanned by leaders who attain power through stoking fear and prejudice, but I was fortunate to have had parents who taught me the spiritual and emotional power of integrity, moral conscience and courage.  Their strength of character lives inside of me and has enabled me to guide others in my work as a therapist, teacher, and writer.

How did your mother’s choice to join the Resistance and hide a Jewish girl in your home impact you as a young girl? 

At the time that my father was deported to Germany, I was an only child surrounded by friends and cousins who all had siblings, so that when my mother told me we were going to hide a Jewish girl I was thrilled that I too would have an adopted older sibling. But as she and I formed a sisterly closeness and often slept in the same bed, I could never figure out at six-years-old why the Nazis wanted to kill her.  I believe this set me on my lifelong path to try to understand human behavior and an eventual spiritual quest for the divine. By joining the Resistance and breaking Nazi-imposed laws, my mother sowed the seeds for my adult feminism. She modeled female strength, showed me the limitations of culturally imposed gender roles that expected women to be passive, and taught me that active disobedience could be an empowering act of moral courage and love.

Right alongside surviving Nazi-occupation, you survived the Hunger Winter of 1944-45 in which 20,000 Dutch people died of starvation. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

The Hunger Winter of WWII Amsterdam was not written or talked about much during the early postwar years, when the discovery of the death camps and slaughter of millions of Jews sent shock waves through the Western World.  Our family emigrated to Australia and I sometimes felt that my mother and I alone experienced the trauma of the Hunger Winter. This created an intense mother-daughter trauma bond that would require many years of personal therapy to untangle.  When I returned to Amsterdam in 1993 for analysis with a Dutch Rabbi/Jungian analyst, I was surprised to find a book with photos that had been taken by Underground workers, of the malnourished and starving children of which I had been one. Suddenly, I did not feel so alone with my memories anymore.  I could acknowledge the origins of my intense need for physical security, for warmth and food, and my fear of empty kitchen cupboards, and began to heal the trauma.

What is the meaning of your title?

The title of my memoir refers to two actual events, described in detail in the book, that gave me a lifelong  belief in the power of our imagination to change the world. Born and raised at a time when women were expected to be obedient as toy dogs and passive as the reflective moon, I see a similarity between the enforcement of culturally prescribed gender roles that take away women’s rights and gun-toting Nazis threatening those they deem “inferior” or those that dare to disobey.  The women and men who resisted the dark evils of prejudice and hatred drew on their wolf nature to resist and drew down the moon from behind the clouds to illuminate their path when the powers of darkness tried to permanently extinguish all the Light in the world.

In light of war, violence, separation, betrayal, hunger, poverty and emigration, how did your mother’s choices empower you to become a successful woman?

My mother was a bit of a “tiger mom” who taught me not to let fear or feelings of helplessness turn me into a victim.  A woman of deep faith, intuitive wisdom, courage and practicality, she believed every problem was simply a challenge and taught me that survival and success both depend on a disciplined mind and a focus on the tasks over which we have power––even if it is only to make your bed or brush your teeth. Connect with the higher power in your life, whether it is God or your own conscience, trust your dreams, and give thanks for what you have.  Her rituals of survival, determination not to let fear turn us into victims, and daily practice of gratitude, have guided and empowered me at every turn of my life.

How has your experience with male presence influenced your perspective of gender? 

The little girl who experienced the Nazi presence and cruelty did not identify the Nazis, whether Dutch or German, as evil because they were men, but because they were “bad people” filled with hatred and prejudice instead of love and kindness.  Raised on Grimm’s fairy tales with evil kings and monstrous witches, I believed that evil transcended gender. On a more personal level, I saw my father respect women, and male resistance workers treat my mother as an equal warrior in the fight against tyranny,  but I also witnessed other men (Nazi and non-Nazi) dismiss and reprimand my mother as if she were an ignorant child, simply because she was a woman. These early experiences gave me a glimpse into the connection between the abuse of power, based on ideologies of supremacy, and cultural gender bias that shaped my future feminist views about the need for a gender equality that is based on mutual respect and an acknowledgment of our shared humanity.

 What drove you to write your memoir now? 

Over the years, as I shared stories of my childhood in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam with friends, students and colleagues, I was often told that I should write my memoir.  I always hesitated, because it felt self-indulgent to write about my childhood experiences, since I have lived a long successful life while so many others were brutally tortured and died horrible deaths.  But after seeing torch-bearing Neo-Nazis carrying swastikas in Charlottsville, Virginia, on my television screen last year and witnessing the current resurgence of hatred, prejudice, and attacks on women’s rights,  I realize that those of us who have experienced the swift erosion of freedoms and the brutality of Nazi tyranny have an obligation to future generations to share our stories.

What ways have you overcome your own trauma? Has that helped in your role as a therapist? 

Trauma is a complex issue, since traumatic events are often encapsulated within the psyche and not dealt with until a current event triggers the memories. For many years, I locked mine away, while I enjoyed being a swimming champion, young wife and mother in Australia.  The full impact of my childhood trauma only resurfaced after a series of events––a permanent move to Denver, Colorado, for my husband’s career, the unexpected death of my father, and the break up of my marriage––shattered my defenses. I entered Jungian analysis, embarked on an intense spiritual quest, and eventually made a pilgrimage to Amsterdam to work with a Rabbi/Jungian analyst who had me visit the sites where the trauma had taken place and encouraged me to tell him my story in Dutch, the mother-tongue familiar to the little girl who had experienced the trauma. Without my own healing I doubt that I could have been a successful therapist to others.

What advice would you give someone who may be facing trauma in their lives currently?

Do not go it alone!  Seek support, surround yourself with people who understand trauma and are able to hear your needs and concerns, and find a therapist.  Know that you can survive and thrive. Take action. We are all much stronger than we think we are, and with the current increasing awareness about the impact of trauma, help is available if you look for it.

Hendricka’s book When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew  is available on Amazon

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