The kids and I just finished learning about World War II in school. We had some great books and resources to walk us through it all, but I think my favorite book of all was a wonderful children’s novel entitled The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum.
The story takes readers alongside a Dutch family in the last year or so of World War II, through the horrific winter of 1944-1945 when severe famine and lack of fuel for heat left many people dead and Holland devastated. The book strikes a wonderful balance between portraying the horrible effects of World War II on the people of Holland and protecting the innocence of children who don’t yet grasp the depths of evil that mankind can stoop to.
But, this is not a book review, so I’ll go no further with such details. Instead, I want to share a story thread from The Winged Watchman that grabbed my heart and will not let go.
Spoiler alert! I will be giving away a plot point in this post!
The story follows the Verhagen family as they live and work in one of Holland’s essential windmills and, ensuring that their polder remains unflooded. Because of this very important position, this family remains undivided during the long years of the war. But, they do not remain untouched. One day, fairly early in the war, Mrs. Verhagen is in town with the younger of her two sons when they see a Jewish family being rounded up for deportation to a concentration camp. Frantic, the Jewish mother locks eyes with Mrs. Verhagen and subtly motions back toward their now-vacated home. Once it is safe, Mrs. Verhagen rushes to the house to find a baby girl, safely hidden from the Germans. Her family takes the baby in, names her Trixie (as they do not know her real name), and loves her no less than if she had been their own flesh and blood.
Fast forward to the summer of 1945. Holland is liberated shortly before Hitler commits suicide and the war in Europe is over. Life begins to flow toward a new normal, and survivors begin to return home. Along with the survivors arrives Mrs. Groen, a Jewish woman, aged beyond her years, the sole survivor of her family. The sole survivor save one – a sweet little red-headed girl named Rachel who only knows herself as Trixie and knows no family other than the Verhagens.
Mrs. Verhagen, though completely brokenhearted, cannot deprive sweet Mrs. Groen of her beloved daughter. After a few months of growing to know and love Mrs. Groen as her mother, Trixie/Rachel says good-bye to the Verhagen family and the only home she has ever known to journey into a new life with a “new” mother.
I could not help but cry as I read the end of the story aloud to my children. I could not help but look at my own sweet five-year-old son and wonder – could I have done it? The Winged Watchman is fiction, but there is no way such things never happened. Women like Mrs. Verhagen took in children, protecting them, sacrificing for them, and loving them as their own. Families like the Verhagens accepted the responsibility, not knowing the outcome. Would the children be theirs forever? Or, when the miraculous finally happened and the war ended, would the children’s parents return for them?
We have many complaints and frustrations here in the United States of America, but we also have so many freedoms. It is hard to fathom some of the decisions that were made by everyday people in World War II. It is hard to imagine the extremes that they endured. And yet, some day those same challenges could be our own. The more our nation and this world buck against the authority of Almighty God, the more real the possibilities become.
I cannot answer the question of how I would respond in any situation such as this fictional tale of the Verhagen family. But, because of this story, I am faced with a direct challenge: I must live in such a way as to train myself to obey without question any task God calls me to, no matter how hard. I must focus on Him so intently that I have perfect wisdom in an instant. I must abide in Him so faithfully that I can draw on His strength at any moment, able to do whatever He calls me to do – even if it is to love and lose.