The outstanding features of the writings of Dutch author Marga Minco, who lives and works in Amsterdam, are an economical use of words and an all out effort to convey the experiences of the Holocaust. Born Sara Minco on March 31, 1920 in the village of Ginneken, in the southwest of the Netherlands, as a young girl she moved to Breda, a town near her birthplace, together with her parents, her brother Dave (David, Oldenzaal May 23, 1915–Warsaw January 31, 1944) and her sister Bettie (Betje, Ginneken February 1, 1919–Auschwitz September 30, 1942). Her pious father Salomon (Oldenzaal September 17, 1887–Sobibor May 7, 1943) held the position of parnas (warden) in the local Jewish community and probably made a living as a salesman. Minco’s mother Grietje Minco-van Hoorn (‘t Zandt July 4, 1889–Sobibor May 7, 1943) was trained as a teacher. Minco’s parents, who married in 1914, remained enamored throughout their lives.
The fact that Minco grew up in a predominantly Catholic city and attended a girls’ public school in Breda occasionally led her to dislike Jewish ceremonies and laws. She often wondered what made her different from the other, non-Jewish, children and wished to be as inconspicuous as they. Afraid of running into classmates on the street, she dreaded the moment of leaving the synagogue on Saturdays, but at the same time enjoyed the sound of her name uttered in Hebrew when her father was summoned to distribute honors to the congregants.
In 1938, Marga Minco began work at the local newspaper the Bredase Courant, first reporting on films and eventually becoming a member of the editorial staff. During this time she became acquainted with the Dutch poet and translator Bert Voeten (1918–1992). Voeten was not Jewish and the relationship did not meet with much enthusiasm from Minco’s parents. In 1940, immediately after the capitulation of the Netherlands, Minco was affected by the measures of Dutch citizens who collaborated with the German occupier to exclude Jews from public life. Dismissed from her post, she left Breda, eventually reaching Amsterdam, where she gave drawing lessons at a Jewish elementary school. Her family, who soon joined her in Amsterdam, was forced to move to the Jewish quarter. Minco’s sister Bettie was arrested in Amsterdam during one of the first roundups; her brother was arrested on his way to a place of hiding. When Minco and her parents were picked up to be deported from their home, she escaped through the back door, bleached her hair and went into hiding, using a forged identity card. Towards the end of the war Minco moved into an empty house in Amsterdam together with a group of artists and students. In this home, later portrayed in her novel Het lege huis (An Empty House), Bert Voeten soon joined her. In December 1944 their first child was born. They named the girl after Minco’s sister Bettie, who, like the other members of Minco’s family, did not survive the Holocaust.
Minco and Bert Voeten were married in August 1945, soon after the liberation. During the early 1950s she published short stories in various magazines and newspapers. Her youth and her experiences during the war inspired her to start writing novels and formed the leitmotif in all her books. In 1957, a year after the birth of her second daughter, Jessica, Minco made her literary debut with the short novel Het bittere kruid, translated into English as Bitter Herbs. In a painful, concise way the work narrates the story of a young girl during World War II. The “little chronicle,” as the subtitle calls it, achieved success both nationwide and abroad, selling four hundred thousand copies in the Netherlands alone. Awarded the Vijverberg Prize in 1958, the novel was subsequently translated into several languages and is still a popular work, particularly among secondary school pupils.
Minco’s books are distinguished by, and celebrated for, her sober, reserved way of using words and emotions. Her restrained style and cinematic turn of phrase give her books great power. In her most recent novel, Nagelaten dagen (Posthumous days), published in 1997, the narrator finds herself in a house filled with the possessions of deported Jews. One of the objects, a blue bowl decorated with birds flying into freedom, leads the main character back in time to the last days with her sister. The reader is left in disconcerting suspense regarding the attempts of the narrator to claim the glass bowl, symbolizing memory, and the fate of both the main character and her sister. Minco effortlessly switches back and forth in time, utilizing her spare narrative style to distance her haunting memories of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Minco succeeds in presenting the horrors of her past, transforming them into a never to be forgotten testimony.
Het bittere kruid. Een kleine kroniek. Den Haag: 1957. Translated as Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle. Oxford: 1960 and Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1986; De andere kant (The other side). Den Haag: 1959; Kijk ’ns in de la (Have a look in the drawer). Amsterdam: 1963; (ed.) Moderne joodse verhalen (Modern Jewish stories). Amsterdam: 1964; Het huis hiernaast (The house next door). Amsterdam: 1965; Terugkeer (Return). Amsterdam: 1965; Een leeg huis. Den Haag: 1966. Translated as An Empty House. London: 1988; Meneer Frits: en andere verhalen uit de vijftiger jaren (Mister Frits and other stories from the 1950s). Amsterdam: 1974; Je mag van geluk spreken (You can count yourself lucky). Utrecht: 1976; Verzamelde verhalen, 1951–1981 (Collected stories, 1951–1981). Amsterdam: 1982; De val. Amsterdam: 1983 translated as The Fall. London: 1990; De glazen brug. Amsterdam: 1986 translated as The Glass Bridge. London: 1988; De zon is maar een zeepbel: twaalf droomverslagen (The sun is but a soap bubble: twelve accounts of dreams). Amsterdam: 1990; Nagelaten dagen (Posthumous days). Amsterdam: 1997.
Sanderse vander Boede, C. Marga Minco. Brugge: 1970; Middeldorp, A. Over het proza van Marga Minco (On the prose of Marga Minco). Amsterdam: 1981; Kroon, Dirk ed. Over Marga Minco: beschouwingen en interviews (On Marga Minco: considerations and interviews). Den Haag: 1982; Peene, Bert. Marga Minco. Amsterdam: 1990; Snapper, Johan P. De wegen van Marga Minco (The ways of Marga Minco). Amsterdam: 1999.