When Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940 we lived in the town of Soest where my father was a minister. I do not remember that beginning. I was not quite three. In 1941 our family moved to Arnhem. My first memory of Arnhem is when my brother Henk started to walk, Christmas ’41, when he was a year and a half old. He would take a few steps and collapse in a heap of laughter. I must have been four. Also the birth of my brother Maurits sticks in my mind. He was born in 1943 in the house where we lived most of the war time.
I do not remember much of those earlier war years but have done a little research to have some background and context for the memories that I do have, especially of the last year of the war.
Arnhem was, and is, a Rhine city. At that time it was more than 700 years old and situated as well as designed beautifully. The city also had some beautiful very old churches and buildings, the kind that had taken centuries to build. Evidently it was for the Germans a choice city to settle in. And it seems that is what many did. Even those bigwigs that had responsibility elsewhere liked to have their home-base in Arnhem. There was an attempt to “Germanize” the city. As a result our school was commandeered for German children and we had to go elsewhere. Also people’s homes were confiscated and the occupants had to find a place wherever they could. I know that by the summer of 1944 we had such a family living in our front room, a couple with two daughters and a 4 year old Jewish boy that they had taken in. They became very close to us and stayed with us until the end of the war.
I do not have many “war memories’ of those middle years. My Dad’s colleague and friend, “Oom Koos Overduin”, was taken to a concentration camp. He survived. Some of you may have read his book: De Hell and Hemel van Dachau” I remember that there were often planes overhead the warning sirens wailed often, and sometimes nothing happened. All our windows had to be “blacked out“ when it was dark.
The story I want to tell begins on Sept 17 1944. It was a beautiful, sunny day. My siblings and I were walking home from church when the sirens started wailing – again. This time suddenly there were a lot of planes. More and more planes. Some started diving low and bombs started falling. We ran the last little way home. The battle of Arnhem had begun.
Two weeks earlier there had been a lot of rumors and lots of excitement. The allies were supposed to be very close. The rumors were so strong that some of the Germans had begun to leave for the fatherland. But nothing had happened and they came back. But now it was happening. My parents were prepared. Our small cellar of reinforced concrete was stashed with everything needed for an emergency stay. But my parents were afraid to go there, afraid to be buried in rubble so- we stood by the front door, each of us with a pan on our head for protection in case we had to run. The bombs were aimed at German installations and munitions and possibly the home and offices of important people, but that did not necessarily make us feel secure. There was also a lot of shrapnel flying around.
It came to an end. We could see a lot of smoke and fire. Some homes were hit.There was a quick check if my grandmother’s house still stood. She lived close to a possible target. She was fine.
The following days were full of rumors and signs of battle. At one point the news came that the “tommies” (the British) were at the Velperpoort. We walked through that viaduct when we went to school! Maybe 10 minutes from our house. Expectations were so high! Evidently in the centre of the city territory kept switching occupancy for days. People were free and then they were not. The final upshot was failure. This is in short what happened.
It was called Operation Market Garden. The allies were going to make a rush North and East though Holland, coming from France and Belgium, and take the two bridges over the two rivers that run right across Holland at that point. The Waal, and the Rhine. They dropped troops by parachute in between the rivers and north of the Rhine with supplies and equipment. These would work their way to the Rhine bridge and connect with troops coming from the south. But the opposition south of the bridges was much heavier than expected and caused delays. Also a big German Panzer division just happened to be on its way from the North East. The intelligence was incomplete. The Allies came as far as the bridge at Arnhem, but the troops on the other side were not able to hold their own that long and were defeated. Most of the paratroopers were either captured or killed. A portion was hidden by the population and smuggled back over the water by the underground resistance forces. All the equipment and supplies ended up in the hands of the Germans. And north of the rivers the occupation continued.
What happened next defies belief. The German troops continued to destroy the city with artillery shells and by torching the inner core. Then those citizens that were not already fleeing were chased out of the inner city. It was at this time that a 17 year old Jewish girl rang our doorbell needing a place to stay. She became part of our family and lived with us until the end of the war. Following that, a notice appeared that all who lived within the “spoordyk”, a raised railway line that intersected the city, had to evacuate within 4 hours. Many of these people went into the outer residential areas and were taken in by others. Many went on out of the city. The next day, Sunday Sept 24 a notification was posted everywhere that all of Arnhem had to be evacuated within 24 hours.. This included the hospitals, the old age homes, the institutions of all kinds – everyone. There were no cars. Some loaded up their bicycles (which might be taken if some German needed it) Some had hand carts. Some had nothing but their own back. Those too sick to walk were moved on horse- or man-drawn carts. The Red Cross did what they could. 100,000 people were chased out.
Most people thought it would last only a matter of days, maybe weeks. After all the Allies were so close! The exile lasted 8 months. The people had to leave most of their possessions behind, including their winter provision of food. The area south of the Rhine, in the river valley between the Waal and the Rhine was super fertile land where much food was grown. Even though there were all kinds of restrictions many people had been able to have contacts in that area to get food for winter storage and canning. They had to leave it all behind.
Our family went also. I remember that we had a handcart that was laden with stuff. We wore several layers of clothing, as much as we could get over our head without perishing, as we walked out of the city. Our family was able to find a place in the nearest next town, Velp. We initially were given a room in the home of an older couple there.
After everyone was out of the city, the Germans proceeded with the next part of their plan and conducted a systematic and organised plunder project. First of all They emptied the stores and the banks. They blew up the safes. After that they went around with trucks and pulled out of the homes whatever had value or was useful to send to Germany or to keep for themselves. What they did not want they trashed. In a short time the city was one burned and broken mess.
Our stay with the hospitable couple was not long. Ds. Klaas Hart, who was the minister in the Gereformeerde Kerk in Velp contacted my Dad that he and his family had to go in hiding and that we could stay in his house. That was a real answer to prayer. We lived in Rev. Hart’s house the entire time of the evacuation. There were 15 of us. Our family, including the Jewish girl, The Meyerink family, who in Arnhem lived in our front room; The had two young adult daughters and 4 year old Simon, a household help that came along with us, and a friend of my folks who was a nurse and needed to be close to the front.
The eight months that followed were relatively peaceful with episodes of great danger when the Germans held razzias, raids to find Jews, or round up girls to work for them, or young men to send to Germany to work. Often the news would be passed on quickly that they were at it and then part of the family would quickly be hidden. I think everybody had special hiding places that worked for the general razzias. Worse was when the search was specific because of a tip or a betrayal. Then they would not give up quickly. The Jewish young people that lived in our house were of course always a concern. I know that the Meyerinks sometimes went into bed, moaning and groaning and coughing away, while Simon was under the blankets between them. As a seven year old I was afraid of the soldiers, but mostly unaware of the anxiety that our parents must have gone through.
Food was also a constant issue. The Market Garden failure had dire consequences for food for the winter to come. The Railways had gone on strike in an effort to assist the Allies. In retribution the Germans forbade food transportation. Regardless of that, most of the food went to the Germans and to Germany anyway. This winter is known to all who experienced it as “the honger winter” especially in the bigger cities the situation was terrible. More than 20,000 people died of starvation. We had some food, but not much of it. I remember a period when we had a large sack of rye. We ate rye porridge and rye pudding and other items made from rye. All without sugar or milk. I also remember a sugar beet period. That was a sweeter time. We all got very skinny, my mother, who is not a small person weighed about 100 pounds, yet I cannot remember suffering terrible hunger. I just remember having constant stomach aches. Now and then my Dad with another man would go out on a bike to visit his parishioners who were spread out all over the neighbouring towns and countryside. He would always come home with food treasures from farms that he visited as well. Sometimes those heavily laden bicycles with wooden tires, would have to dive in the ditch when allied planes strafed the roads where also much German military traffic passed. Sometimes the food was confiscated.
Sometimes dad would tag along with a friend of his who drove for the food provision authorities. This man had been cheese dealer. His truck had been confiscated, but when this man was looking for something to do he went to city hall and volunteered for a job with food provision organisation. Well, he could be a driver; he could pick a vehicle from the parking lot. There he found his own truck back, painted over in camouflage. On his trips another man would ride shotgun on the bumper, so to speak, to keep an eye on the sky, and if he spied planes they would quickly get off the road and hide in the trees. When Dad went on these trips he would always come home with treasures. But then with 15 mouths to feed they would not last long.
Finally in April of 1945, the Allies were on the move again. This time they were taking no chances. For five days and nights we were under fire. Fifteen of us in a small cellar. At night everybody turns over in tandem. Kids sleeping on the potato bin under the stairs. The bathroom was at the top of the stairs. Even though as children we were allowed to pee in a canning jar or other container, for a big job we had to go upstairs – very scary!- with constant whistling of shells over our head. Then one morning suddenly there was silence. After a while people came out of their cellars to see what was going on. It did not take long or here came the tanks with, this time, the Canadians. Incredible. The ordeal was over. For days people celebrated in the streets. We were not allowed to go out but we watched from our bedroom through a hole in the wall made by an artillery shell that did not explode and was lodged in the floor of the bathroom/ceiling of the living room.
Now, soon, we could go home again. Our house in Arnhem was standing. It had one shell hole. Sitting on the toilet you looked outside. The house had been used, at least part of the time, as an office to administrate the plundering. My brother Fred has a letterhead that documents that fact. It was incredibly dirty but pretty well cleared out. The furniture had been put outside in the yard. It had been there the whole winter. Outside of the house in the back and in the shed there were literally piles of mess including dishes and smaller household goods, mixed with the dirty straw from the horses they had kept in the shed. A lot was missing and a lot was wrecked. Seeing there was nothing available anywhere at that time a good portion of the furniture was repaired reupholstered and endlessly waxed and made usable again. It even came along to Canada. We have a chair, and my siblings have other pieces that survive to this day. Down the street some way there was a house that had quite a number of pianos ready for shipment. My parents found our piano there but had to somehow prove that it was theirs. My father said that the right front column always was a little loose. OK that was so. Then my mother had the convincing proof. She said she had hidden a bottle of salad oil inside to save for special use, but that would probably not be there anymore. It was! They got their piano back.
The cleanup must have been some job, even though the wreckage in our house was not as bad as some. I also imagine that people did not complain too much. We were free!
When my parents talked about it in later years I have often heard them say: “It was the worst of times, and it was the best of times!” People leaned on each other and they leaned on the Lord. When no one had much there was yet tremendous generosity and hospitality.
In my reading I was also once again impressed with the courage and determination of the resistance fighters, the underground. These people deserve to be remembered just as much as the soldiers on the battlefields. When they were caught there was no mercy. Torture and death was their lot. And the armies could not have done what they did without them.