World War II is drawing to a close, but liberation from the Nazis is still months away. The kitchen cupboards are empty. Amsterdam is in the grip of the Hunger Winter and before it’s over, 20,000 people will starve to death. A young girl and her mother survive on gooey bread made from tulip bulbs. Every day comes down to finding something to eat.
For Hendrika de Vries, author of the memoir When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew, this was childhood. The trauma of war, the loss of safety, the sudden disappearance of neighbors, and the death she witnessed remain lodged in Hendrika’s psyche for decades and drove her to become a psychotherapist. Hendrika came to Santa Barbara in 1983 for a two-year psychology program, fell in love with the city, and has lived here ever since. Now 80 and still swimming regularly at the Santa Barbara Athletic Club, the Amsterdam native has written a moving memoir of her wartime experiences that resonates in a world where millions of people have been traumatized by war, violence, bigotry, and hatred.
When a Toy Dog Became is a story of grit and resilience. Hendrika’s father spent two years in a German POW camp. Her mother, a remarkably brave woman, was determined to not only keep her daughter safe but to save others as well. Harboring a young Jewish girl complicated their lives, but it was a decision Hendrika’s mother made without hesitation, even though it subjected her to heavy criticism from her family after the war. What kind of mother puts her daughter in such mortal danger? “She did it,” Hendrika explained, “because she hoped someone would do the same for her child. She always said that if one child isn’t safe, no child is safe.”
Life in postwar Amsterdam was hard. The economy was in shambles, unemployment was rampant, and a severe shortage of housing made recovery difficult for a war-weary populace. Eventually, Hendrika’s parents decide to join thousands of others in an exodus to Australia and what they hope will be a better life. Hendrika will stand on the deck of a ship and wave goodbye to everything she has known and everyone she has loved. All these years later, in the pages of her memoir, we not only feel what it was like to survive the war, but we understand that wars don’t end when the guns fall silent.