It is Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada. As I write this, the turkey is roasting, the pies are made, and I am thinking about what it means to be thankful. But I am thinking about that less because of the day than because of the book I just finished reading: I Was a Stranger by General Sir John Hackett, originally published in 1977 and, with their typically unerring excellence of taste, reprinted by Slightly Foxed in 2014.
Hackett was thirty-three years old and a career soldier serving as commander of a British parachute brigade when, during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, he was severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. In the hands of the enemy and weak following major, life-saving abdominal surgery, Hackett was already focusing on the important things: making an accurate record of the battle and drawing up the list of recommended commendations, and determining how to escape. Thankfully for him, the well-organised Dutch resistance was at hand and, while still very weak, he was spirited out of the hospital (battle notes in hand) and into hiding with the de Nooij family in Ede.
A deeply Christian family, the de Nooij household consisted of four middle-aged sisters and John and Mary Snoek, the twenty-something children of one of the sisters. Immediately impressed by the gentleness and kindness of the whole family, Hackett knew of the immense risk they took in sheltering him and was hugely grateful for it:
A fighting soldier in war-time takes the danger and tensions that bear upon himself for granted. It is quite a different thing to contemplate the actions of other people, in observing their bravery, contrivance and self-sacrifice, in protecting and looking after someone thrown by hazard into their care. There is nothing to be taken for granted here.
Hackett’s life in Ede was simple and quiet. At first, he rested and recovered from his wounds, carefully nursed by the family. As his health improved, his urge to exercise and strengthen himself ahead of the inevitable escape was necessarily in conflict with the need to keep him safe. The family stayed close and, with a bevy of tricks to fall back on, managed to take him for walks under the eyes of the less-than-watchful Germans.
But mostly, due to his health and the winter weather as the months passed, this is a book about indoor life. Hackett devours with real pleasure what books the family is able to bring him: the Bible (which he started each day by reading from), the complete works of Shakespeare, some Dickens, Vanity Fair, an eclectic handful of novels, collections of Wordsworth’s and Scott’s poetry, and a massive anthology entitled One Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry (which he mentioned when he appeared on Desert Islands Discs in 1980). But mostly he savours the time he spends with the family – who truly become his family as time goes on. As he recovers, they always seem to be able to find an egg to feed him or something warm to clothe him in, little gestures that become large ones at a time when everything was difficult to find and there was never enough to go around. For his thirty-fourth birthday, celebrated while he was still recovering in bed, the family sat at the piano and sang English songs (his favourite hymn, ‘Abide with me’, and all the verses of ‘God save the King’) loud enough so that he could hear:
My feelings as I listened would be hard to describe. Such loving kindness to a stranger in adversity, on whose behalf these people had already accepted so many dangers with such modesty and courage, was a thing beyond words then and never to be forgotten afterwards.
Their kindness on his birthday left him in tears and his open admittance of that is one of the many things that makes this book such a warm and precious one. For all the kindness and love the Nooij family showed Hackett was rewarded with his complete dedication to and adoration of them. His love and respect for them is written on every page.
Hackett has a sense of humour as well and the book is peppered with humorous recollections and asides. It is, in fact, one the least angst-ridden books you could imagine. Hackett takes particular pleasure in recording the tricks and sly taunts the Dutch wield against their German oppressors but he also enjoys the everyday moments of humour, such as one of his early encounters with John, after arriving at the de Nooij house:
John came up to see me. He had a little dictionary in his hand, his finger marking a page.
‘Good day, Mr Hackett,’ he said gravely. ‘How is your corpse?’
I thanked him equally gravely and said that it was well. He discovered later from Miss Ann, to his dismay, that the little dictionary had not told him everything and he wondered whether he had been wholly tactful.
Throughout, Hackett has a wonderful eye for the simple details of a scene. It is difficult not to read about the first leg of his escape route, a snowy bicycle ride with John through the countryside, without shivering with both cold and excitement at their daring. And it is impossible not to feel at peace when he describes his early morning winter walks with Aunt Ann, one of the de Nooij sisters, taken to help build his strength:
Soon dim figures of men could be seen in the growing light plodding to their work, huddled-up shapes like birds in the cold. Others on bicycles were struggling through the snow. A cart would pass with the horse pulling strongly, the wheels squeaking against packed snow, or crunching and clattering on the ice. There would be a glow in the dark where a man stood still for a moment and the sharp surprising tang of tobacco smoke would drift over the morning air.
After four months in the Netherlands, Hackett managed (with the help of the resistance and, of course, the de Nooij family) to make his escape back to Allied-controlled Europe and, very shortly, back to England and his wife. But as soon as Ede was liberated he was back with supplies for his Dutch family and letters of thanks from his English one. As the postscript makes clear, the families remained close for the rest of their lives. I cried as I finished the book, thankful for the courage and the kindness of the de Nooij family and, an equal gift, the humility and the gratitude of John Hackett.