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How to Fight the Nazis - An Editorial Review of "The Lioness of Leiden"

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Book Blurb:

How do you fight the Nazis right under their noses? With cunning and courage.

When the Germans invade the Netherlands, Leiden University student Hetty’s boyfriend goes missing. But she has little time to grieve when she volunteers as a courier for the Dutch resistance, joined by her roommate, the beautiful Mimi, and seventeen-year-old Maria, the daughter of a slain resistance fighter. At great personal risk, the three women carry documents, secret messages, and cash to protect Jews, downed pilots, and others hiding from the Nazis.

During five years of war, Hetty is challenged by a gauntlet of spies and betrayal. She heroically fights back as she and her friends accept increasingly dangerous assignments. All the while, Hetty worries about her family. She tries to forbid her younger brother from volunteering for combat in the resistance and argues with her father about becoming too cozy with the Nazis.

As the Gestapo closes in, can Hetty and her family and friends make it through the war, free to live and love again?

Inspired by true events, Robert Loewen’s debut novel pays tribute to the heroism of his mother-in-law, who served as a courier in the Dutch resistance during World War II.

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Author Bio:

Robert Loewen was born in Bakersfield, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and raised his three children in Laguna Beach.

A 1970 graduate of Pomona College, Robert served two years in the United States Army, including a tour in Vietnam. His 1972 marriage linked him to Hetty Kraus, his mother-in-law, who told fascinating stories about her experiences in the Dutch resistance during World War II.

After a year serving as a law clerk to Justice Byron White at the United States Supreme Court, Robert returned to California in 1977, where he built a successful litigation practice at an international law firm.

Known for his persuasive legal briefs, he has always been a natural storyteller who yearned to write fiction.

Now retired, Robert has published his debut novel, a fictional history of Hetty’s life in the Dutch resistance.

Editorial Review:

The 'Lioness of Leiden' by Robert Loewen is a tragic and gripping tale of one woman's brave and at times almost suicidal struggle within the Dutch Resistance during the entire length of the Nazi occupation of Holland in the Second World War. It is made especially touching and poignant by the fact that the author reveals that the story is built around the accounts given to him by his own mother in law, Hetty Kraus [1920-1994]. Robert Loewen tells his readers that much of the story of Hetty Steenhuis and her associates has been made up as a work of fiction, though it takes little imagination to realise that many of the stories - from the eating of a family pet in the 'Great Hunger' of the bitter winter of 1944-1945, the defiant mass singing of the National Anthem at the University of Leiden and the sheer, paralysing fear of passing through a German check point carrying false papers can only be based on fact!

The central figure of 'The Lioness of Leiden' is Hetty Steenhuis and this gripping and tense novel is her story, and those of her family and friends, from the actual beginning of the German Occupation of Holland in May 1940 to the German surrender in May 1945. It would be useful for the reader to pause for a moment to consider the extraordinary and unique history of the Dutch Resistance. The Netherlands was a country covering 33.000 square kilometres and with a population of nine million people. From a military point of view the country is, as is well known, generally flat and with little usable geographical features advantageous to guerrilla warfare. German objectives were basically fourfold: to transform the country into a National Socialist State, to exploit the economic potential and labour supply, to prevent all possible aid to the Allies and, significantly, to utterly eradicate the entire and large Jewish population! In this latter aim, they were largely successful. A total of 82% of the Jewish population was either killed or transported to Concentration camps. One of the major and truly remarkable achievements of the Dutch people and the various Resistance groups was that they were able to hide and even protect approximately 30.000 Jewish people; sadly and famously, Anne Frank and her family were not of this number!

From the beginning and nearly to the end of the war and the emergence of a centralised organisation [ 'Der Kern' - 'the Core'], Dutch Resistance was of a localised nature and took the form of individual 'cells' of determined individuals, often working independently of each other. These active cells were localised due to the nature of the country itself but, throughout, 'civil disobedience' in all its many forms was rife on the part of the population as a whole. Encouraged by a deep loyalty to the exiled Queen Wilhelmina in London, examples include the wearing of the nationalist orange colour, the listening to illegal radio broadcasts, and a series of strikes that were both national and industry specific, such as that of Doctors. Both the Dutch Reformed and the Catholic Church actively supported such acts. At one point, 85% of all University students refused to sign an Oath of Allegiance to the Nazi Party. Mass fraud and forgery was widespread and the highly dangerous practice of sheltering 'Onderduikers' - 'under divers' - Jews, individuals wanted by the authorities and allied airmen] was rampant - the figure of approximately 350.000 people is quoted. All of these people required shelter, food, money and ration cards. As a result, forgery and counterfeiting became a national industry! Slowly, all of these activities took on a more centralised and organised nature. This, of course, was not without cost! It is estimated that for every German service person killed, ten Dutch nationals were executed. By the end of the war, a further calculation is that seven and a half thousand active Dutch Resistance workers were either executed or else died in captivity. For those wishing to discover more, the website on 'You Tube' [] is an excellent place to start exploring this subject in far greater detail.

Hetty Steenhuis, just twenty when the war begins, is a young law student studying Law at the University of Leiden in the quaint and picturesque city of that name [the oldest established University in Holland]. Her comfortable middle class home is in the the Hague, twenty one kilometres away and where she lives with her parents and her younger brother Jan - whom she worships. Her best friend is Mimi, a diminutive and extremely attractive girl of the same age from an aristocratic background and with whom she shares a small flat in Leiden. Hetty is in love, or believes she is in love, with a rather unkempt and bearded boy named Karl deBoer. This boy, he works in his uncle's bicycle factory, has communist sympathies. Soon after, after a brief spell in the Dutch Militia at the very start of hostilities, he is reported killed and missing. He has in fact been betrayed by her former boyfriend and Nazi informer - Peter Brecht - for his supposed communist sympathies and out of jealousy. Hetty is soon to discover Brecht's activities. Hetty's relationship with her father is extremely fragile. Loewen provides the reader with a very astute portrait of him:

''On the surface, Willem seemed driven by his own self-regard, but in reality, his behaviours were best explained by the lack of it. His relationship with Hetty had been tense ever since Willem cut her allowance in half to persuade her to pursue a more ladylike curriculum than her chosen field of law. A lawyer himself, Willem had never met a female advocate for whom he had any regard. A pale man whose thick moustache flickered when he was asked a troublesome question, Willem had a foghorn voice that always sounded like he was bluffing at cards.''

A succinct description of the man indeed! It also speaks volumes regarding Hetty's relationship with her own father; even before it strikes her to join the Resistance. Here is a man who, as the reader will discover, is capable of the deepest and worst of treacheries! The catalyst for Hetty's decision [and that of her friend Mimi also] occurs a few weeks after the German Invasion and when she is in a crowd forced to witness the savage whipping of two friends for their Communist sympathies. Along with the crowd, Hetty and Mimi are outraged by this example of brutality [ordered by an SS Officer named Gerald Hess and of whom the reader shall learn more later] and are determined to make contact with the Resistance and make their own contribution to fighting back. Hetty and Mimi's introduction to the Resistance is provided by an old childhood friend of Mimi's and soon to become lover, Gerhardt, already very active in the Resistance and who removes the undesirable presence of the traitorous Brecht. He is shortly to leave for England and is to be replaced by Kees; a member of the Rotterdam Resistance who has come to Leiden to set up further Resistance cells there. Kees remains a constant throughout this novel, tenacious, fearless and utterly undaunted. At their first meeting he introduces Hetty and Mimi to the final member of their triumvirate. This is Maria, a seventeen year old farm girl whose father has been executed for partisan activity against the Germans. She is homeless and so Kees arranges for her to move into the girls' small flat and provides her with forged documentation.

Ultimately, this youthful, courageous and idealistic triumvirate will be shattered forever. For Hetty, however, and beginning with a fraught shepherding of an allied airman to a safe house, this is the beginning of four very long years of privation, heart in mouth suspense, pure terror and constant fear of either capture and torture or betrayal. This will keep readers constantly in a vicarious condition of anxiety and trepidation as Hetty navigates her way through a grinding life of evading capture. She bluffs her way through enemy checkpoints laden down with forged identity papers, money and ration cards and, on one occasion, a suitcase full of grenades! Her ever present mentor, Kees, has thoughtfully provided her with a cyanide tablet to avoid the inevitable results of capture. She even participates in an assassination. In pursuit of this 'career' she becomes the dear friend of many co-workers and whom she loses on a regular basis. unbearable tragedy is a constant companion, extending even to her own family. ''My old friend;'' she reflects at one point, ''Gone so soon. Why is it that everyone I love keeps dying?'' There are occasional references to the outside world and the progress of the War; the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, the invasion of Normandy, the debacle of Arnhem and the false joy and hope that it had generated and the truly terrible Great Famine and desperate winter of 1943 - 1944 when thousands died of privation and hunger - and still Hetty persists in her courageous and often very lonely life, leading up to her final encounter with her nemesis, the brutal and sadistic SS Major Felix Jacek in the last dying days of the War. and on an already unbearably sad day. Towards the end, Hetty sums up the last four years of her life with an admirable economy: ''Not an adventure,'' she reflects, ''when I joined, my biggest fear was dying, then I learned that there are worse things than dying, and they kept happening to me over and over....''

Perhaps, in the general course of things, the German occupation of the Netherlands and the reaction of the population to this has been only rarely covered in fiction. ''The Lioness of Leiden'' certainly goes a long way indeed towards the redressing of this balance. It is a truly stirring and moving account of one young woman and of her almost unbelievable courage and tenacity. She is in many ways emblematic of the nation as a whole. It is a salutary lesson to the reader with little previous knowledge of the subject. Robert Loewen's work is a fine book indeed and leaves the reader all the better for the experience of reading it.


The Lioness of Leiden” by Robert Loewen receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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