Dutch author Marga Minco grew up in a predominantly Catholic city, where she felt conspicuous about her Jewish identity. At the age of eighteen, she began to work as journalist at the local newspaper but was dismissed in 1940 when the Netherlands capitulated to the Nazis. Minco’s immediate family were all murdered in the Holocaust, but Minco herself survived in hiding. She began to publish short stories in the 1950s; her youth and her experiences during the war then inspired her to start writing novels and formed the leitmotif of all her books. While her earlier works are characterized by a sober, reserved way of using words and motions, she gradually allowed herself a less restrained style to write about the Holocaust.
Early Life and Family
The outstanding features of the writings of Dutch author Marga Minco 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, she moved as a young girl to Breda, a town near her birthplace, together with her parents, her brother David (Oldenzaal May 23, 1915–Warsaw January 31, 1944), and her sister Bettie (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 Dutch citizens’ collaboration with the German occupiers 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.
Minco’s 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. While in hiding, she began using the name Marga, which she continued to use after the war.
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 400,000 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.
While Minco’s earlier works are characterized by her sober, reserved way of using words and emotions, she gradually allowed herself a less restrained style to write about the Holocaust. In her 1997 novel Nagelaten dagen (Bequeathed days), 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 narrator’s attempts 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, transforming the horros of her past into a never to be forgotten testimony.
With her advancing age, Minco’s publications appeared less frequently. Her essay Een sprong in de tijd (A leap in time), written for the 2008 commemmoration of the Second World War, was delivered by daughter Jessica Voeten, due to Minco’s health condition. Minco received three awards for her oeuvre: the Annie Romein award (1999), Constantijn Huygens award (2005), and P.C. Hooftprijs (2019). The P.C. Hooftprijs was awarded to Minco by a board member when it was discovered that the chairman of the foundation behind the award was a grandchild of the people Minco’s parents asked to safeguard their belongings and then refused to give them to Minco when she came to claim her family’s posessions after the war. Minco described this event in her 1957 story Het adres (The address), which was republished on the occasion of her winning the prize.
In 2020 Minco celebrated her one hundredth birthday.
Selected Works by Marga Minco
Het bittere kruid. Een kleine kroniek. Den Haag: Bert Bakker, 1957. Translated as Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960 and Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1986.
De andere kant (The other side). Den Haag: Bakker/Daamen, 1959.
Kijk ’ns in de la (Have a look in the drawer). Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1963.
(ed.) Moderne joodse verhalen (Modern Jewish stories). Amsterdam: Polak & Van Gennep, 1964.
Het huis hiernaast (The house next door). Amsterdam: Meulenbelt, 1965.
Terugkeer (Return). Amsterdam: Cenfina JMW, 1965.
Een leeg huis. Den Haag: Bakker, 1966. Translated as An Empty House. London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1988.
Meneer Frits: en andere verhalen uit de vijftiger jaren (Mister Frits and other stories from the 1950s). Den Haag: Bakker, 1974.
Je mag van geluk spreken (Talk about lucky). Utrecht: Knippenberg, 1976.
Verzamelde verhalen, 1951–1981 (Collected stories, 1951–1981). Amsterdam: Bakker, 1982.
De val. Amsterdam: Bakker, 1983. Translated as The Fall. London: Peter Owen, 1990.
De glazen brug. Amsterdam: Bakker, 1986. Translated as The Glass Bridge. London: Peter Owen, 1988.
De zon is maar een zeepbel: twaalf droomverslagen (The sun is but a soap bubble: twelve dream reports). Amsterdam: Bakker, 1990.
Nagelaten dagen (Bequeathed days). Amsterdam: Bakker, 1997.
December Blues. Amsterdam: Sebes & Van Gelderen, 2004.
Storing (Disturbance). Amsterdam: Bakker, 2001.
Een sprong in de tijd (A leap in time). Amsterdam: Stichting Collectieve Propaganda van het Hederlandse Boek, 2008.
Sanderse vander Boede, C. Marga Minco. Brugge: Desclée De Brouwer, 1970.
Middeldorp, A. Over het proza van Marga Minco (On the prose of Marga Minco). Amsterdam: Wetenschappelijke Uitgeverij, 1981.
Kroon, Dirk ed. Over Marga Minco: beschouwingen en interviews (On Marga Minco: considerations and interviews). Den Haag: BZZTôH, 1982.
Peene, Bert. Marga Minco. Amsterdam: Voorsmit, 1990.
Snapper, Johan P. De wegen van Marga Minco (The ways of Marga Minco). Amsterdam: B. Bakker, 1999.
Schmidt, Maarten and Thomas Doebele. De schaduw van de herinnering, 2010 (documentary).
Sevil, Malika. “Pijnlijke onthulling bij P.C. Hooftprijs voor Marga Minco.” In Het Parool, June 5 2019.