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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dutch residents in Guysborough remember the occupation

This is an article I wrote for this year's Remembrance Day feature in The Guysborough Journal.

GUYSBOROUGH – In May, 1940 when German troops entered Amsterdam, Guysborough resident Henri Van der putten stood with his father and a crowd of silent citizens grimly marking the advance of Hitler's army into the Dam. “I was 12 when the war started out and I was 17 by the time I got out of it. I started together with my father standing on what is called the Dam in Amsterdam, which is the main square in front of the old royal palace, and the German troops marched in. It was a very silent crowd. But that was only the beginning,” Henri told The Journal from his home in Guysborough last Friday.

Henri's wife Minke was a child of 10 living with her family in the city of Amersfoort when the Nazi forces invaded. “I remember it was in the middle of the night and my father and mother, they woke us up and there was nothing but
airplanes coming above us and that is when we knew they had invaded,” said Minke.

Life in Holland during the occupation was difficult at best. Many people died of starvation, young able-bodied men were deported to Germany as workers and almost all of Holland's Jewish population perished in concentration camps. Henri recalls, “It all depended on what part of the country you were in. People in big cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht from '43 on were denied access to the countryside. People who went out in the country to find food -- farmers were still operating in most parts -- it was actually taken from them as they came into the cities. There were guards standing on the main highways and they literally took the food from them....The upshot of it all was that in Amsterdam in particular, I don't know how many people died from hunger or being arrested or deported.... But in some places, especially in the countryside, people survived quite successfully because they had access to the food.”

For Minke and her five siblings, the meaning of the invasion slowly crept into their daily lives. “There was first the shock and we were young kids and what the heck did we know about it,” Minke said. “But we became aware of it.... We of course did not have central heating and the water was cut off. Only during the night we would have some water. So everybody was doing the laundry. Things like that were popping up. And of course we had hunger too like everybody else. I know my sister and I we walked seven/eight kilometers for the milk. Once a week we were doing that. The houses weren't heated at all so we had to go into the woods and cut our own wood there. There was a time on our streets -- they had trees, so slowly people were cutting the trees in front of the houses....all the trees ended up being cut down to keep our houses warm.”

“The schools were mainly closed. They were not able to heat them either. We had a period that we didn't go to school at all. So that was nice for us of course,” laughs Minke.

“I had four sisters and a brother. The youngest was four. Everyday you could go to one of the kitchens and you had a little pan and they would give you food in there,” said Minke while Henri interjects, “So-called food.” She laughs and said, “Yeah,” nodding in agreement. During the occupation Minke's father got sick and died. Henri's parents both survived the war.

“My parents stayed in Amsterdam and just about died,” said Henri, noticeably touched by emotion. Early on in the occupation his family moved to a smaller town where they would be better able to access food and firewood, but the German army confiscated the house and the family was forced to return to Amsterdam. After returning to Amsterdam, Henri left his parents' home to go into hiding for the duration of the war. “I had to go into hiding because of my age, I was 16 and I was tall for my age, anything that looked like an able young man was picked up and put to work in Germany.”

While in hiding, Henri worked for the underground and reported troop movements to the allied forces on the other side of the front line at the Waal River in Southern Holland. “I went into the mid-south, an area just above the river Waal there is an area there which is between two rivers; it's almost like an island. I went into hiding just behind the German line. The German line was at the Waal and the British and the Canadians were on the other side of the river. I was already working for the underground at that time in that area getting information across to the British Canadian line on troop strengths and materials.

“On the end of '44 it became almost impossible to do that. This was Christmas, the year that the Ardenne offensive was started. And the Germans were holding the line just above the river and the Canadians were sort of reestablishing their strengths for the spring. It was an awful tense time. But they depended on information from across the river to know what was going on as far as the Germans were concerned. They were getting ready for something but nobody knew what it was. We helped with that.

“In the area I was there were three young men acting for the underground. One was in a lookout post in a church which is right at the crossing of the Waal and there was a big bridge there. When you are in the tower of the church you can see the bridge; all the German traffic to the front line had to come across that bridge. I was down the line from the bridge and there was another person down the end where the Waal and the Maas (river) come together. Between the three of us we could follow the movement of where those pieces of equipment and people were going.

“Traffic in that area is only possible on the dikes. The dikes are elevated areas along the river. All in below it is not very good for heavy traffic like tanks so traffic on the dikes was watched by us. The watching was done by night, profile, against the sky you could see exactly what was going on. I was below the dike and I could see what was going by. And we knew the profile of all the things we saw and reported it across the river. It was done by transmitter for awhile until the Germans had their range finder equipment and then we had to stop that. Some was done by radio telephone and there were connections existing yet across the river and some was by patrols coming across the river, they were collecting information as well. That is how it worked.

“In '45 I went back home; June I came home. And a year later I was called up for military service and went to Indonesia for two and a half years. That was a different type of war, guerrilla warfare..and that was a totally different kettle of fish.” He returned to Amsterdam to find both of his parents bedridden.

The life of Henri's parents in Amsterdam was harsh and it was exceedingly difficult for them to find food, as was the case for most people. “My father was sickly and my mother was in bed and they had a hard time getting food. What little there was in Amsterdam; the soup kitchen.” Henri adds, “I was able, while I was hiding, to get some food to them. While I was walking to the direction of the South there was a lady going back to Amsterdam and I approached her. I was at a farm at the time, where they made cheese and I got a cheese, a fresh one, and she took it to Amsterdam for me and took it to my parents. That's one heck of an honest person because everyone was hungry.”

Henri remembers the end of the war as a chaotic time, “People were coming back form Germany who had been deported, there were many coming in from the country itself, many people were lost. The Jewish population, Amsterdam had a thriving business section that was pretty much all Jewish, the Germans they wiped it all out completely. Much of the commerce including food supply was in the hands of Jewish merchants and they were a very useful part in the working of Amsterdam. They were part of the fabric so when that was eliminated many of the people that had been working with them and who not Jewish ended up unemployed....My father got most of his clandestine food from a Jewish friend of his. Of course when he (the friend) was picked up, that was the end of that.

“By the end of the war Holland was flat-out bankrupt, machinery was gone, the industries couldn't start back up. Many people had not come home, tradesmen had been killed in Germany during the bombardment and so it was a hard time rebuilding.

“I think the country came out of it stronger for the simple reason we had successfully resisted becoming sympathetic with them. We resisted right from the beginning. There were collaborators, lots of collaborators, in all the occupied countries there were collaborators. At the end of the war many of them ended up in jail. Some of them rehabilitated. It was a time justice was not always very visible. There was a lot of revenge too. Women were the victims of that a lot. There were young girls, who went with the Germans and at the end of the war street crowds caught a few of them and shaved them bald, paraded them through the streets. It was not a good thing to do, no justice as such. But I think it was a normal reaction after what we were suppressing for so long.”

In 1954 after serving in the Dutch military in Indonesia, completing his studies and marrying Minke, Henri and his bride immigrated to Canada. They lived in several locations across the country while Henri worked for Parks Canada as a project manager and architect, retiring to Guysborough in 1989.

“The Dutch population in Canada melted away - they never formed groups,” said Henri of his immigrant experience. “They just sort of integrated. If they didn't speak the language they learned it pretty fast. Of course English and Dutch are not that far apart....They disappeared into the crowd, and that's it. We all did. It's been a learning time for many people including us.”

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