By Marga Minco
About the Author
Marga Minco is a Dutch journalist and author. She lives and works in Amsterdam. She was born on March 31, 1920 in the village of Ginneken, in the southwest of the Netherlands. As a young girl she moved to Breda, a town near her birthplace, together with her parents, her brother Dave and her sister Bettie. Her pious father Salomon held the position of parnas (warden) in the local Jewish community and probably made a living as a salesman. Minco’s mother Grietje Minco-van Hoorn was trained as a teacher. Minco’s parents, who married in 1914, remained enamored throughout their lives.
In the early part of World War II Minco lived in Breda, Amersfoort, and Amsterdam. She contracted a mild form of tuberculosis and ended up being treated in hospitals in Utrecht and Amersfoort. In the autumn of 1942 she returned to Amsterdam and her parents, who were forced by the German occupiers to move into the city’s Jewish Quarter.
Later in the war, Minco’s parents, her brother, and her sister were all deported, but having escaped arrest herself she spent the rest of the war in hiding and was the family’s only survivor. Minco married the poet and translator Bert Voeten (who died in 1992) whom she had met in 1938 and with whom she hid during the war. After the war, they worked on a number of newspapers and magazines. They have two daughters, one of whom is the writer Jessica Voeten.
Her youth and her experiences during the war inspired her to start writing novels and short stories. In 1957, a year after the birth of her second daughter, Jessica, Minco made her literary debut with the short novel Het bittere kruid, translated into English as Bitter Herbs. Minco’s books are distinguished by her sober, reserved way of using words and emotions..
Marga Minco is the only member of her immediate family to have survived the Second World War. Her father, mother, brother Dave and his fiancée, her sister Bettie and husband – all were deported to concentration camps. None returned.
She dies, nevertheless, just before her 85th birthday, by falling accidentally into an unprotected well.
During World War II, the Germans (the Nazis under Hitler) invaded Holland where ninety percent of the people were Jews. Many of the Jews fled in fear to other countries. Thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps. A woman and her little daughter had also to leave their home. The woman left all her things with a woman known to her. After some time, the woman died. However, her daughter remembered the place where she used to live with her mother. Long after the war, she came to the town where she used to live with her mother. She went to meet the woman with whom her mother had left all her things. But the woman refused to recognize her because she didn’t want to return the things she had taken. In this story, the daughter describes how she felt during that visit and later on another visit.
1. The narrator – Marga Minco
2. Mrs. S – mother of the narrator
3. Mrs. Dorling– an acquaintance of the narrator’s mother
4. A girl of 15 – daughter of Mrs. Dorling
After ringing the bell of House Number 46 in Marconi Street, a woman opened the door. On being introduced, the woman kept staring at her in silence. There was no sign of recognition on her face. The woman was wearing her mother’s green knitted cardigan. The narrator could understand that she had made no mistake. She asked the woman whether she knew her mother. The woman could not deny this. The narrator wanted to talk to her for some time. But the woman cautiously closed the door. The narrator stopped there for some time and then left the place.
In the subsequent sections, the memories of the narrator’s bygone days come to light. Her mother had provided the address years ago during the war. She went to home for few days. She could find that various things were missing. At that time her mother told her about Mrs. Dorling. She happened to be an old acquaintance of the narrator’s mother. Lately she had renewed contact with her and had been coming there regularly. Every time she left their house she took something home with her. She told that she wanted to save all their nice possessions. The next day the narrator saw Mrs. Dorling going out of their house with a heavy suitcase. She had a fleeting glimpse of Mrs. Dorling’s face. She asked her mother whether the woman lived far away. At that time the narrator’s mother told about the address: Number 46, Marconi Street. After many days the after the war, the narrator was curious to take record of the possessions that must still be at Number 46, Marconi Street. With this intention she went to the given address.
The concluding part of the story describes the second visit of the narrator. As the narrator’s first visit yielded no result so she planned to go once again. Interestingly, a girl of fifteen opened the door to her. Her mother was not at home. The narrator expressed her wish to wait for her. The girl accompanied her to the passage. The narrator saw an old fashioned iron candle holder hanging next to a mirror. The girl made her sit in the living room and went inside. The narrator was horrified to find herself in a room she knew and did not know. She found herself in the midst of familiar things which she longed to see again but which troubled her in the strange atmosphere. She had no courage to look around her. But she no longer had desire to possess them. She got up, walked to the door, and left the room. She resolved to forget the address and moved on.
Short Answer Type Questions
Q1. Why did the narrator go to Number 46, Marconi Street?
Ans. This was the address of the woman who had carried their valuables to her home for safety during war time. So the narrator went there to claim the belongings of her mother.
Q2. Why was Mrs. Dorling cautious while opening the door?
Ans. Mrs. Dorling had committed the crime of misappropriating the narrator’s household things a few years ago. She hoped that the war would uproot the entire family and they would never return. But she also feared one day someone from the family could turn up and claim the things that she kept at her home. Hence she was cautious in opening the door.
Q3. Do you think the woman didn’t recognize the narrator, or she was merely pretending? Give reasons for your answer.
Ans. Obviously, the woman was pretending that she didn’t recognise the narrator. As soon as she realised that she had been found out she said, “Have you come back? I thought that no one had come back.”
Q4. How was the narrator convinced that she had made no mistake and had reached the right address?
Ans. When the woman who opened the door gave no sign of recognition, the narrator thought she was perhaps mistaken and had rung the wrong bell. When she saw the woman wearing her mother’s green knitted cardigan, she was convinced that she had made no mistake and reached the right address.
Q5. How did the woman try to avoid the narrator?
Ans. First, the woman refused to recognise the narrator. When she realised that she had been found out, she regretted that she couldn’t do anything for the narrator. Then she asked the narrator to come another time. She gave the impression that there was someone in the house whom she didn’t want to be disturbed.
Q6. Why did the author first hesitate to claim her belongings from Mrs. Dorling?
Ans. When the war was over and the narrator began to feel a little secure, she felt like missing her family belongings. On a second thought, she began to suspect that the presence of her family articles would remind her of her dear ones who were no more with her so she hesitated to claim those articles from Mrs. Dorling’s house. Besides, she lived in a poor room that looked the oddest place to accommodate her expensive possessions.
Q7. Who was Mrs. Dorling? What did the narrator’s mother tell her about the woman?
Ans. Mrs. Dorling was an old acquaintance of the narrator’s mother whom she had not seen for years. She had recently renewed their contact. Since then she has been visiting their house regularly. Every time she left their house she took something home with her.
Q8. Why did the narrator finally decide to forget the address?
Ans. After the war, the author went to collect the things which belonged to her family. Mrs. Dorling who had taken away everything did not allow the author to enter in her house. Later, she tried to take another chance. This time her daughter received her. The narrator entered and saw many things lying here and there. Her past memories stood before her eyes. But soon she realised that the objects which are associated with the past had lost their value as being cut off from them. The easiest way was to forget. So she decided to forget the address.
Long Answer Type Questions
Q1. Describe the narrator’s first visit to Mrs. Dorling’s house in Marconi Street.
Ans. The narrator was sure that her mother’s belongings must still be preserved by Mrs. Dorling. One day she felt an urge to see and touch those objects. So she went to Mrs. Dorling’s house in Marconi Street. She rang the bell. A woman opened the door and looked at her searchingly. The narrator came closer and introduced herself that she was Mrs. S’s daughter. The woman kept staring at her in silence. There was no sign of recognition on her face. The narrator thought perhaps she had come to the wrong house. But she saw the woman was wearing her mother’s green knitted cardigan. She knew at once that she had made no mistake. She asked the woman whether she knew her mother. The woman could not deny this. She said, “Have you come back”? The woman regretted that she could not do anything for her. She asked the narrator to come some other time and cautiously closed the door. The narrator realized that her visit was in vain. She stood on the step for a while and then left the place.
Q2. Describe the narrator’s second visit to Mrs. Dorling’s house.
Ans. The narrator’s first visit to Mrs. Dorling’s house was in vain. She decided to try a second time. This time a girl of about fifteen opened the door to her. Her mother was not at home. The narrator said that she would wait for her. Following the girl along the passage, the narrator saw their old-fashioned iron candle-holder hanging next to a mirror. The girl made her sit in the living room and went inside. The narrator was horrified to find herself in a room she knew and did not know. She found herself in the midst of familiar things which she longed to see again but which oppressed her in the strange atmosphere. She dared not look around her. The woollen table-cloth, the cups, the white tea-pot, the spoons, the pewter plate, everything was full of memories of her former life. Suddenly the objects linked with her former life lost their value. In strange surroundings, they too appeared strange to her. She no longer had desire to possess them. She got up, walked to the door, and came out of the house.
Q3. What did the narrator learn about Mrs. Dorling from her mother?
Ans. The war was going on. The narrator was home for a few days. She immediately noticed that something or other about the rooms had changed. Various things were missing. She looked at her mother questioningly. Then her mother told her about Mrs. Dorling. The narrator had never heard of that woman. Obviously, she was an old acquaintance of her mother, whom she had not seen for years. Since then she had been coming to their house regularly. Every time she left the place she took something home with her. She took all the table silver, then the antique plates and several other precious things. She herself explained that she wanted to save all their nice things because they would lose everything in case they had to leave the house. The narrator’s mother never doubted her intention. She rather felt obliged to Mrs. Dorling for talking all the trouble while carrying their things.
Q4. Why had the narrator remembered Mrs. Dorling’s address? Why did she want now to forget the address?
Ans. Mrs. Dorling was an old acquaintance of the narrator’s mother. She had carried their valuables to her house for safety during the war time. She said that she wanted to save all their nice things because they would lose everything if they had to flee from the place. The narrator’s mother told her Mrs. Dorling’s address. The narrator had remembered the address.
When the war was over and things became almost normal, one day the narrator had an intense longing to see and touch the objects which were linked with the memories of her former life. She knew that all the things must still be preserved by Mrs. Dorling. So she went to Number 46 in Marconi Street. She was horrified to find in a room she knew and did not know. She found herself in the midst of familiar things which she longed to see again. Suddenly the objects lost their value. In strange surroundings, they too appeared strange to her. She realised that she no longer wanted to possess them. Now the address lost all its significance for her and she wanted to forget it.
Q5. Comment on the contrasting elements in the characters of Mrs. S and Mrs. Dorling?
Ans. The mother of the author, Mrs. S was a lady of simplicity. She didn’t seem to have seen the harsh and cruel side of this two-faced world. She could easily befriend people, and rather more easily, trust them. That’s why she trusted Mrs. Dorling, who was just an acquaintance of her, and allowed her to keep all her precious belongings for the time being. Moreover, she was so kindhearted that she was sympathetic enough for Mrs. Dorling, who had to carry all her heavy articles all alone.
In contrast, Mrs. Dorling was an absolute thief, a unique combination of cunningness and betrayal. She cheated Mrs. S and seized her very precious belongings very wittingly. She can be called a perfectionist in this ‘occupation’ of hers.
Q6. Who is Mrs. Dorling? Do you justify her behaviour in the story?
Ans. Mrs. Dorling is an acquaintance of Mrs. S, the narrator’s mother. In the story Mrs. Dorling exploits Mrs. S’s fears and insecurity during the war. She insists Mrs. S and took away all her valuable things after giving assurance that she would keep them safe until the war was over. In fact, Mrs. Dorling had no intentions of returning the valuables as she was sure that Mrs. S and her family would not survive the war. So when the narrator, Mrs. S’s daughter, went to Mrs. Dorling’s house to claim those articles to which her mother’s precious memories were associated, she even pretended not to recognize her. Instead of returning those articles to the narrator, she shamelessly used them which actually belonged to the narrator’s mother and also behaved rudely to the narrator. So, in the context of the above Mrs. Dorling’s behaviour cannot be justified.