Astride a Fierce Wind by Huberta Hellendoorn (Mākaro Press, 2017), 360 pp., $38
There’s a moment in Astride a Fierce Wind when Dutch migrant Huberta Hellendoorn, finally, mostly, settled in Dunedin, opens a telegram from home. Her mother is dead. She cries: ‘I can’t even go to the funeral.’ The cohort of Dutch washing up on these shores in the postwar era came to know such sudden wrenches out of a blue sky. In an era before jet travel, flights to Europe were measured in days, not hours. Even in 1960 when Huberta arrived by sea at Port Chalmers, flights to Europe took three or four days, with endless stopovers. And that was all before the prohibitive fares.
My grandfather, Redmer Ijska, drowned when I was nine weeks old, in the 1953 North Sea floods that killed 1800 Dutch. Villagers laid sandbags to stop the seas that swelled to five metres, bursting coastal defences. Like Huberta, my stricken father knew he’d weep alone, far from his moeke and four adoring sisters. He could barely afford the toll calls crackling out through the hushed Karori night.
Huberta and Bart Hellendoorn were among the last waves of the 24,000 Dutch ‘aliens’ pouring into New Zealand after World War Two between 1950 and 1970, our biggest cohort of non-British immigrants. Their pale faces were of the right hue: here were blue-eyed, milk-drinking folk seemingly ready to roll their sleeves up and act out the cliché of industrious, nation-building types.
The first phalanxes were single males with an average age of 25. Mostly lower middle-class burghers, they were ‘blue’ rather than ‘white-collar’ workers. Two-thirds came from the densely populated and industrialised west of Holland. Huberta, however, came from the east: a tiny rural village named Warnsveld.
Dutch churches helped promote migration, with a good half of all settlers Roman Catholic. The Hellendoorns were Protestants, sponsored by the Opoho Presbyterian Church. They followed the trail blazed by their fellow ‘boat people’: leaving the Netherlands with little money, often having sold possessions to pay for their passage. The first arrivals could only carry minimal amounts of luggage, coming ashore after living in crowded dormitories on ships for five or six weeks.
In 1960 Huberta and Bart did not have to endure the privations faced by my father in 1951: he was interviewed by police, fingerprinted and obliged to carry papers. For some, this echoed the painful years of German occupation.
The New Zealand authorities routinely carried out ‘pepper potting’ – scattering new arrivals throughout the country. People like Internal Affairs immigration commissar Dr Reuel Lochore feared that closed communities would form if groups like the Dutch were allowed to cluster together. Assisted migrants, about a quarter of the total arrivals, faced further restrictions. For the first two years after arriving they were directed to specific jobs and localities, often in temporary construction or railway camps.
And on the face of it, the Dutch performed a perfect pirouette, socially and culturally, into the engine room of the British-influenced society of the 1950s. They signed up to the requirements of Dr Lochore: ‘We must make new Britishers: by procreation, and by assimilation; by making suitable aliens into vectors of the British way of life.’
What was wrong with this picture? Our Dutch embraced the fresh air, the wide-open spaces, the huge helpings of meat and dairy food. But the tyranny of distance always gnawed: at times the spirit of gezelligheid (conviviality) at the heart of their culture seemed thin on the ground. Many Dutch, women especially, suffered profound isolation, homesickness and, in some cases, acute depression.
And this is Huberta’s story. She says, after a time here: ‘The thought of growing old in this strange city frightens me … I hate the bleak hill staring out over this part of the ocean, which stretches to Antarctica. I am oppressed by the nearby cemetery with its lonely graves. I say to Bart: “Please don’t bury me here when I die.”’
This was the all-too-common Dutch experience of postwar New Zealand: a landscape of sunny emptiness, where people with bastard British accents appeared kind but rarely did what they promised, where the food was inedible, and ‘cosy’ was all but a dirty word. My father turned our Karori home into a bunker, came to look at the Kiwis sideways. He’d say in private: ‘I can smell the mint sauce on their breath.’
And what did our 24,000 ‘wooden-foots’ carry in that one battered leather suitcase? Historian Simon Schama rightly calls the Dutch ‘a mixture of the familiar and the incomprehensible’. I know them as driven, unrelenting types, raised to be cold fishes, puritans with an abiding streak of cruelty that can be close to medieval. My late sister’s husband, an Amsterdam wide boy, once told me with a straight face: ‘You have to take a child when they’re very small, take them to the sea, half drown them in the shallows, show them who’s boss.’ I grew up in the shadow of values like that.
Thank heavens a few like Huberta came in with the tide. Our industrious postwar Dutch were never the most self-reflective of people: this is a race too often incomprehensible to itself. Which is why Astride a Fierce Wind is so important. This beautiful, deeply insightful book articulates, finally, the heartache and sorrow of this ‘lost generation’, the huge cohort that arrived here young and bursting with hope yet often remained deeply scarred by the disruptions and trauma of economic depression and military occupation at home.
It is there, hiding in a communal cellar to avoid the chaotic fighting and bombardments, that Huberta (born in 1937) begins her tale. Through vivid, episodic chapters, she conveys the terrors and privations of daily life during wartime. She’s meanwhile battling a demon from within: sexual abuse at the hands of her religious father, even if she’s still too young to understand it.
There’s a telling photograph of Huberta on the cover of this handsome book, a long-legged pre-teen, hair pulled back, swinging along under the trees in her beloved Warnsveld. She’s probably eleven, but beneath her obligatory (and radiant) grin, you can already discern a certain craggy wisdom, a kind of forbearance.
That child’s voice is audible from the opening pages of this book, growing ever louder, more lyrical, at times transcendent. Huberta voyages to the dark heart of her historic abuse; healing in part emerges as she has her own cherished children, treating Miriam, a beloved daughter with Down’s syndrome, as if she were utterly normal. At times her burdens appear overwhelming. I spent a lot of time reading in tears, glasses misted up. But then I am a recovering Dutch.
Somehow that formative cold-water Christianity of home, that spritzer of Old Testament faith, appears to guide Huberta through the hells of her childhood, allows her, finally, to emerge, blinking in the Otago sunlight. Her storytelling throughout remains clear and exquisitely paced, almost entirely unsentimental.
Astride a Fierce Wind is not without its flaws, but I’m prepared to call it a modest masterpiece, the definitive story of the NZ Dutch experience. It should become compulsory reading for every Kiwi wooden-foot; after all, there are an estimated 100,000 of us.
REDMER YSKA is a Wellington-born writer and historian. His most recent book is A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington, published by Otago University Press in 2017.