Monday, September 28, 2020

“The Boy Between Worlds” by Annejet Van Der Zihl

Waldemar Nods, a native of Surinam, travels to the Netherlands in 1928. He has a half-brother there, and he’s looking to study and make his way in the world. He’s an excellent swimmer, and he brings to the Netherlands his memories of a warm, sunny climate and swimming in the river, sometimes for miles.

Rika Hagenaar-van der Lans is married and the mother of four children. She’s also increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage and life on an island off the Dutch coast, even though her husband has a good job and is rising with his company. She leaves her husband and returns to The Hague. She’s not interested in reconciliation. To make ends meet, she lets rooms to boarders. One of those boarders is Waldemar. 

The year is 1928. In 1929, Rika gives birth to what is clearly a biracial baby. He’s named Waldemar after his father. Her husband initiates divorce proceedings and gains custody of their children. Her own Catholic family is horrified and cuts her off. But Rika seems unaffected, except for the rarely seeing her children. She and Waldemar manage a succession of boarding houses, and Rika learns how good she is at it. They eventually marry. 

Annejet Van Der Zijl
They are managing a large resort-type house facing the beach near the Hague when May 1940 arrives, bringing with it the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. Little changes after the first year after the invasion. Then everything begins to change, and Rika with her large heart begins to help hide Jews fleeing the Nazis.

The Boy Between Worlds by Annejet Van Der Zihl tells the story of Waldemar, Rika, and their son Waldy. It’s the story of ordinary Dutch citizens and the part they played in the war.  At first, the reader wonders if Waldemar’s black skin will make him a Nazi target; blacks were considered even lower than Jews in the Nazi genetic hierarchy. Surprisingly, that’s not what happens.

Van der Zihl is one of the best-known writers and journalists in the Netherlands. She’s written biographies of Dutch children’s author Annie M.G. Schmidt; Prince Bernhard, the husband of former Queen Juliana; and Gerard Heineken, founder of the beer company. She is also the author of An American Princess, the biography of American socialite Allene Tew. She’s also received several literary awards for her books. The Boy Between Worlds was published in the Netherlands in 2004 under the title Sonny Boy, where it has remained a bestseller, and was translated into English in 2019 by Kristen Gehrman. 

Until Van Der Zihl completed the book, Waldy (by then 75 years old) never knew what happened to his parents. Through extensive research, and interviewing the few remaining survivors who knew what happened, Can Der Zihl found out. The Boy Between Worlds makes compelling reading as it tells a moving and emotional story.

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