Will, by Jeroen Olyslaegers (translated by David Colmer), is a hard hitting fictional memoir written from the point of view of a Flemish nonagenarian, Wilfried Wils, for his teenage great-grandson. Wils was a young policeman living in Antwerp during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War. Repercussions of the choices he made during those years continue to haunt him.
“When a city is occupied by new masters, new customs, you get the same thing. After the shock, most people can’t wait to act like it’s normal. Life goes on, you have to adjust.”
Wils became a policeman to escape the forced labour imposed by the German occupiers. His new position was arranged by a family friend who has shady connections and thought he could use the young man to gain information and therefore advantage. Wils befriends another rookie cop, Lode, during training. They are then assigned to the same station. Just a few weeks later the pair are required to assist in rounding up a Jewish family for deportation. Lode is appalled and lets this be known to their superiors. Wils is discomfited but pragmatic, aware of potential consequences of not obeying their overlords.
“Sometimes people say you have to stand in someone else’s shoes to really understand their situation. But that’s hypocritical too, because when they talk about those other shoes, they always mean the victim’s. They never say a word about the shoes of those who might have felt stirred to join the persecutors.”
Lode has a sister, Yvette, who takes a shine to Wils. She sees something in him that excites her, something dangerous. Wils calls the self he must hide from the world Angelo. This alter ego wishes to be a poet. On the outside it is a matter of being seen to behave as expected and to somehow try to please everyone. Times are dangerous. Ordinary men are finding they harbour a shocking viciousness. There is vocal dislike of the wealthy Jews in the city who ran the diamond trade. There are also those willing to help them, for a price.
The elderly Wils now lives alone in Antwerp, cared for by Nicole, a daily nurse. He still goes out to walk the streets and remember the war years. He is writing down his version of events for his great-grandson because he failed to do this for his beloved granddaughter, and now it is too late to rectify the damage he believes this caused.
Wils recalls the bully-boy Germans and the Belgian officials who bent to their will, thereby reaping rewards. He remembers the money that changed hands and the decadence of those wielding power. The Jews were persecuted and their belongings appropriated. It was often unclear who exactly were traitors and to what cause.
The timeline covers events during the city’s occupation and then the changes that came with liberation. There were many whose behaviour could not be forgiven, but more who simply wished to move on with their lives.
“In the beginning there was revenge and everyone said rightly so, because it’s only normal after so many years of misery. Everyone? No, not those who were now on the other end of the whip”
Wils has survived and Lode knows how. In the intervening years, secrets leak out.
Although there is little new in the actions detailed – history has since reported the sickening plans and events – the reasoning and immediacy of the narrative give it a tension and the horror of empathy. Those who helped the Jews did so at great personal risk but were not always heroes. Likewise, the perpetrators are presented as not always entirely evil. The author asks if in times of war neutrality equates to compliancy. At what cost is personal survival achieved?
The writing does not shy away from vivid description – of drunkenness, beatings and a young man’s sexual awakening. This was fitting given the subject matter but still, at times, stomach churning. Wils’ account is brutal but also a cry for understanding.
A story of life during the Second World War from a perspective that was new to me. A powerful and compelling read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.