I'd never heard of this book when the fantastic Slightly Foxed Limited Edition came out last year. Little did I know I'd be raving about it to everybody ever since.
This book is less a war memoir than a story of friendship – a celebration of the quiet heroism of three Dutch women who put their safety after the safety of this, to them, unknown soldier.
In September 1944 John Hackett, commander of the 4th Parachute Brigade, was severely wounded and taken prisoner during the Battle of Arnhem. I Was a Stranger is his moving account of what happened to him afterwards.
Taken to a hospital in enemy hands and given emergency surgery, John, who was 33, was desperate to escape. Fortunately the Germans dropped their guard, and the Dutch Resistance spirited him away and hid him in a house a stone’s throw from the German Military Police post in the town of Ede.
Number 5 Torenstraat was the home of three middle-aged unmarried sisters – Ann, Cor and Mien de Nooij. There John Hackett spent the following months under the noses of the Germans, while the de Nooij family nursed him back to health. Finally, after a hair-raising journey through the waterways of occupied Holland, he made it back to the British lines.
It’s a cliffhanging story, yet I Was a Stranger has something of the stillness and reflective quality of a Dutch painting. This was a household that survived by paying attention to the smallest details of daily life, and John gradually became part of it, sitting with the sisters during the long evenings, sharing their religious faith and love of English literature. But always there was the knowledge that his presence could be their death sentence, and the need for him to recover his strength became ever more pressing.
The book’s title is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’. It is a tribute by a very unusual soldier to a group of outstandingly brave, unassuming and resourceful people, which stays in the heart long after the book is closed.
Buy your copy here, this really is one not to miss.
Also if you are a fan of Desert Island Discs you can listen to John Hackett on the programme here, it is lovely to hear a bit more about his distinguished and varied life.