The Girl with the Red Hair
By Buzzy Jackson
Penguin Random House, 2023, ISBN: 9780241553077, 445 pp., $32.99
Review by Barry Healy
The girl with the red hair was the only description that the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands had for the daring Resistance assassin, Hannie Schaft, who gunned down German officers and Dutch collaborators. They hunted her for years, with Adolf Hitler taking a personal interest in her capture.
Schaft, along with the sisters, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen formed a trio of Nazi hunters whose exploits are catalogued in Sophie Poldermans’s 2019 history, Seducing and Killing Nazis – Hannie, Truus and Freddie: Dutch Resistance Heroines of WWII.
The women were remarkably young. At the time of the 1940 invasion Hannie was 19, Truus was 16 and Freddie was 14. The courage of all three in carrying out the most dangerous missions was astounding.
They clandestinely transported and hid Jewish refugees, pilfered papers to create fake identification documents for both refugees and fighters and demolished strategic military installations in bombings.
Most audaciously, the Oversteegen sisters went to bars frequented by German officers, enticing them into moonlit walks in secluded areas with the promise of sex and killing them. It is not clear if Schaft was involved in that activity.
However, an example of Schaft’s courage was on an occasion in March, 1945. Schaft and Truus Oversteegen attempted to assassinate a collaborator and had to escape on foot. Pursued by the military police they ran into a café, even though they knew that owner was suspected of collaborating.
Truus brandished her firearm and addressed the patrons, declaring: “Excuse me, gentlemen. We’re entering now, but when the Germans arrive, we’ve been here all day. If you don’t cooperate with us and we’re on our way to heaven, we’ll take a few of you with us. We’re not giving up easily.”
To create the illusion of drunkenness, they quickly drank some alcohol before the German soldiers arrived. Truus flung herself around the neck of the officer, exclaiming, “Hey Heinz, come over here!” She persisted in annoying him until the Germans departed in disgust.
The story of the Dutch Resistance and these three women is gripping and ripe for a novel and Jackson’s is certainly a page-turner. Jackson largely leaves the Oversteegen sisters to the side and creates a first-person account of Schaft’s inner conflicts as she develops as a Resistance fighter.
However, her writing choices feel a bit odd to someone familiar with the history. For a start, Schaft and the Oversteegen sisters worked more closely together than depicted here. And some of their more audacious exploits are not included.
There is also a distinct lack of politics. All three women were Communists participating in the Communist-organised Council of Resistance (RVV). Apart from passing references, that is missing in Jackson’s book.
Hannie Schaft and Truus and Freddie Oversteegen operated as underground partisans for years, conducting the most dangerous of missions. It is inconceivable that they could have done that in a political vacuum.
Schaft was eventually captured, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. After WWII the Oversteegen sisters continued as Communist Party members and the Party adopted Schaft as one of its emblematic heroes.
It is good that Jackson’s book will introduce a new generation to the example of Hannie Schaft. Interested readers will gain more from Sophie Poldermans’s next book on the trio, which is being translated into English and should be published later this year.
You probably know this but I think it’s worth mentioning that Jackson’s book is not the first novel about Hannie Schaft. Dutch Communist writer/poet Theun de Vries wrote a novel about her at the peak of the cold war when the role of the communists in WW2 resistance was being brushed under the carpet and successive commemorations of Schaft had been banned. Apparently some young communists who were unable to visit Schaft’s grave in 1954 because the authorities had closed the cemetery asked De Vries to write the book.
De Vries’s book had the same title as Jackson’s novel (but in Dutch of course), “Het meisje met het rode haar”. I don’t think it’s ever been translated. I read it in my youth, which is a long time ago, but remember it was quite exiting and there was a lot of emphasis on her political evolution. The book was rather popular in Holland and it has been reissued many times. In 1981 it’s been made into a film which was quite successful but which left much of the politics out if I remember well.
By the way, a couple of days ago on the national commemoration day of WW2 Sophie Poldermans and Hannie Oversteegen (daughter of Truus, named after Hannie Schaft) were on Dutch national tv to talk about the three women. It was excellent. Sophie and Hannie also talked about the repression the Oversteegen sisters had to endure after the war because they were well-known members of the Communist party. Truus’s family even had to leave their house and move to a safe house because of attacks by anti-communists.