This is a story assembled from the fragmented memories of a woman who, as a very young girl growing up in the Netherlands, endured circumstances that no child should ever have to endure. On the 19th of March, 1945, the war came to her home town of Doetinchem where she lived with her mother and father and her two older sisters. The sirens screamed and the bombs whistled their way toward the people below, as they would twice more when the U.S. Army bombed her town. Everything was now different.
I opened a dialog with this gracious woman after reading a rather lengthy comment she left on this website in which she shared some of her memories of her life in Doetinchem. We exchanged several emails over the following days and with each reply she revealed a few more details of her life. A story was unfolding and, with her permission, i wanted to publish it. It meant a lot to me that someone who has lived long enough to bare witness to certain events of the Second World War, would bother to share their experience on my website. And so she furnished me with the necessary pieces which allowed me to reconstruct a significant part of her life, not that i’m much of a writer mind you.
This is her story…
I was four years old when the bombs fell. The first bombing of Doetinchem was fascinating to a naive young girl observing at a distance, but my fascination soon morphed into something less palatable when my mother took me to town the following day whereupon i discovered that “someone had broken the town”. My mother explained that this had happened the day before when these “screaming things” came down from the planes.
Having lived close to the German border, we watched the British RAF fly bombing sorties every night over our home on their way to Germany, their planes sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The planes were preceded by the loud whine of the air raid sirens, soon after which we heard the “popping” sounds of the German anti-aircraft batteries. All this would become normal to us, as were the dark brown and prickly feeling “black out” draperies which were very heavy and ghastly looking. My mother told me they were made from horse hair. From my bed at night I would peek out and watch the little things fly over. After I saw what was done to our town it didn’t take long to understand that all these “things” coming over every night had been doing the same thing elsewhere for a very long time.
Growing up so near Germany and riding my bike there with friends where we would sit near the Rhine from time to time, I was exposed to the German people regularly. I learned early on that my own experience with them mirrored my mothers’ opinion of the two German soldiers who were assigned by the SS to live with us (Einkwartierung) in our living room, which is to say that they were extremely disciplined and friendly. The Germans left very early in the morning before I woke and came home after I had gone to bed, so I have no personal memory of them. There were sliding doors between the living room and the family room which, for reasons unknown to me, remained closed while they stayed with us. I hated this and so I tried for days to open them which resulted in a scolding from my mother. There was another door in the hallway that led to the living room however and so I opened that door to discover two beds which I thought was odd.
My father was a no-nonsense kind of man who was extremely musical, yet he found little pleasure in the classical music the rest of us enjoyed. He was strict, but not more so than other fathers of that time. In those days the whole neighborhood raised everyone’s kids. At about six foot, eight inches tall, he was an imposing figure, though his appearance was tempered by a wicked sense of humor. After the Germans confiscated his DKW Cabriolet he traveled by bike until eventually someone stole it from him. This really ticked him off until one day, while walking to town, a very tall German on a bike passed my father. “Ha!”, he thought,” just my size” and so he followed him. When the German entered a tobacco shop, my father snatched his bike and raced off with it. He had that bike for at least 10 years.
All cars were confiscated by the Germans, not only my fathers, and when Queen Wilhelmina from London spoke to the Dutch people via radio every night at 8 o-clock, the radios were confiscated too. My father knew about this and so he placed our radio in a box and buried it in the garden. My mother would teach us songs from the radio, but once the radio was taken she ran out of songs and so she taught me to sing hymns which I performed to various and sundry visitors, to their delight.
During the war my father was in the Dutch Resistance, which the German soldiers expected. The greatest weapon the resistance had were four nationwide strikes that stopped everything and there was nothing the Germans could do about it. Father was the head of the “Bescherming Bevolking” (Civil Defense) in our town and thus was not subject to curfew, an amenity which provided for a great deal of freedom. He worked very closely with our Dr. Tjalma who, along with the priest of Gaanderen (another little town now part of Doetinchem), were briefly imprisoned by the Germans for three days and two nights and then let go, apparently for something having to do with a bombing raid on Gaanderen. My father believed it was a nearby neighbor who, for reasons unknown, reported him to the SS. He would not speak to the man after that and we were forbidden from ever setting foot in the small store he had.
For years when Dr. Tjalma was preforming his house visits he would stop by our home, not because anyone was ill, but rather to see whether my father was there. Father was a journalist and therefore often away from home. They would sit for hours talking and only later did i discover why. My father was summoned to town after the bombing in order to find adult bodies that had shrunken to the size of children. He wondered what was dropped on us besides the bombs. One time he was called in to the BATA which was a business where my mother would have the runs in her silk stockings repaired. There was an enormous chunk of flesh there, evidently dropped from a plane, that caused a big hole in the roof. It was not human and it did not belong to any animal known by my father. Father was considered thee horse expert in the Netherlands and was a geneticist who wrote about animals.
As an insurance policy the Germans would incarcerate random people, preferably clergy, in various parts of the Netherlands in order to deter some idiot Dutchman who might otherwise kill a German. Still, sometimes this happened and when it did one of these people would be executed in reprisal. So when leading a group of men, my father had to tell them not to play hero because every German they killed would result in the death of a Dutchman. The Resistance transported weapons and burned down town halls and city halls where the records of all the residents were kept, including those of the Jewish inhabitants.
My father died in 1986. He never spoke of the war. It was around the late ’70s when I told him about my memory of him coming by our home with members of the National Socialist Bond who collaborated with the Germans. He was taking them to a juvenile detention facility that served as a temporary jail. He responded, “Ah, you were much to small to remember any of it” and so I asked him if he remembered what he was wearing. He was quiet for a long time and then said, “Why, do you?”. I said yes, you were wearing a gray herringbone coat. He was stunned and eventually said, “I’ll be damned…what else do you remember?”. I explained to him that it was not the coat that stirred my memory, but rather that it had been traumatic for me to see him carrying a big gun and also to see a lady from our church with all her hair gone. Children remember the traumatic things. I told him I have fragments and they do not always connect, but parents at that time paid little attention to how children experienced certain events.
I remember one time we were playing in the family room. It was dark and we realized there was some sort of skirmish taking place behind our home. I peeked and my mother said “don’t peek”. I saw my father and a neighbor with a sheep. I hear a pop and a thud. Somehow I know the sheep was dead. After what seemed like an eternity, I see a pillow case filled with sheep wool hanging on a nail at the top of the basement stairs. But I “see the sheep”. Months later the wool disappeared and then it returned again, this time in the form of a very handsome sweater, but I still “see the sheep”.
Once I asked my father, “where you a hero?”. “Hell no, I was scared shit-less half the time.” he replied. “Then why did you do what you did?” i asked. He looked at me and said very slowly, “because not doing something was not an option”. “Heroes are the inventions of those who glorify war.” he said. He instilled in me a curiosity that has remained ever since.
My maternal grandparents, who lived elsewhere, had a safe house for Jews and so I suddenly had all these “Aunts and Uncles” whenever I visited. I was later told that our feisty little grandmother wore a yellow star on her coat with the word “Jood” on it. She did that to tick-off the German guards which she had to pass on her way to visit her daughter. And so to them she became the “crazy lady”, which was terrific because from time to time she had to take Jewish women through that check point and they’d say “Let her and her crazy friends through.”. My grandfather was an orthopedic shoe maker who once made shoes for a family who owned a jewelry store in exchange for a set of silverware that he gave to my aunt on her wedding day. Money was useless except on the black market. My father had nothing to trade. He had money but there was nothing to buy except some food items from farmers who still accepted it and so my mother would buy milk, flour and vegetables and sometimes meat for our family. It was common for the vegetable man to come by with a horse drawn wagon. They were not allowed to have carrots visible on their cart because carrots are Orange and the Dutch Monarchy is of the House of Orange since the 16th Century. This is why the Dutch National Soccer team is always dressed in Orange, as is the Dutch Olympic team.
At one point we had a young man living in our home with false papers because he was supposed to be working in the Ruhr in the armament factories. Then the resistance brought us an Austrian deserter with a death sentence on his head. It was after his arrival that the SS came and determined that we had sufficient room to board the two German soldiers. This whole group ended up playing cards in the evening. I learned that one of the soldiers had once asked my mother if he could borrow some sugar and she informed him that we’d not had any sugar for four years. He was stunned. The next day he brought her a very large tin filled with sugar cubes. The Germans knew the Austrian was a deserter, but they never reported our parents. All of this flies in the face of the description of a Nazi. At war’s end when the Canadians came, their behavior was quite different. They stole.
My mother passed away only two years ago. She was almost 102 and as sharp as if she were 15. About five years ago I asked her how Uncle Hans (the Austrian deserter) knew my father was coming by on his way to jail with the collaborators? Mother giggled and said, “you won’t remember this but there were others who came by to take collaborators to jail”. She said that my father required every collaborator to sing at top of his lungs, “het Wilhelmus”, the Dutch National Anthem, while they marched. If they did not sing loud enough he’d shoot in the air and if they did not march in step he’d shoot next to their feet. Every so often he had them march in place and he’d shout “Long live the Queen!” upon which the collaborators had to respond “Hip Hip Hoorah!” three times. Mother said “we could always hear your father coming”.
Toward the end of the war the German soldiers left our home to return to their own. Upon their evacuation we children were placed in the cold, damp cellar for three days and nights for our safety, sleeping on mattresses placed on the floor. Eventually someone opened the door and spoke “funny” with lots of “ings” and “angs”. The man smiled and threw down some small things wrapped in paper which mother said we could eat. That was my first experience with candy. Like the “Moffen”, he too was a soldier, but he was a good one. He was from Canada. When we were finally permitted to come out of the cellar, we discovered that there was a tank in the road which everyone thought was very fascinating. The soldiers in it also spoke funny. Suddenly they disappeared inside that big thing and the pipe in front starts “popping”. They were presumably shooting at Germans still hiding somewhere past our house. Everyone scattered and my mother tried to drag me away to the safety of a house on the corner which had a bomb shelter in its cellar, but I wasn’t finished watching and so I dropped to my knees. By the time we reached the shelter my knees were a mess.
During the war Hitler installed an Austrian civilian by the name of Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar (Chancellor) of the occupied Netherlands. The Dutch called him ‘Zes en een Kwart’ (Six and a Quart). During the occupation ‘Six and a Quart’ discovered that, unlike Germany which had a national healthcare system since 1890, the Netherlands did not and so he created one based on the German system. I grew up on that system. Arthur Seyss-Inquart was hanged in Nuremberg after the war. His last words were:
I hope that this execution will be the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War,
and that the lesson learned from this world war will be that peace and understanding
between the different peoples will exist. I believe in Germany.
After all these years I finally understood why my father disliked the healthcare system so terribly, yet insisted we followed its rules which included a great deal of preventive medicine that benefited us all.
I survived the German occupation in the Netherlands, as well as three incendiary bombings by the U.S. Army Air Corps. The reason I knew the Americans bombed us was because the RAF only flew sorties at night while the Americans flew them during the day. They claimed the bombings were an accident due to a faulty atlas, but this doesn’t explain their bombing of 35 other Dutch towns, none which were anywhere close to the German border. The City of Rotterdam was bombed a total of 17 times. Doetinchem was entirely unscathed by the war until March, 1945, when the Americans decided to firebomb us. People forget that when the war is over, those who survived it continue to live in the rubble for many years. That is what war does. Dutch historians are finally acknowledging that the allies caused far more destruction to the Netherlands than the Germans did.
Those who have not lived under war cannot understand. When I see pictures of Palestinian kids playing in rubble, they are me. In high school our bike park was in a huge bomb crater. Half of the school was missing. Doetinchem got a new school in 1957 and the bombed-out church was rebuilt rather quickly, though without a tower. It wasn’t until the ’70s when the tower was built.
I personally know nothing about the prewar years except that the Netherlands was not involved in World War I. It was neutral. It was also neutral during the Second World War, but Berlin intelligence divulged that the British were going to invade Europe either through Holland/Belgium or France and so the Germans invaded Holland on May 10, 1940. About 2 weeks later the Germans discovered there were 300,000 British soldiers in Dunkirk which they allowed the British military to evacuate.
I left Doetinchem in 1964 and moved to the U.S. where I have lived ever since. I have two children, a son and a daughter, both born in New York City. My daughter finished high school in the Netherlands and currently holds a BA in Psychology and an MA in International Relations/Political Science. About 20 years ago she was studying in the Netherlands where she wrote a thesis on World War II propaganda. About seven years ago she informed me that the allies had not won the war, but rather that the Soviets had. I was shocked. It was then that I began to research this history and my research eventually led me to the film, Adolf Hitler: The Greatest Story Never Told by Dennis Wise. A great deal of what I had already discovered was confirmed in that film and I commend Dennis for his bravery in making it. No people suffered more than the Russians and the Germans during the war. We were lucky. Most of our trauma came in the form of photographs of mass graves and the bodies of people that were “gassed”. We were told that human skin had been harvested to be turned into lampshades. My gut could not accept that such horrors were inflicted by the German people, many of which I got to know personally and found to be quite nice. No one ever told us that those who died in the camps had died of typhus.
I would like to point out that the word ‘Nazi’ was not used in Europe. ‘Nazi’ is an abbreviation for the National Socialist German Workers Party, the NSDAP. It is an Anglo Saxon invention used to describe Germans as a racist goons, hoodlums and killers. Germans were not like that however and had any of them behaved the way we see neo-Nazis behaving today, they would have been put against a wall and summarily shot. We referred to the Germans as “moffen” at that time, a derogatory nickname. It took my father until the late ’70s to finally shed that word and reveal to me that “these guys were nothing but poor conscripts, they had no choice”. My mouth dropped.
I have for years gone into Germany for clothes shopping because their quality is better. I like the German people and I remember them saying “Ich habe es nicht gewusst” (I didn’t know) after the war. At that time I thought, yeah right, how could you not have known. Now I know better. How could they possibly have known about events that never took place?
May 4th is Memorial day in the Netherlands and some of our German neighbors will cross the non-existing border to commemorate with us, which is how it should be. The Zionists complain bitterly.