Alternate Chapter 7

The night is long and dark, and Bernard is asleep next to her, his bulky form inert and oblivious. The old mansion and the lush green garden are masked in silence. Even the moon has settled behind the western horizon.

Kate is wide awake, as is the city below her. Cars glide along the black-tarred streets, and distant neon lights blink their muted colors. Somewhere, silence has returned to a theatre, and revelers in a late-night café raise their glasses in a final toast. Beggars cup their hands in a plea for extra change from those who may have something to give. Somewhere, night shift workers toil in fuming factories or in dark, narrow mines under the surface of the earth.

The night world of the city is so different to the quiet of the farm, where soft quilts hug sleeping bodies and the only sound is a lonely jackal calling its mate.

Are they doing the right thing, Kate wonders?

She misses the peacefulness of the farm and the feeling of being safely ensconced. She felt so certain there. But since arriving here in Johannesburg, doubts and unrest have plagued her.

Months ago, when Bernhard first showed her the newspaper stories, she merely shook her head. Adopt a war orphan? Adopt a child from the remnants of war and destruction that had replaced a formerly proud Germany?

"I don't know, Bernard. It would be . . . noble, yes, but bringing a strange child from a distant culture into our family?"

"We could apply for a little girl." His voice was strong and calm. He knew her great longing.

A little girl of their own.

She forced herself to consider it. "An orphaned child who has lived through these awful years of war will be deeply scarred."


Bernard always had a way of saying so much with very few words.

He gave her time to be alone with her thoughts. And when she arrived at a place of dawning comfort with the idea, it was she who had made the enquiries.

The German Children's Fund insisted that potential adoptive parents be pure, settled Afrikaners and members of one of the Afrikaans churches. Such families were to instill the Afrikaner traditions, lifestyle, and vision for the future into the orphans assigned to their care.

She completed the application form.
Name: Bernard Gerhardus Neethling
Church membership: Dutch Reformed
Native language: Afrikaans
Occupation: Farmer
Race: Full-blooded Afrikaner

Name: Kate Neethling.

Filling in the form with her own details was much more problematic, as her answers indicated clearly that she was no full-blooded Afrikaner.

The longer they waited for a response to their application, the more Kate yearned for the nameless little girl. The younger, the better, she thought. It would be easier for her to fit in.

Even fourteen year old Kobus began making plans for his new little sister. "I'll teach her to ride and how to skip stones in the dam."

"Perhaps she'll be too small for such games, son. First we'll need to let her settle in and make sure that she's happy."

"I'll teach her to speak Afrikaans."

When the answer from the authorities eventually came, it was not exactly what Kate had hoped for. "Unfortunately, there are no longer young children available. If you are willing to take in an older child, please schedule an appointment with the committee members of the German Children's Fund."

An older child? Kate's doubts resurfaced.

* * *

The newspapers were full of photos of the orphans. Some showed them landing at Table Bay, others showed groups of forlorn children at Pretoria station, exhausted after the long journey north-eastwards from Cape Town. They must feel so alone, Kate thought. They don't know the language, and the fierce sun and the dry air must feel so alien to them. They must be so confused about what is happening to them-so many strange people and the persistent flashing of cameras.

"The poor things," she said to Bernard.

His only answer was a large hand stroking her smooth black hair.

Now they are driving from her father's Johannesburg mansion to Pretoria to meet their new daughter. Their appointment is at two o'clock.

Kate's stomach is tied up in knots and her mouth is dry. Her head begins to ache.

Bernard rests his large, reassuring hand on her knee.
What a bleak, impersonal place to meet the Fund's staff and their new daughter. The office desk is battered and scared. Perched on three straight-back chairs behind the desk are two men and a woman-presumably Doctor Bührmann. Kate and Bernard take their seats across from the desk, uncomfortably erect.

One of the men’s eyes meet Kate', and he begins to speak to her in Afrikaans.

"Mrs. Neethling, as you know, the committee has determined that all adoptive parents should be pure Afrikaners who promote the ideals of the Afrikaner race. You, however, come from an English home, your father being the mining magnate John Woodroffe. It is widely known that he fought on the side of Britain during the Anglo-Boer War. You were raised in an English church, an English school, and attended an English university. How do you now declare yourself an Afrikaaner?"

She notices her husband stiffen and begin to rise from his chair. Her hand gently stills him. "I will answer, Bernard," she says firmly.

The interview lasts for nearly an hour, during which Kate fights with all her might to prove that she can be a worthy mother to a lost child and that she is willing and able to make a true Afrikaner out of a German orphan.

By the end of the appointment she knows: I want this child. I have fought for my child.

Eventually Doctor Bührmann rises. "Mr. and Mrs. Neethling, we are going to introduce you to a highly intelligent girl of eleven. She has impressed me with her precociousness and her bright and curious turn of mind. But this remains your decision. If you agree to take her, the decision is final. If not, we will find another home for her."

"We will take her," says Bernard.

The tension in Kate's stomach moves into her throat, and she feels as though she may choke. Her fingers reach for Bernhard's, but he has moved closer to the door.

Doctor Bührmann opens the door. "Come inside, Gretl," she says in German. "Come and meet your new parents."

A thin, pale little girl enters the room. Her dress is too small, and her hair is light and thin, pulled into a tight, ribboned ponytail. Her back is stiff and wary, and she clutches a brown paper bag, containing all of her worldly possessions, to her chest like an armor-plate.

She looks too small for eleven years. Pale and transparent. Fragile.

Her eyes are clear-blue and honest. Not cheeky, but discerning.

"This is your father, Oom Bernard Neethling," says the doctor in Afrikaans. "And here is little Gretl Schmidt."

She lifts her eyes straight into his and offers her hand. "Good afternoon, Father," she answers in formal Afrikaans.
He bends down low, enveloping her tiny hand in his. His hands are hard, Kate knows, but his eyes are soft. "Goeiemiddag, Gretl."

She smiles bravely in return, but Kate sees the tension around the little mouth. Her heart softening, she wants to reach out to this vulnerable little creature and hold her long and still in her arms.

Doctor Bührmann turns her head slightly toward Kate. "And here is your mother, Tannie Kate Neethling."

Kate smiles. "GutenMittag, Gretl."

The two German words bring a wave of joy through the tense little body. The blue eyes meet hers quickly, then become vigilant again. She offers her hand and answers in Afrikaans:"Goeiemiddag, Moeder."

Her tiny, reticent hand feels like a bony, day-old chick.

Kate swallows while resting her hand on the child's head. "Thank you, Doctor Bührmann. She is perfect."

Along the pathway to the car, Gretl walks between them.

On the car ride back to Johannesburg, Kate searches her mind for the right thing to say. It has been years since she last spoke German, and she is out of practice.

Bernard drives along calmly as always, his steady hands on the wheel. Sunlight shines through his light, golden hair.

Turning in her seat so that she can see Gretl, Kate speaks carefully in German: "We are on our way to Johannesburg. We will stay there for two nights, then we will go to our house on the farm." Her mind searches for more. "Tonight we will stay at my father's house. Grandpa John is English."

Gretl nods. "I don't understand English," she warns.

Kate smiles. "You will learn. Doctor Bührmann says you are very clever. We will start with Afrikaans."

After a while, Gretl asks: "Did you live in Germany?"

"Only for one year. I went to school there. Actually not in Germany, but in Switzerland."

"In Switzerland?" says a surprised Gretl.

"Yes, what do you know about Switzerland?"

Gretl hesitates. "You know . . . that's where Heidi and Peter live, with the goats."

Kate's smile widens. "You are right! And Alm-Uncle. What a grumpy old man!"

Gretl nods. "But he did change later on."

"Yes," says Kate. "Heidi softened him."

They travel on in silence. She tries to think of something comforting to say.

It is nearly dark when they reach a high, ornate iron gate. Behind the gate is the huge stone mansion with its climbing ivy reaching up to the roof.

"It's like Sleeping Beauty's castle," says Gretl, astonished.

"Exactly what I thought when I was your age," smiles Kate.

Kate's father appears, a dignified figure with his neat grey hair and friendly smile. Kate holds out her hand to Gretl.

"Come Gretl, and meet my father, your Grandpa John."

* * *

The house must feel so huge and overwhelming to her, Kate realizes. She had tried to chat with little Gretl, showing her around the house, taking her up to her room. But the awkwardness persisted. They had eaten dinner together, but the crystal chandelier was too bright, the food too plentiful. She watched Gretl trying her best, although she could not manage to swallow the last of her dessert. "Gretl, I know that everything must feel so very strange to you. But in time, you will begin to feel at home. Your papa and I will help you." Kate spoke these words of comfort to her in German.

She took Gretl for her bath. Kate added first the warm water and then the foamy bubbles, but Gretl seemed unsure. Kate soaped the tiny, bird-like body, washed Gretl's hair and combed it gently. "I always wanted a little girl with blond curly hair and blue eyes," she told her. And it was the truth.

She knew that Gretl had experienced a lifetime in the past twenty-four hours and that the exhausted child was completely overwhelmed. She sensed Gretl's confusion and fear but was uncertain as to how to reassure her.

Bernhard came to say goodnight, bending over her to stroke Gretl's hair. "Goodnight, Princess. Sweet dreams."

"Goodnight," Gretl answered in a thin little voice.

Bernard smiled and looked at Kate. "Isn't she beautiful?"

Kate pressed his large callused hand against her cheek. "She is perfect. I'll stay here until she sleeps."

Turning to Gretl, she said in German: "If you are afraid of sleeping alone, I'll sleep with you. Look, the bed is big enough for two."

"I am not scared, just very tired," the child answered and turned on her side.

Kate's heart ached for the child, but she understood that Gretl needed time alone. Gently she stroked Gretl's silky hair. "Sleep well, Little One," she said, softly closing the door behind her.

* * *

Kate lies still-next door in the guest room-with sadness deep within her. Bernhard is sleeping peacefully beside her, as always.

Deep into the night, she rises quietly from the bed to look through the open window. Outside, the moon is nesting upon the treetops, and the city lights gleam out of the darkness like a universe of stars.

Opening the bedroom door, she hears soft music below. That's Dad, she thinks sadly. He is so lonely since my mom's death, but he shoulders his loss and longing like the gentleman he is.

But sometimes, she knows, the dark can be overwhelming.

Perhaps she should go and sit with him.

The thick carpet is soft underfoot as she trails her hand down the staircase balustrade. Down below the shiny marble floor is cold to the touch. She follows the sliver of light that leads to the door of the study and tentatively pushes the door open.

Music fills her ears. Josef Schmidt's beautiful and rich voice spills from the gramophone.

John Woodroffe lounges on the soft leather couch, his legs stretched out in front of him. There are droplets on the outside of the glass that sits on the small table beside him, and the smell of his cigar hangs sweetly in the air. His eyes are closed.

He is not alone.

Snuggled safely beneath his arm, Gretl sits nestled close against him. He is absent-mindedly stroking her thin, blond hair. Her eyes are also closed, and her little face is serene at last. She sleeps peacefully in the old man's arms.

Kate gently closes the door.

South Africa in World War II

Main players

  • The Allied Forces: England and the British Commonwealth (including South Africa), France, Russia, and later the USA.
  • The Axis Powers: Germany, Italy and later Japan.

  • Background

  • 1 September 1939 Germany invades Poland, initiating World War II in Europe. 
  • 3 September 1939 Great Britain and France declare war on Germany.
  • 6 September 1939 South Africa declares war on Germany
  • Initially, the so-called Sitzkrieg lasted for eight months during which no battles were fought, but both sides were mobilizing for war. This was followed by the Blitzkrieg when Hitler overpowered the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, right through to the heart of France.
  • South-African Participation

    With the outbreak of the war in September 1939 the Union of South Africa, as it was known at the time, was part of the British Commonwealth. South Africans were much divided about their government’s decision to support the British in the war against Germany. English-speaking South Africans wanted to support Britain, but the Afrikaans-speaking community was still bitter about Britain’s behavior during the Anglo-Boer War, some forty years prior. Thus, them majority of Afrikaners either wanted to remain neutral or were sympathetic to Germany. For this reason, participation in the war was not compulsory.

    During the first four years of the war, South African troops were primarily engaged in East and North-Africa. By 1943, South African troops were moved to Italy.

    The South African Air Force made a significant contribution to the air war in East Africa, North Africa, Sicily, Italy and the Balkans and even as far east as the supply missions in support of the Warsaw uprising in Poland in 1944. Many South African pilots joined the Royal Air Force and fought against the Axis powers in Europe.

    June 1940 – November 1941: East Africa

    Italy was in control of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), forming Italian East Africa. Britain had troops in British Somaliland, Kenya and the Sudan.

  • 19 August 1940: Italian troops invade British Somaliland.
  • 1 June 1940: The first South African unit arrivrd in Kenya to fight the Italians.
  • By December 1940: Approximately 27,000 South Africans serve in East Africa against the Italian troops.
  • 5 April 1941: South African troops enter Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
  • 16 May 1941: The Italian army in Addis Ababa surrenders to the South African forces.
  • November 1941: The remaining Italian forces in Abyssinia surrender after the Battle of Gondar, except for scattered groups of Italian troops who fight a guerrilla campaign against the Allies for nearly two more years.
  • After November 1941: The last South African troops are moved to North Africa.
  • 3 September 1943: The Armistice of Cassibile ends hostilities between Italy and the Allies.

  • May 1941 – November 1942: North Africa

    The British wanted control of the sea trade route through the Suez Canal and sought to control the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa. If the Royal Navy lost this control, they would have had to use the much longer route around the southernmost part of Africa to reach Australia and India.

    In North Africa, the primary battles were fought between the Axis powers under Rommel (the Afrika Korps) and the Allies’ British 8th Army.

    The North African campaign started when the Italian troops entered Egypt from Libya and attacked the British bases.

  • 13 September 1940: The Italians invade British-controlled Egypt from Italian-controlled Libya.
  • 7 February 1941: The Italians surrender to Britain in Libya.
  • 12 February 1941: The Germans send the Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel to North Africa to reinforce the faltering Italians.
  • 11 April 1941: The Axis forces reach the Libyan/Egyptian border and besiege the harbor town of Tobruk.
  • July 1941: The first South African divisions arrive in Egypt to strengthen the retreating British forces.
  • 23 November 1941: At Sidi Rezeg the South African Army has its first serious losses when trying to push through to Tobruk.
  • January to March 1942: Both South African divisions are used to strengthen the defensive lines of the 8th Army in Libya. The 1st Division is deployed at Gazala.
  • End of March 1942: The 2nd South African Division moves to Tobruk under Major General R.B. Klopper.
  • 26 May - 13 June 1942: Rommel’s forces attack the 8th Army (including the 1st South African Division) at Gazala and the 8th Army withdraws to the Libyan/Egyptian frontier. However, Tobruk is not evacuated.
  • 21 June 1942: Rommel captures Tobruk and takes 33,000 Commonwealth troops prisoner. This is a serious military and psychological setback for the Allies. South Africa's military prestige in particular is tarnished, as the commander is South African, and 10,722 South Africans of the 2nd Division were among the prisoners.
  • 21 June 1942: The 8th Army prepares to defend 200 kilometers to the east at Mersa Matruh.
  • 25 June 1942: Rommel strikes at Mersa Matruh and the 8th Army withdraws further eastward to a small, unknown railway siding called El Alamein, 90 kilometers from Cairo. The El Alamein Line is seen as the last obstacle between Rommel and the Suez Canal.
  • 28 June 1942: Rommel's tanks move swiftly forward to prevent the 8th Army from establishing a defensive line at Fuka.
  • 30 June 1942: The Axis forces are only 160 kilometers from Alexandria. By that evening they reach the vicinity of El Alamein.
  • 1 – 28 July 1942: The 1st Battle of El Alamein holds varying success for both sides. This battle is the most crucial encounter of the war in North Africa. If Rommel's forces cannot be stopped, the Suez Canal and Alexandria will fall under Axis control. South African losses are relatively light compared to the rest of the 8th Army, but the defensive position near the station is the crucial pivot around which the Allies’ plan turns. The Allies need to fall back to the last defendable point before Alexandria and the Suez Canal. However, the Afrika Korps have by this time exhausted all their supplies and halt their counter-attacks.
  • 24 - 31 October 1942: At the 2nd Battle of El Alamein, the Allies are eventually victorious. South African casualties during the 2nd Battle of El Alamein are 734, killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war. After their defeat at El Alamein, the Axis powers retreat successfully to Tunisia.
  • May 1943: The Germans and Italians in North Africa are forced to surrender.

  • The first two squadrons of the South African Air Force arrived in Egypt in April 1941 and between that date and May 1943, with a total of eleven squadrons operating at one time, flew 33,991 sorties and destroyed 342 Axis aircraft. They were involved in most operations, starting with the evacuation of Crete in 1941, the first efforts to relieve Tobruk, the retreat to El Alamein in 1942 and the follow-up of Rommel's retreat, up to the fighting in the Mareth Line and the last air raids in May 1943 against the Axis forces in North Africa.

    In spite of the threat of German and Japanese submarines to shipping off the South African coastline, the South African Naval Forces also participated in the Mediterranean theatre. They played an important part in providing anti-submarine protection to the exposed sea route between Alexandria and Tobruk. Hence they participated in most of the operations up to the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

    April 1943 – May 1945: Italy

    The South African land forces were converted into the Sixth Armored Division. They remained part of the 8th Army and were actively involved in the Allies’ invasion of Italy.

  • 10 July 1943: US and British troops land in Sicily.
  • 17 July1943: The USA and Britain complete the conquest of Sicily and take control of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • 25 July 1943: Mussolini is overthrown in Italy, arrested and secretly kept at a prison in Gran Sasso, while Pietro Badoglio is appointed prime minister, pledging to continue the war on the side of Hitler's Germany.
  • 8 September 1943: The Badoglio government surrenders unconditionally to the Allies. The Germans immediately seize control of Rome and northern Italy, establishing a puppet Fascist regime under Mussolini, who is freed from imprisonment by German commandos on September 12.
  • 9 September 1943: Allied troops land on the beaches of Salerno near Naples.
  • 13 October 1943: Italy declares war against Germany, its former ally. Germany continues hostilities in Italy but is slowly being pushed out.
  • 22 January 1944: The Allies land at Anzio, Italy ("Operation Shingle").
  • 15 February1944: The Allies bomb Monte Cassino.
  • 19 August 1944: South African troops enter Florence.
  • 9 April 1945: The US and Britain, with troops from Canada, South Africa, Poland, India and New Zealand, launch an offensive to capture northern Italy, still in the hands of the fascists.
  • 3 May 1945: The South African Division is north east of Milan when the German forces in Italy surrendered.
  • 7 May 1945: Germany surrenders to the western Allies.
  • 9 May 1945: Germany surrenders to the Soviets.
  • 14 August 1945: Japan surrenders to the US.

    D-Day: 6 June 1944

    Many South Africans were part of the 156,000 Allied troops (from the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands and Denmark) who landed in Normandy and began the invasion of France ("D-Day") in the largest amphibious operation of all times, involving more than 5,000 ships and 8,000 aircraft. France was successfully released from Hitler’s grip.

    The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South African war dead during World War II.

  • Recipes

    Melkkos used to be a staple in South Africa - rich and hot, best enjoyed on a cold winter's night as a dessert or light meal. Literally translates as milk-food.



    1 cup flour
    3 eggs (or 2 large ones)
    2 cinnamon sticks

    2.5 ml salt
    Cinnamon-sugar mix


  • Whisk the eggs and salt slightly.
  • Add the flour and mix well.
  • Add enough water to form a stiff dough.
  • Knead the dough until it is well-mixed and pliable.
  • Roll out the dough on a prepared surface until it is ¼ inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut it into thin strips (as thin as your little finger).
  • Boil 1 cup of milk per serving.
  • Add strips to boiling milk and boil for 15 to 30 minutes until cooked. Add 2 cinnamon sticks if desired.
  • Serve hot in soup plates, sprinkled with the fine cinnamon and sugar mixture.

  • Five Facts You Need To Know
    1. The Girl From the Train was originally written in Afrikaans as Tussen Stasies and was published in South Africa in 2007. Afrikaans is one of the many languages spoken in South Africa. Other languages commonly spoken include Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Tswana and Sotho. Some 50% of South Africans of European ancestry speak English, and some 50% speak Afrikaans.

      Afrikaans is derived from 17th century Dutch, with strong influences from other languages, including Malay, German, French and indigenous African languages. Afrikaans is one of the youngest languages in the world.

      The past century has seen a notable growth in Afrikaans literature.

    2. South Africans of European origin who speak Afrikaans are called Afrikaners. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Afrikaners were known as conservative people bound closely to their traditions and Christian values.

      One of the Afrikaner traditions that people from Europe found strange was the practice of greeting someone with a kiss on the mouth. This was one of the first experiences that Gretl had to cope with on arrival in South Africa, and this custom is still popular among older Afrikaners.

    3. South Africa consists of widely divergent geographical regions, including the Cape vineyards, KwaZulu-Natal’s subtropical climate, the Highveld, including Johannesburg and the gold fields, and finally, the verdant Lowveld, including Kruger National Park. This story plays out in the northernmost part of South Africa, the Bushveld. The Bushveld is a rugged, hot, dry area that was still quite underdeveloped during the middle part of the century. The Bushveld is populated with many game species, including predators such as leopards and jackals.

    4. In South Africa a ranch is called a farm. During the first part of the twentieth century most Afrikaners were farmers (boere in Afrikaans). This is how Afrikaners came to be called Boeres and how the war between Britain and the Afrikaners received its name.

      The Bushveld farms were large and extensive, mainly supporting cattle farming. In modern day South Africa, many game farms have replaced traditional Afrikaner cattle farms.

      Electrical power was unknown on the Bushveld farms in the 1950’s. Settlers used lamps or candles for lighting and wood stoves for booking. To enjoy an early morning cup of coffee, you either had to have the wood stove burning or you needed to pump the primus stove and light it to boil a kettle of water. Bread-baking took place outside in a specially made mud oven.

    5. The settings I used for the South African parts of the story are inspired by the places where I spent my own youth. I was a child in the 1950’s on a Bushveld farm where my father raised cattle and pigs. The farm to which Gretl is sent in South Africa (Bernard and Kate’s farm), is based on the farm of my youth.

      My Holloway grandparents lived in Johannesburg, and my grandfather and grandmother Moerdyk lived in Pretoria. In the story, Grandpa John’s character is loosely based on my grandfather Holloway, and the house with the ivy is based on the house of the Moerdyks in Pretoria.

      The University of Pretoria, which Gretl attends as student, is my alma mater. Jakób’s flat in Sunnyside is similar to my husband’s flat where I got to know him as a young man.