(This review of Ida Vos’s middle grade historical Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon is edited from the review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site, probably around 2004.)
Like all of Ida Vos’s other books, this too is highly autobiographical. It’s the story of the de Jongs, who are originally from Groningen and now live in Rijswijk. The young protagonist Rosa even has the same birthdate as the author, 13 December 1931.
Rosa and her little sister Silvie try to make the best of a very bad situation by having a huge sheet of paper hanging on their wall, with each new prohibition and regulation written in blue ink, so they won’t forget and accidentally sit on a park bench, enter a library, go shopping before 3:00, go swimming, or go fishing. They constantly quiz one another about what date each of these things happened on, or ask what happened on such and such a date. The things that only apply to adults they don’t bother with.
During this time of fear and indignition, the Mendes family from France comes to live with the de Jongs after the Germans take over their house. They’re a young married couple, artists, and the girls call them Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Louis. Everyone calls their adorable baby “mon petit Philippe.” The girls are thrilled to have a pretend baby brother. Rosa’s spirits are also kept high by her continuing violin lessons, though she has to change schools and tutors several times.
Rosa’s uncle Sander, her mother Myra’s baby brother, who’s known for his wild stories and funny antics, says he saved a German general from drowning. In gratitude, the officer gave him special papers to go to the south of France with nine other people of his choosing. He chooses his sister’s family, the Mendeses, Rosa’s favourite aunt, Lita Rosa, and one of her uncles, Jossie.
In excitement, Rosa and Silvie begin learning French with Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Louis, though Heer de Jong thinks it’s a wild fantasy. Still, they pack their things and prepare for Sander to come back and take them away. He delivers the papers on 6 October 1942, and promises they’ll leave the next morning at 8:30.
This is where things get really dark, a lot darker than in Ida Vos’s other books. An hour and a half before Sander is supposed to come and get them, the Nazis arrive and take them to the police station. An officer notices Rosa with her violin, and asks her to play something. He says she looks like his young daughter Wendela, who also plays the violin. Rosa plays “Waltz of the Clouds,” written by Gideon Goldstein, the deported son of her final violin teacher.
I would have given it 5 stars, but the ending is too sudden, and the Epilogue doesn’t offer many answers or a real sense of closure. It’s too convenient to say Rosa and Sander were unable to talk about what happened to them after they escaped. Up till the very end, though, it was great, and was based on a real-life incident.
Friedrich Weinreb was a revered figure in the Dutch Jewish community. He saved the life of a German lieutenant colonel by pulling him away from the path of a speeding car, and as reward, he got to take some people to safety in Vichy France.
Ida Vos’s family were on this list, learning French, eagerly awaiting their departure, till her mother got suspicious and convinced her father to take them off the list so they could go into hiding instead. It turned out that most of the people on that list who hadn’t gone into hiding ended up dead in the camps. They also had a family with a young son living with them, on whom the Mendeses were based.