New HNS Feature: The Dutch Wife by Ellen Keith Shines a Spotlight on Forgotten Victims of History

Ellen Keith is celebrating the release of her debut novel, The Dutch Wife, a gripping novel about difficult choices and some of history's forgotten victims, and I recently had the chance to ask her a few questions on behalf of the Historical Novel Society.

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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.




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