The Wisdom of WWII’s Children

First-hand accounts and cherished stories of Liberation Day, 1945, in the Netherlands.

Trust in God

The coronavirus storm affects us all and reminds me of the storm of World War II. Both have a terrible loss of life, of freedom, of dollars. They make us feel so helpless. They are worldwide.

When Rotterdam was bombed, my family and I heard the thunder, and ashes came down on us. May 10, 1940. As a four-year-old I heard my mom cry out that “The sun is red; the end of the world is here!” Then followed five years of horror which I can never forget.

Hitler’s Nazis came in with tanks, motorcycles, fighter planes and more bombings. They took the Christian school for their operation center, and the bells and clocks from our church tower for more bullets. The worst was when they took our young men to work in Germany’s war factories. They took our Jewish neighbours. We lost thousands in the Hunger Winter of 1944. We lost our freedom. This is one side of the story. But watch for the other side!

In the middle of war there were signs of determination and love, even when things seemed impossible. The resistance work of many heroic Dutch was so amazing – just take my father and his friends as examples.

Dad took me along to some underground activities. He was foreman of a large greenhouse and nursery operation to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers. I knew where some weapons, ammunition and explosives were located. He had me stand watch for and inform underground workers when the Gestapo would suddenly come. He had a secret radio in the boiler cellar. He had me bring secret notes to the friends in the city as to the advancing positions of the Allies.

On May 5, 1945, the Canadian forces liberated our city, Oudewater, just east of Rotterdam. I have never seen such ecstasy. There was such jubilation.

The big part of living through this storm was the strong faith in our Almighty God that my parents lived so fully. We will come through this corona storm with God’s help.

John Van Hemert, Lynden, Wash.

 

Glad tidings

It was around 7 p.m. on May 4, 1945, in Noordwijk-Binnen, Zuid Holland. I had come home from school that afternoon with a touch of the flu and felt miserable enough to go to bed before supper. Not that there was much to eat because food was scarce during the “hunger winter.”

I woke up to noise coming from outside. I walked over to the window that faced the Wilhelminastraat and noticed people milling about on the street but – even more startling –Dutch flags on the flagpoles! Flying the Dutch Tricolour had been an act of defiance during the war, especially since a Nazi garrison had taken over a house on our street. People excitedly talked about the war being over. But after about an hour, word spread that the war was not over and immediately the flags were furled and brought inside and the street became deserted again.

However, the following day we heard the good news again and this was confirmed in the previously clandestine leaflet Trouw that, on this momentous occasion, featured horizontal red and blue stripes on the top of the page, separated by a blank white line.

A week or so later, Canadian soldiers arrived in our small town and I had my first taste of chocolate in years. The clandestine leaflet eventually morphed into a daily newspaper and exists to this day.

Tjalle (Chuck) Vandergraaf, Pinawa, Man.

 

Remembering . . .

It was the morning of April 13, 1945, when my grandfather went for a bike ride out of Oosterwolde in Friesland where we lived. He wasn’t gone long before he came racing back and shouting, “De Canadezen komen, de Canadezen komen!” (The Canadians are coming!). Suddenly, the street was teeming with people shouting and hugging each other and Dutch flags began to fly from most homes. People wore their orange buttons and sashes, hidden during war times. Dancing and cheering, folks moved to the road where the Canadian army was entering the village.

Because I was a little lad of five, the crowd allowed me to stand in the front row with my mother close behind. My Dad had been picked up by the Gestapo in early February and was gone. Where he was at this time we didn’t know. We hoped that with liberation he would be able to return home soon.

I remember young girls and guys sitting on the tanks, together with the Canadian soldiers, waving. Cigarettes, gum, chocolates and other candy were strewn into the crowd and I was able to grab two cigarettes that I kept for my Dad for when he returned. But this was not to be. He had been taken from Amersfoort, his last stop in the Netherlands, by train into Germany by this time. His final destination was unknown but it became a camp in northeastern Germany, Camp Wöbbelin, in existence for some short four weeks but one of the most cruel and inhuman camps. The camp was liberated on May 2 and my Dad ended up in the hospital in Ludwigslust, where he died on June 4.

John Vanderhoek, Chilliwack, B.C.

 

‘The sweetest spring’

I was almost four years old but I remember it well.

Our bakery was on a corner facing the canal by the Parkweg bridge, an important entry point into Groningen. There was door-to-door fighting as the German commander refused to surrender the city.

On April 14, 1945, we heard the approaching gunfire and my Dad, afraid there would be a battle for the bridge, led us to a neighbour’s cellar. We spent the night there with our family. The next morning as we crept up the stairs, I saw houses burning and a Canadian soldier slumped on a chair by the front door.

A little while later a few Canadian soldiers came in and asked my Dad if he was “Dutch.” My dad, thinking he said “Deutsch,” answered no. The soldier, realizing that some civilians with a small child were not the enemy, asked, “Are you a Hollander?” My Dad, relieved, said: “Ja.”

Later that day I saw bodies of soldiers covered with tarps and bouquets of flowers. I wanted to pick up something from the sidewalk but a Canadian soldier told me to drop it. Across the street a collaborator was picked up and taken away by Canadians soldiers in their jeep for his safety, as the crowd was getting angry. The Canadians gave out Chiclets bubble gum sticks, which we kids loved.

Soon life turned back to normal.

Years later in 1989 during a visit to the Defense Museum in Ottawa (“the sweetest spring” exhibit – “de mooiste lente”), my Dad and I watched with surprise a Canadian Army film which depicted soldiers in single file crossing the Parkweg bridge on the day we were hiding in our neighbour’s cellar.

John Schuurman, Burlington, Ont.

Grief & relief in 1945

My story is a sad one. My mom’s father Jacob Mijnheer died on April 24, 1945, during the liberation process. He had come back from a camp in northern Germany, very ill and malnourished. He died before he could be reunited with his family. For mom’s family, Liberation Day was a heartbreaking mix of grief and relief.

My grandfather was a farmer in Drenthe, hiding boys and men who would otherwise have been shipped to Germany to work there. He was picked up in January 1945 and died a few months later. Much as Liberation Day is still a celebration for Dutch families, I’m sure there are many others with similar stories; their losses were grieved in the midst of the relief of having freedom again. My mom is Jenny Smit nee Mijnheer, living in Grimsby, Ont.; she was just 10 years old when this happened.

And my Liberation Anniversary tulips are just blooming!

Pat Vanderkooy, Guelph, ON

Pat Vanderkooy's Liberation Anniversary tulips on full display!
Pat Vanderkooy’s Liberation Anniversary tulips on full display!

 

Returning to liberate the homeland

My wife’s great-uncle Gaele Visser was born in Haskerhorne, Friesland in 1920 and emigrated with his family to Millgrove, Ontario in 1930. He grew up a bright, talented young man, a big hockey fan. He attended First Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton and took some courses at the Guelph Agricultural college.

When his friends left to train for war in Europe, he decided to follow in 1942, hoping to help free his country of origin. It seemed the honourable thing to do, and he knew Dutch, French and German – a valuable skill on the front lines.

This appears to have been an ethical quandary for him. His mother apparently said at the time, “Gaele is not a man to kill; he is so soft.” His sister Jennie Visser reported that he tried to be transferred to First Aid so that he might avoid having to kill another human being.

In his letters home, he spared little of the horrors of war. He recounts tragic accidents in training, the shock of what lay behind the wires of a concentration camp in Germany, and how a sniper just missed him and instead hit the German prisoner he was escorting.

He wrote on April 16, 1945, just weeks from the end of the war. “I am back deep in enemy territory . . . If I get a pass, I’ll go to England. . . We move along blood-soaked ditches at night. The soil is soggy, and it’s hard to move. If God wills, I’ll write a little more next time. Until then, under his wings my soul shall abide.”

On April 23, 1945, great-uncle Gaele and his officer were pushing the Nazis back near Wilhelmshaven, Germany. He stepped into a building in front of his officer and was gunned down by enemy fire. One week later his fellow soldiers ended their combat service, and two weeks later the Nazis would fully surrender to the Allies.

He was first buried in Germany but later his body was moved and re-buried in the Holten Cemetery, in Overijssel, the Netherlands, surrounded by fellow Canadian soldiers. He was both a Hollander and a Canadian, and he died so that others might live.

Peter Schuurman, with Jordan Slump, who wrote a biography about his great-uncle Gaele entitled “A Hero’s Story.” 

Left: Gaele Visser in his uniform. Right: Gaele Visser's great-great-niece and -nephew pay their respects at his grave in the Netherlands.
Left: Gaele Visser in his uniform. Right: Gaele Visser’s great-great-niece and -nephew pay their respects at his grave in the Netherlands.

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