Bitter Herbs

by Dorothea

Dutch writer Marga Minco tells a story of great sorrow in an understated and powerful way.

MarorThe Maror (bitter herb) which symbolises the hard life endured by the Israelites while in Egyptian bondage. Illustration from the Golden Haggadah at the British Library.

Marga 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. Every school child in Holland reads her book “Bitter Herbs” (original title: “Het Bittere Kruid”).

BitterHerbsBitter Herbs” by Marga Minco

The Times wrote about the book: “Europe’s catastrophe is here in microcosm”.

This poignant short book is written in a limpid, immediate, almost casual style. The scenes in the book are deceptively ordinary, except that their context is vicious. Minco is never explicit; she says more by saying less.  It is the story of how a young Jewish girl escapes being deported and how she survives the war. Her entire family perishes in the concentration camps. This semi-autobiogarphical story leaves a lasting impression upon the reader, because of Minco’s refusal to resort to any form of literary dramatisation to tell a story that is in itself poignant and dramatic.

StarJewish Badge (“Joden Ster” in Dutch)

In one of the scenes of the book, the family sit together to sew the cloth star on their coats, this was obligatory as of 1942 to immediately identify Jewish people in the streets . Minco describes how the sister is very precise about the way it should be sewn so it looks “proper”. It is so devastatingly naive that you want to shout back in time: “don’t do it!”

The lack of pathos and the matter-of-fact descriptions are summed up in the review in the Times Literary Supplement:

“The family’s incorrigible optimism enhances the nightmarish effect of this impressive little book. Moving and memorable”.