The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith Shines a Spotlight on Forgotten Victims of History
In The Dutch Wife, debut novelist Ellen Keith shines a spotlight on two forgotten victims of history: prostitutes in Nazi labor camps and “the Disappeared” in Argentina’s state-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s.
When Dutch resistance fighter Marijke de Graaf and her husband are arrested and sent to different concentration camps in Nazi Germany, Marijke is given a terrible choice: to suffer a slow death in the labor camp or—for a chance at survival—to join the camp brothel.
Keith explains that she did not originally set out to write about these relatively unheard-of women, initially thinking to write about an SS officer, exploring his motivations and mindset, but when determining how to portray him through the eyes of those he impacted, she turned to the SS brothels and made a surprising discovery. “While I was hunting down information, I discovered that prisoners in certain concentration camps also had access to prostitutes, one of Himmler’s ideas on how to incentivize the camp labor force and thereby boost economic productivity. The notion of these brothels was so surprising I almost found it hard to believe. Until recently, little research has been published on this subject, and given how the prisoners’ visits would have negatively affected the forced prostitutes, it’s also a difficult topic with some stigma attached. But I was so moved by the ordeal these women went through that it quickly became central to the novel’s plot.”
And thus Marijke eventually becomes central to SS officer Karl Müller, who arrives at Buchenwald hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps in achieving wartime glory. But the routine of overseeing punishments and executions takes a toll. Looking for an escape, he visits the brothel and meets the beautiful Marijke. Over a series of encounters, Karl falls in love with Marijke, and to her growing dismay, Marijke finds herself torn between her complicated feelings for Karl and her desperate need to find her husband.
The tagline for the novel is “we all have choices,” and really everything that happens in the novel, much as in real life, is a direct result of a choice being made. Marijke in particular seems to wrestle more with the emotional ramifications of her choices, especially in the blurring lines between her feelings for her husband and for Karl. Keith explains that portraying the dynamic between Marijke and Karl was one of the most difficult aspects of writing the novel:
“It was easy for me to figure out what Karl saw in Marijke but much more difficult to draw out her conflicted feelings for him. She is happily married, and under ordinary circumstances would never stray from her loyalty to Theo. But here she’s put in a position where she’s required to show affection to a man who has immense power over her. The question that I kept returning to was what makes women fall in love with and stay with abusive men. And while he is involved in plenty of human suffering, Karl believes himself to be refined and well-educated, a man with a deep appreciation for fine art and beauty. He highlights this side of himself in his interactions with Marijke, granting her glimpses of tenderness. And it’s this filtered view of him she latches on to, that in her need to separate the man he shows her within the walls of the brothel from the complete picture of who he is, she starts to make excuses for his behavior. A part of her wants to believe that he is caught up in a system, that he is misguided but not capable of such cruelty. For her, it becomes a struggle between emotion and rationality, which in turn was also a struggle for me. How genuine are her feelings for him, and where does the line fall? For every reader, the answer to this will be different, depending on their own outlooks on love and relationships.”
Karl also struggles with his choices. “It was important for me to try to make Karl feel human, driven by passionate beliefs and full of excuses for his actions. I didn’t want him to be a stereotypical villain, but more representative of the average German citizens who found themselves living under a fascist regime and being forced to make a choice between resistance, compliance, and total support. I was trying to understand the factors that motivated men like Karl to join the SS and how they justified their behavior.” Keith goes on to say that it wasn’t easy. “Everyone who read early drafts of the manuscript had varying views on Karl’s character. Several felt I was treating him too softly in the beginning, that he was painted too favorably and that he didn’t buy into party ideology enough. In response, I hardened him up a bit. He turns to science as a way to validate racism and homophobia and becomes so committed to the restoration of national glory that he accepts the concept that the end justifies the means. With each draft, I added more backstory about Karl’s life, trying to hone in on the way his youth and relationship with his father shaped his own values. What I ended up with is a character that some readers may hate, that others may like, but hopefully one that everyone at some level or another, can begin to understand.”
In The Dutch Wife, Keith presents readers with a version of the concentration camp that many may not be familiar with. She describes her research into the prisoners’ brothels as a surprise that “completely altered the direction of the story,” highlighting how these women received better treatment than she would have expected. “But beyond that, I learned a lot about the differences between labor camps like Buchenwald and extermination camps like Auschwitz. The latter, which contained gas chambers designed for mass executions, are what we mainly see portrayed in books and films about the Holocaust. But conditions in the labor camps were slightly different, and political prisoners like Marijke and her husband, Theo, had more privileges than Jewish ones. This is why some of the things that appear in my novel, such as the camp library, may seem at odds with what readers know about concentration camps.”
Interwoven with Karl’s and Marijke’s viewpoints in the story is that of Luciano, a young Argentinian living thirty years later, falsely accused and imprisoned for dissent and organizing disobedience against an oppressive government. Keith believes that Western society tends to focus on Nazi Germany even though many regimes in the 20th century were responsible for similar violence and persecution. After traveling throughout Argentina, she was struck by the close ties Argentina had with the Nazi party, both before and after WWII. “I visited Bariloche in Argentina in 2012 and was struck by the visible German influence there. And when I learned about the Nazis who had fled to Bariloche and other parts of Argentina through the so-called ‘ratlines’ that sprang up after the war, I was hooked. I really wanted this to be a novel not just about WWII, but about the repercussions of that war, how the effects stayed with the victims and perpetrators for the rest of their lives and impacted multiple generations.”
With the addition of Luciano, Keith “wanted to emphasize the parallels between what happened in Nazi Germany and 1970s Argentina: the persecution of people with different political views, civilians violently snatched from their homes, the role of music in concentration camps and torture, the way the perpetrators lived in very close proximity to the prisoners they were abusing. These historical echoes are a reminder of how quickly things can escalate when we fail to show tolerance to people who are different from us.”
Her research for Luciano’s story also revealed surprises. “I was shocked by the descriptions of guard brutality that I encountered in my research on ‘the Disappeared’ in Argentina. Almost everything Luciano and his fellow prisoners go through in my novel reflects information I found in survivor testimonies from the clandestine prisons.”
With The Dutch Wife, Keith has written a sweeping, ambitious story that delves into the realm of tangled emotions, twisted motivations, and the blurred lines between love and lust and right and wrong. In conclusion, I asked her what she hoped readers would take away from this heart-wrenching tale. “I hope the novel reminds readers that political, religious, and racial persecution is as alive today as it was in Nazi Germany or during the Argentine Dirty War. And I hope it also shows how necessary it is to speak up when you do see injustices occurring, on behalf of those who no longer have a voice.”
About the contributor: Jennifer Quinlan, aka Jenny Q, is an independent editor and cover designer specializing in historical fiction. Jenny studied history at Virginia Tech and copyediting at the University of California, San Diego. She writes reviews and interviews authors for her blog, Let Them Read Books, and for Romantic Historical Reviews. She also moderates the American Historical Fiction group on Goodreads. She lives in Virginia with her husband, a Civil War re-enactor and fellow history buff.