In the Shadow of the Cathedral:
Growing Up in Holland During World War II
By Titia Bozuwa
(Triple Tulip Press, 203 pages, $22.95)
Titia Bozuwa’s recent memoir of her childhood experiences in Holland during World War II begins not with the German invasion of her country in May 1940, but with a hectic flight into a Frankfurt airport in 1984. Rushing back to Europe from her adopted New Hampshire home to see her ailing mother, Bozuwa is making her way to a rental car desk when she sees a German police officer and involuntarily panics, frantically trying to remember where her papers are.
“In an instant, for an instant, I am again a child living in German occupied Holland, more afraid than I knew to be then,” Bozuwa writes. “Afraid I will not get to my mother’s side because a man in uniform can stop me.”
Some experiences are so traumatic they can never be erased. In many ways, the rest of Bozuwa’s book, In the Shadow of the Cathedral, is an elegant recounting of how childhood and family life play out in the face of such peril. Bozuwa has a unique perspective having had both a cousin in the underground resistance, as well a grandfather who was a supporter of National Socialism’s march because he believed it would bring about national healthcare and better conditions for the working class. Later in life he regretted misjudging Hitler’s true intent.
The book proper begins with Bozuwa’s father running down the stairs of their comfortable Breda home crying, “Oorlog!” (“War!”). In an instant, everything that once was for Bozuwa becomes part of a distant former life. Instead of going to school that day, as the seven year-old woke up that morning expecting to, Bozuwa is sent to hoard food as her parents pack and prepare to flee the Nazi onslaught.
In the streets of her once quiet town, the young Bozuwa gets a sense that things will never be the same.
“The anxious looks on the faces of the hurrying pedestrians mirrored a frightening world,” she writes. “The one I’d felt happy and secure in seemed to have vanished. I’d never given it a thought that the world might harbor a people who were hostile to us and who wanted to devour our country.”
The evacuation was short lived, however. The Germans made an example of Rotterdam, bombing civilian homes, hospitals and churches alike. Neutral Holland capitulated quickly and there was little to do but go back and get used to living under the auspices of the Thousand Year Reich.
Bozuwa beautifully captures how odd this process looked through the eyes of a child: The scouts and Brownies are dismantled for being too English. Pages of her textbook are removed and replaced with more Aryan-friendly fare. The game of cops and robbers is transformed into SS soldiers vs. resistance fighters. Although not outlawed by the Nazis, even Monopoly is abandoned.
“We swiped our opponent’s houses off their lots, sent a player to jail,” Bozuwa explains. “It was just too close to what was going on in our own neighborhood. We switched to cards.”
In her child’s heart, however, the fires of resistance are stoked by the sight of foreign troops patrolling city streets. At one point, Bozuwa abandons a plan to wear Holland’s national color orange on the Queen’s birthday because the Germans “were not colorblind and had patrols watching out for our sneaky ways of showing patriotic feelings.”
Ultimately, she acts out in a much bolder and riskier manner when the Germans begin persecuting the town’s Jews, including taking one of her best friends, Carrie Goldstein, out of school, forbidding her and other Jewish children any contact with gentiles. Bozuwa and her brother Hermann decided to react to this travesty by pouring a bottle of water into the gas tank of a pantzerwagen on an open street. Later they revel in the cursing of German soldiers as they discover their impotent vehicle.
“Deep down I knew I’d not done it just for what had been taken away from Carrie Goldstein, although that had been foremost in my mind,” Bozuwa writes. “It was for all the little things the Germans did to us, like telling us we couldn’t fly our own flag, wear an orange sash, sing our own songs; like taking away our radios, our butter and our best cheese. It was for the very fact that they gave themselves the right to tell us what and what not to do.”
This act of defiance, for which Bozuwa and her brother probably could have been killed, is only a small salve when one reads later that Carrie Goldstein and her entire family were later murdered at Auschwitz.
Bozuwa sheds new light on so many details of the war. The increasing cruelty of the Nazis as their fortunes turned on the Eastern front. (“When the Nazis lost their prized role of victors, their behaviors changed from a friendly neighbor, who only wanted us to acknowledge our Aryan roots, to a greedy wolfâ€¦Hitler’s wrath after his first major defeat came down on us like an arctic weather front.”) The awe of the seeing the first fleet of bombers fill the sky, leaving Bozuwa and her brothers “as dumbstruck as the biblical shepherds must have been when the sky opened and the angel Gabriel appeared.” The joy of liberation and the kindness of the first American Bozuwa ever saw: General Dwight Eisenhower, who waved and smiled to her, instantly transforming himself into a young girl’s hero.
In the Shadow of the Cathedral is essential reading for anyone looking for an expanded understanding of World War II. The struggle for liberation extended far beyond the hostile fire of the front. For five long years, Bozuwa and countless others lived at the whim of a psychopathic regime. Likewise, liberation did not come soon enough for Carrie Goldstein and many others. Bozuwa breathes life back into the casualty counts and history book tallies. And when we meet the victims of this horror in flesh and blood, it brings the true scope of the tragedy of war into harrowing focus in a way pure facts and figures never could.