WW II resistance, survival and the start of William Dam seeds in Canada.
IT WAS A SUNNY AUTUMN AFTERNOON. I was sitting at my Oma’s kitchen table a week before her 100th birthday. I didn’t know then, but it would be the last time I would be in that big, upholstered Dutch armchair with notebook in hand, furiously scribbling down every precious word. My Oma took a sip of her coffee and turned to face me.
“Have you got everything?” she asked, with her clipped Dutch accent. What a question! How is it possible to ever capture everything from one’s life story? How would I ever ask all the right questions to unlock the past? I know I don’t have everything. Time was not on my side. But what I do have is a gift.
Many people don’t get to know their grandparents as adults, but I was blessed to know my Oma for 32 years, including visiting Holland with her when I was 16. I began interviewing my Oma several years before her death in her 100th year. I never had the chance to formally interview my Opa as he died when I was 12. Yet as a child, I did ask him a lot of questions about his involvement in the Dutch Underground Resistance movement. Those questions started after the day my parents pulled me out of school to meet a Queen.
It was May 13, 1988. That day was immediately different because we wore our Sunday coats and shoes to school. Queen Beatrix and her husband were on a state visit to Canada so my parents picked up my siblings and me in the middle of the school day to go a reception to welcome the royal couple. Thousands of people were at the Royal Botanical Gardens and I remember the crowd singing proudly in Dutch as the Queen walked by.
I think I already knew bits and pieces about my Dutch heritage at that time, but this day was significant in realizing that our history was important. Important enough to miss work and school. Where we came from really mattered.
Maria Guurtruida Regter as a young child, circa 1914.
My Oma, Maria Regter, was born in Den Helder in 1913. Her earliest memories are of a country at the edge of World War I, the Army captains stationed in their home. The Dutch remained neutral but the army was mobilised in case the Netherlands entered the war.
As the youngest child by several years, Maria’s childhood was a quiet one as her parents were rather serious. Her sister Evera was older by 11 years and brother Theo by nine. Her father was very sick with malaria by the time Maria could form any real memories of him. She did remember bringing him tea-like beverages and he died when she was 10.
When she completed school at 16, she began working at as a bookkeeper at a printing company. She moved to Bodegraven and worked for a seed company called Turkenburg’s Zaden. She lived with the Karssen family who had four daughters. Speaking with such fondness of her time in their home, Maria felt she really belonged, treated like a daughter and sister.
In 1935, the office was all abuzz with the news that their Baas had hired a new and handsome assistant manager. His name was Willem Dam. While the other young women swooned from afar, Maria simply introduced herself and invited him to the DOS, a Christian Gymnastic and Exercise Club she was a member of. They courted and were soon engaged. In August 1938, they were married in Katwijk, situated on the North Sea, surrounded by family and friends. With marriage came with significant adjustment for Maria, as married women were no longer allowed to work or be part of clubs like the DOS.
But life was about to change in unimaginable ways. Like most young men in the Netherlands, Willem (Wim) received formal army training from 1931 to 1932. He was a Corporal of the 4th Infantry for the Royal Netherlands Army, so less than a year after they were married, Wim was called up to mobilize.
Maria, expecting their first child, went to live with her mother and sister in Katwijk. They exchanged many letters during that time and when their daughter Joan was born in August 1939, Wim snuck away from active duty to see his newborn child.
Occupation and Resistance
On May 10, 1940, after trying once again to remain neutral while war raged around them, Holland was invaded by Nazi-ruled Germany. Despite outdated military tools and training, the Dutch army withstood the strength of the German forces for five days. After the Dutch royal family and government sailed to England for safety on May 13th, the Dutch army was surrendered to the German forces to “prevent further bloodshed” as stated by General Winkelman on May 14th. Members of the army were arrested.
Six weeks after surrender, Wim was finally released from the prisoner-of-war camp. Wim, Maria and their daughter returned to Bodegraven and Wim returned to work at Turkenburg. Wim had a radio and could listen to the BBC broadcasts from their government-in-exile, messages that encouraged the Dutch citizens to organize and resist their oppressors.
Wim became a leader of an underground cell group in Bodegraven, representing the LO and KP resistance groups. The LO resistance group primarily worked protect Dutch Jews and draft-age Dutch men in hiding. To protect these onderduikers, members of this group would forge false papers, obtain ration cards for food, and find ways to get those in hiding to safety when possible. The KP resistance group was more active in sabotage operations that targeted railroads, telephone line and raiding German offices. Using his position at Turkenburg, Wim created “necessary” agricultural work for draft-age men to remain in Bodegraven. He also participated in night missions to retrieve arms and ammunition.
Secrecy for Survival
While my Opa didn’t talk at length about his experiences during those years, he would give his curious and constantly questioning grandchildren small glimpses of these missions. We loved the stories about how the old typewriter in his office, the one I learned to type on, was stolen from Germans during a raid. Stories about how there were guns hidden in the rosebushes and how their crib had a secret compartment underneath; and that our father, born in 1944, slept over top of guns as a baby. We loved looking at his medals of honour and other items of war memorabilia.
As young children, we romanticized these tales and it wasn’t until interviewing my Oma as an adult and mother myself that I began to understand what was at stake those years. They were completely risking their lives to help others, fighting against unsurmountable evil because they knew it was the right thing to do. For me, this changed the story from one of heroism to sacrifice.
When she was my age, Maria was fighting to survive, physically and emotionally. She didn’t know what Wim was exactly involved in during those years. I think he didn’t tell her to provide some small layer of protection. But the sound of seven SS soldiers’ boots marching by her home each night and the fear-filled emotions that marked those years of occupation were still vivid in her memory as she described it seven decades later.
These were years of isolation as secrecy was vital for their protection. She said that one day, coming home with bags of rationed food after waiting in lines at the Red Cross, she found Wim leaning over a gun and tripod in their front room with hay bales stacked up on the other side of the room. He was teaching young men how to shoot. She had to enter their home maintaining all appearances of normalcy as she never knew who was watching them – which neighbours she could trust or which ones would betray them.
There were times that Wim had to go into hiding, receiving word that it was too dangerous for him to be at home. Wim and Maria also hid resistance fighters in their home. One young man, Thijs Booy, hid in their home for six weeks. Booy was a writer and editor, active in the Underground Press. His pamphlets were distributed by couriers to recruit new members and encourage those already part of the underground.
Pamphlets like these would transcribe BBC broadcasts and helped counter Nazi propaganda. Booy also edited and published Gedenckclank at the underground press in nearby Alphen Aan Den Rijn under the threat of German raids. This anthology was a series containing of illegal resistance poems, letters and experiences of Dutch victims of Nazi terror. Booy survived the war and later became the private secretary to former Queen Wilhelmina. His published works offer rich insight into that turbulent time.
After the Hongerwinter (the Hungry Winter), the day Wim and Maria prayed for finally came – Liberation. There wasn’t immediate celebration, but rather a kind of disbelief that they were truly free. Maria remembered the Germans hurrying through the town. And then just two Canadians arrived. Several days after the announcement, a full troop of Canadian soldiers came through Bodegraven. She remembered all the flags waving that Saturday afternoon. After the liberation, Wim, along with other leaders of resistance groups, formed a temporary government in Bodegraven.
These domestic army groups arrested collaborators and restored order throughout the Netherlands until a new government was put in place.
But things were not the same. After what they lived through, they never could be.
William Dam and his children Rene and Ena with mail bags for William Dam Seeds in Sarnia, Ontario.
A New Start in Canada
When the first boat, a former troop transport, left the Netherlands in 1947, my grandparents were on board with their four young children Joan, Leda, René and Ena to start a new life in Canada. This country brought new hardships like rustic living conditions, the measles and more isolation because of language barriers.
They worked tirelessly to build their own seed company. Wim worked several jobs at local factories and Maria raised chickens, her egg sales paying for the first pamphlets printed for William Dam Seeds. In 1956, they were blessed with another daughter, Mieke, their fifth child and first to be born in a hospital. That year they also moved from Sarnia to the Hamilton area to be closer to shipping routes for their growing company.
Now nearing its 70th anniversary, William Dam Seeds has become a well-known and respected seed company. A taste of home for Dutch immigrants but also a standard for quality in all of Canada. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
The seed company is part of their legacy. But the legacy I hold most dear is the one illustrated in the pages of an antique Dutch family Bible. Passed down three or more centuries, some ancestors left their mark inside its now tattered covers. It holds a legacy of faith, a sustaining trust in God that carried my grandparents through the war and across an ocean.
Those last moments in my Oma’s kitchen that September afternoon were not spent talking about the past but wondering about the future, our eternal liberation. Questions about Jesus and heaven. While I don’t have all the details of my grandparents’ life, I do have a rich understanding of my history. And the knowledge that I am part of a continuing story that affirms that God is faithful, in times of peace and prosperity but also amid times of turmoil and uncertainty.