The Lioness of Leiden – Dutch resistance during WWII

I’m pleased to have an article written by author Robert Loewen, whose debut novel, The Lioness of Leiden, shines a light on the female spies and resistance fighters of the Netherlands.

The story draws on the fascinating first-hand account of his mother-in-law’s lived experiences in the Dutch resistance and introduces three brave, every-day women who defied societal expectations and fought against the Nazi Gestapo in World War II.

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My mother-in-law, Hetty Kraus (1920-1994), was a student at Leiden University in the Netherlands when Hitler invaded her country. She joined the Dutch resistance and somehow survived the occupation at great personal cost. Many years later, she became a citizen of the United States and in retirement, lived in a community for seniors called Leisure World, which is not far from our home in Laguna Beach. 

When Hetty returned from extended travel to the wilds of Africa during the 1980s, my wife and I were invited to dinner to hear about her adventures.  Her favorite souvenir was an elaborate nest that birds had shaped into a boot with straw and other materials from the forest. It was both beautiful and a remarkable piece of engineering. 

As a practicing lawyer, I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Is this even legal?” I asked. “What did Customs at LAX have to say about the nest when you returned to California?”

Hetty tossed back her head and exploded with laughter. “Are you kidding?” she replied. “U.S. Customs are amateurs compared to the Nazis.” Then she told us about the time she smuggled hand grenades out of The Hague for the Dutch resistance—an amazing tale of courage, skill and good luck that put us on the edge of our chairs.

Hetty was traumatized by the war in ways that made her reluctant to share her stories. So the hand grenade story was a breakthrough of sorts. After her death in 1994, we found that Hetty had written some vignettes about her life, mostly in stories that lacked context, but she gave us enough that we could imagine what life must have been like for her under the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

We learned, for example, that Hetty and a friend had traveled to France by bicycle to help allied airmen escape across the Pyrenees Mountains. She told of her experiences during the Hunger Winter, a man-made famine created by the Germans in The Hague and other cities. She said that colleagues in the resistance lost their lives because of collaborators who betrayed them, and she mentioned more than once that she was pursued relentlessly by the Gestapo and would have been caught had the war continued. I was determined to write a novel about these and other half-told stories.

After my retirement from law practice, I found the time to write a novel, The Lioness of Leiden, inspired by Hetty’s stories. I read a lot about World War II, visited Leiden and The Hague, and read everything I could find about the Dutch resistance. In the published version of my novel, I featured the hand grenade story in the prologue on page one.[1] 

When I sat down at my computer, eager to write but staring at a blank screen, I found it easiest to start by retelling Hetty’s stories. Instead of trying to write the novel from beginning to end all at once, I approached it in three segments. First, I imagined how each of the stories might have occurred, filling in the details that Hetty had not provided. I called each story a silo because I did not yet know how the story in each silo would fit with the others. Second, I began to link the silos together, imagining when they might have occurred based on my research and the clues that Hetty had given. Third, I concentrated on the details of action and dialogue—showing, not telling what happened in each scene. 

Each of these three aspects of the novel influenced how I wrote the others. For example, dialogue written in one silo often informed the direction I needed to take in another silo, and when I began linking the silos in a certain sequence, this required adjustments to the plot. How did I know which adjustments were needed? The characters told me. There came a point where the characters were sufficiently developed that I imagined the dialogue came from them, and their dialogue told me which way the story should go. I had a breakthrough when I found a developmental editor, Julie Gray, who was a Los Angeles expat living in Tel Aviv. Julie taught me a master class in writing fiction, which provided structure for the process I just described. She taught me how to link my silos so that they were fun to read. I found Julie on the Editorial Freelancers Association website https://www.the-efa.org/ . Even though I used EFA’s word search tool to sift through the resumes posted there, I still read over one hundred resumes, eventually choosing ten prospective editors for an inquiry. [A preview of the prologue and chapter 1 is available at https://thelionessofleiden.com/]

It was hard work but worth it. Julie had published a book about her friend who had survived the holocaust, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev. I confirmed we were a good match through an interview via Zoom.

Presenting my novel to local book clubs, I learned that most families have a story that is worthy of a novel, and it doesn’t have to be about the war. People who would like to tell their family’s story ask me how I turned Hetty’s stories into an entertaining novel, and I always reply “hard work” and “perseverance”. I wrote too many drafts of Lioness to count, and I freely admit that the early versions weren’t very good. But if you are a good storyteller, find a good editor and stick with it, you too can write a novel about your family’s stories that others will want to read.

Many thanks, Robert. With so many novels featuring French, English or American espionage efforts during WWII, it’s intriguing to learn of one focused on the Dutch resistance.

The Lioness of Leiden by Robert Loewen ~~ How Do You Fight The Nazis Right Under Their Noses? With Cunning And Courage.

When the Germans invade the Netherlands, Leiden University student Hetty’s boyfriend goes missing. But she has little time to grieve when she volunteers as a courier for the Dutch resistance, joined by her roommate, the beautiful Mimi, and seventeen-year-old Maria, the daughter of a slain resistance fighter. At great personal risk, the three women carry documents, secret messages, and cash to protect Jews, downed pilots, and others hiding from the Nazis.

During five years of war, Hetty is challenged by a gauntlet of spies and betrayal. She heroically fights back as she and her friends accept increasingly dangerous assignments. All the while, Hetty worries about her family. She tries to forbid her younger brother from volunteering for combat in the resistance and argues with her father about becoming too cozy with the Nazis.

As the Gestapo closes in, can Hetty and her family and friends make it through the war, free to live and love again?

Inspired by true events, Robert Loewen’s debut novel pays tribute to the heroism of his mother-in-law, who served as a courier in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

Available on Amazon or through Bookshop.org.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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3 Responses

  1. I’ll have to read this. Leiden is also where Erik Hazelhoff is from who wrote “Soldier of Orange.” This book was turned into a movie and now it is a MUSICAL in a big warehouse just outside of Leiden. I visited Leiden and attended the musical a few years ago, and it’s fantastic! Erik, lived here in Hawaii for many years.

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