New Novel Explores the Lives of Heroines Who Fought the Gestapo

Robert Loewen


Hetty Steenhuis had never smuggled hand grenades before.

She scanned the nine passengers standing on the platform in the cavernous station for any hint that a Nazi operative might be among them. They appeared to be ordinary Dutch people, nervous and distracted after four years of German occupation, waiting innocently for Tram No. 1 to Delft. It was October, a cold month in the Netherlands, and her fellow passengers raised their collars against the morning chill as a brisk wind whipped through The Hague from the North Sea. Hetty took in a deep breath of the icy air to help her stay awake. She had stayed up most of the night practicing lifting her heavy suitcase; it had to appear natural, so as not to give away its explosive contents.


Despite her fatigue, Hetty was committed to her mission. She was about to board the tram when two German soldiers whisked by, armed with submachine guns. Hetty stopped breathing and let the soldiers pass. It took every bit of fortitude in her 97-pound frame to appear unfazed by their presence. If she collapsed or gasped from lack of air, then all eyes would be on her. She had come too far to lose everything now.


By October 1944, the Allied armies had advanced from their Normandy beachhead, offering hope of rescue to the war-weary Dutch, but instead of giving up, the Germans had only worked harder to catch people like her. Hetty exhaled slowly when the soldiers walked by without a second glance, smoking their cigarettes as they patrolled the tram’s loading area. When the other passengers began to stir, Hetty picked up her suitcase and moved closer to the boarding point to assure a good seat.




Karl DeBoer stood next to the tracks at Rotterdam terminal, waiting anxiously for the train to arrive. His penetrating blue eyes were framed by his long, dark hair and full beard, making him appear more like a Visigoth from the 5th century than the university student that he was. Of average height, Karl had a strong build after years of making bicycles at his uncle’s factory. “The train’s not due for another hour,” said Uncle Jef, putting a hand on his nephew’s back. “Let’s go inside the waiting room and relax.”


“I can’t relax,” said Karl, pacing in circles. “The entire time we were training this week, Hetty was all I thought about. I can’t believe I made such a mess of things.”


Karl studied the train schedule on the wall of the terminal. It was May 10, 1940, only three weeks since he and Hetty had celebrated her 20th birthday together.


Karl had met Hetty seven months ago at a pub near the university in Leiden, where she was having a beer with his roommate, Brecht. Karl was smitten immediately. Feisty and confident, she was unlike any woman he’d met. But she was Brecht’s girlfriend, so he tried to let the moment pass.



Thinking about the occasion now, Karl was surprised that he had been attracted less by her physical allure—though she was not lacking in that department—than by her quick wit and laughing eyes, coupled with his sense that she was not someone who could be pushed around. He knew Hetty was taken, but he saw no harm in having a three-way chat with Brecht and his girlfriend. He ordered another round of beer and tried to start a conversation.


But before he could say a word, Hetty started in. “Brecht told me you’re a communist,” Hetty said, smiling in that bantering style he later learned to love.


“I’ve been to a few of their meetings,” he replied cautiously, watching her expression closely for a sign whether this had ruined his chances with her.


“Don’t communists believe that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’?” she asked.


Hetty was quoting from Marx’s Manifesto, but Karl admitted he had no idea what she was talking about.


“Ha,” Brecht guffawed. “I told you she’s smart, Karl.”


Hetty ignored Brecht’s compliment, instead zeroing in on Karl. “Don’t you believe in class struggle, Mr. DeBoer?”


“I never gave it any thought,” Karl replied, still flummoxed by the effect this young woman had on him. “All I know is that the communists are the only ones preparing to organize a resistance when Hitler comes.”



The next thing Karl knew, Hetty invited herself to attend a meeting of the communists. He was thrilled that this fascinating young woman, who had challenged him with such grace and charm, wanted to spend more time with him. She wanted to know about the communists because the German Reich had just invaded Poland, she said, and she had no confidence that Hitler would abide by the neutrality agreement he had signed with the Netherlands.

Brecht sensed the mutual attraction between Karl and Hetty and was not happy

about it—and rightfully so. By the time Karl and Hetty attended their first communist

meeting, she had broken up with Brecht. Feeling the inevitable pressure of impending war

to make every moment count and to live authentically, Karl and Hetty shared their first kiss after the second meeting, standing at the Leiden station while Hetty waited for her train home to The Hague.


This is an excerpt from The Lioness of Leiden by Robert Loewen (Green Leaf Book Group Press). It’s published here with permission.


Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--U.S. National Archives (, Creative Commons)

--Green Leaf Book Group Press

--Ping News (U.S. National Archives, Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Rawpixel (Creative Commons)



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