I Was A Stranger by John Hackett

Reviewed by Simon Thomas

In a year where we almost certainly going to be inundated with books about World War One, it seems a little perverse to be publishing a reprinted memoir about World War Two, but Slightly Foxed (as always) know what they’re doing.

I Was A Stranger

To most of us, World War Two and Holland are inextricably linked through the figure of Anne Frank.  Her diary, documenting the years spent hiding in attic rooms with her Jewish family and friends, is rightly renowned for its intelligence, humour against terrible odds, and incredible poignancy – not least because of its abrupt ending.  But Anne Frank was not the only amazingly brave person in wartime Holland – a different set of people, told from a very different perspective, come to the fore in I Was A Stranger, first published in 1977.

I was a little nervous about reading this memoir, written (as it is) by a soldier.  I find warfare tedious in fiction and morally difficult in fact, and did begin to skim-read the early pages of the memoir which deal with militaristic operations – though, thankfully, nothing even slightly approaching the jingoism of Bulldog Drummond and his ilk.  But there is not much even of this – because John Hackett was injured, and taken to an army hospital.  Here he has an operation on his stomach – he is full of admiration for and gratitude to the skilled surgeon – and has a lengthy recovery to look forward to.  Being in enemy hands, the plan they had was to move him to a Prisoner of War camp as soon as he could be moved.  Not for the last time in his wartime career, Hackett decides instead to escape…

As Anthony Gardner says in his excellent and thoughtful introduction:

I Was A Stranger is not so much a tale of derring-do (though its descriptions of the fighting are vivid) as a story of friendship.  The heroism it celebrates is not that of soldiers, but of a household run by three women in a town under German occupation.

For his escape leads, after some intervals, to a house where several Dutch women are part of the resistance.  They are sisters, and although a brother and uncle are also involved, these women are the heart of the book.  They give him a bedroom, food, comfort, and – perhaps most impressively – love.  He is not hidden in the way that Anne Frank and her family were hidden – he can see Nazi soldiers from his window, and (later) walks among them, under the guise of being a deaf, injured Dutchman – but the risks to the family are still horrendous.  If it were discovered that they were harbouring an Allied soldier, particularly one of Hackett’s high military rank, they would almost certainly be killed, and their house blown up.

The members of my own family knew all this.  They could not fail to.  Carelessness or ill luck, a simple mishap, might at any time destroy them.  This would be their reward for taking in a stranger.  Yet they went about their daily lives calmly and cheerfully and never showed to me, the cause of the mortal danger in which they stood, anything but solicitude and kindness.  There was no trace of fretfulness.  If any of them longed for their guest to be gone, and the threat removed which was embodied in his presence, they gave no hint of it.  There was no appearance of anxiety in that household, no sign of fear, no tension.  The atmosphere was one of confidence and trust and sometimes there was even gentle mirth.  My admiration for these people touched on awe.  I wanted urgently to be away and would go as soon as I could.  Till then I would go on living among them in gratitude and love.

I should apologise for following up this lovely quotation with another, but they are the heart of the book, really, and any paraphrase I’d attempt wouldn’t really be worthwhile:

I was leaving behind me a rare and beautiful thing.  It was a structure of kindness and courage, of steadfast devotion and quiet selflessness, which it was a high privilege to have known.  I had been witness to an act of faith, simple, unobtrusive and imperishable.  I had often seen bravery in battle.  I now also knew the unconquerable strength of the gentle.

These excerpts will hopefully show you what sets this book apart from many soldier memoirs.  Presumably he was interested in fighting, but in I Was A Stranger he has chosen, instead, to focus on the bravery of the peaceful person.  These women played no part in the war or the invasion, but they did not sit back passively.  I think they would have been extraordinarily brave just by living during the horrors of war, but they went a step further, and risked everything to help a stranger.

I missed the epigraph to the book initially, and it was only while reading that the provenance of the title dawned on me – the very beautiful part of the Bible (in the gospel of Matthew) where Jesus says that people who feed, cloth, or shelter strangers are really, in effect, performing the same service for Jesus: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in’.  The people sheltering Hackett, and Hackett himself, were all committed Christians, and I found that this gave I Was A Stranger a spiritual depth and beauty that, though seldom brought to the fore, underlies the whole.  I found it particularly interesting when Hackett considered Jesus’ desire that his followers should ‘love your enemy’ – and concluded that, while it is right to fight oppressors and oppressive countries, that individual Nazis should be shown love.  What an astonishingly humble and courageous belief – truly faith in action.

Hackett also wins my sympathies for his love of literature.  One bonus of being laid up in bed for months is that he can read, and read thoroughly.  His schedule is impressive – he goes through Shakespeare’s works by reading a tragedy in the morning and a couple of comedies after lunch – but he also writes intelligently and poignantly about the great works of literature he reads, with great swathes of time to take them in.

I Was A Stranger is bookended by tales of military exploits – those that lead to his capture, and those which lead out of Holland – and those appealed less to me.  The centre of this book, both literally and figuratively, is concerned with the long days and weeks of inaction, the kindness of strangers, and – as Hackett so beautifully puts it – ‘the unconquerable strength of the gentle’.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

John Hackett, I Was A Stranger (Slightly Foxed: London, 1977 repr.2014), 978-1906562595 316pp., hardback

Read a piece by Hazel, one of the Slightly Foxed editors, in our BookBuzz section.

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