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The Stories We Need

Hard-won WWII wisdom for today’s lockdown life.

The stories I grew up with linked oranges with Christmas and chocolate with Holland’s liberation. That smooth, sweet taste triggers memories for many Dutch people who lived to see the arrival of smiling Canadian soldiers and to hear the laughter of free people.

What was Liberation in the Netherlands like, 75 years ago? Tiny Bolderheij smiles at the question. She says young people grabbed hands and danced in the streets until she lost the soles off her new shoes. She shows me a picture of girls in white dresses holding flowers. They form a ‘W’ for Queen Wilhemina.

May 1945 was a time of ecstatic celebration after five long years of war. It was also a time for reckoning with grief over the lives that were lost, like resistance leader Meindert Veldman’s. Perhaps hardest of all was uncovering the part one’s own neighbours, family and friends had in collaborating with the Nazis. Trust was bombed out along with the railroads, cities and dikes, leaving much to rebuild.

These stories are more than Dutch history. They are part of our Canadian heritage, posing questions every generation must answer: How will you endure? How complex is the human heart – capable of both good and evil, kindness and cruelty? And what does it mean to be free?

Tiny Bolderheij grew up 25 km east of Amsterdam. Her earliest war memory is cows in a meadow: “There was no one to milk them,” whether because the farmers were hiding or called up to service, she still doesn’t know. “You could go there with a little pail and you could get your milk – for nothing. The cows needed to be milked.”

Tiny was seven when WWII began. There were many good moments, she says, mixed with the hardship of those long years. The hardest time was the winter of 1944. Her town was liberated, yes, but transportation halted and the winter was desperately cold. There was little food or light – no electricity or gas and limited wood. “My Dad put a bike on a stand and pedaled to get a light going. That winter is engraved in my mind. It was dreary, dark. Miserable. There were no potatoes. My parents were kind of frantic, ‘What are we going to do?’ The Lord provided.” To their surprise, the family found a bag of potatoes at their door. “We still don’t know who did it!”

Stubborn faith

I met a feisty Dutch-Jewish woman who vividly remembers her father stretched out every night, face to the floor, praying. She remembers a tricolour petticoat her mother sewed for her, using the colours of the Dutch flag. With a twinkle in her eye, this woman tells me that she marched right up to German soldiers and lifted her skirts – flashing the forbidden flag in their faces!

Soldiers were less forgiving to adults. Tiny remembers one summer day when a group of German soldiers walked into her father’s business. They did this at random: “They were looking for onderduikers (people in hiding) – men, young men, old men. Sometimes they were shot right there. We had a two-level house, and on the top level there were rugs piled up,” merchandise of her father’s business. “Later I learned that my father was keeping rugs from Jewish people underneath his rugs. As far as I know, they never came back for them.”

Despite the efficiency of the Nazis, the Dutch resistance managed to squirrel away a large portion of the nation’s population and keep them hidden in small communities where everyone knew everyone else. After Liberation, 350,000 people re-appeared from hiding.

What was it like to be in the resistance? There are many answers and none. The resistance experiences were too varied to be summarized and sometimes too secretive to be fully known, even after the war.

Harold de Kleer tells me about his father Gerrit de Kleer who was sent to Germany. In the concentration camp he met Meindert Veldman, a leader in the resistance movement in Northern Holland. Together they dreamed of the farm they would have someday. Gerrit escaped but Meindert never made it out. His son-in-law tells the family’s story in an unpublished book named “Hekkum” (after a small village in Groningen). In this book Oom Foks, uncle to the Veldman children, expresses his deep disappointment with how easily his countrymen betrayed resistance effort during the war. One slip of a tongue, one piece of idle gossip, and lives could be lost. Oom Foks says, “Let me not tire you with examples. Only this: death was sometimes a release from the hell of torture for the [resistance] and their wives.” Het verzet, the resistance, knew the risk and chose it willingly.

After Liberation some members in the resistance struggled to re-establish their reputations and jobs. This callous treatment stung. Oom Foks describes the proud speeches at celebratory events where people preened, taking credit for things they never did and claiming a communal victory . . . while the true, ordinary heroes of the night remained silent, remembering how alone they were during the war.

Liberation Day in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Liberation Day in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Taking a (dangerous) stand

What about churches? Many churches aided the resistance movement covertly – using Bible studies as covers for secret meetings and supporting protest strikes of student groups. Ministers overtly challenged Nazi ideals from their pulpits. Over and over again, Protestant and Catholic churches united to publicly protest the persecution of the Jews and labour conscription. Some clergy paid for these messages with their lives. Around 400 Roman Catholic clergy were arrested, 136 Netherlands Reformed clergy and 106 clergy of the Reformed Churches. Dozens from each denomination never returned. Still the churches continued to stand against Nazi ideology.

Churches also demanded the protection of human rights. In 1944, churches gained the right to coordinate food distribution and to run soup kitchens. Churches gathered in the interdenominational organization “IBK” to move undernourished children to farm communities in the East of Holland. This program started officially in the Hunger Winter of ’44 and continued after the war. The boy who would become Tiny’s husband made the terrifying journey from his town near Rotterdam to Groningen in a coal truck under cover of darkness. “He ended up on a farm and loved it,” she says. His parents did not know where he was or whether he was alive until after Liberation.

Not all Dutch people fought for dignity and freedom. Many were Dutch Nazis or informers. Similarly, not all Germans were enemies. My Beppe and my Grandma remind me of this every time they tell their stories, as does Tiny: “They were simply doing their duty.” Many missed their families. On V-E day last month, May 8, Germany’s current leaders spoke of their own liberation from the ideology of Nazism – recognizing how the ideology harmed Germans as well. The folk song “Lili Marleen” reminds us of the humanity of World War II in a surprising way: aired as Nazi propaganda in occupied countries, this song resonated deeply with all sides of the war and was translated into many European languages. Marlene Dietrich, entertainer for the Allied troops, was born in Berlin but lived in America. She used this song, crafted by the Nazis, to urge men to fight against them, knowing all the while that her own mother was still in Berlin. The song – and its history – hold the shared human emotions of longing for distant loved ones and hungering for peace.

Our only comfort

My own story begins in these stories, on the boats of my grandparents’ cross-Atlantic immigration. If not for those voyages, I wouldn’t be here. More than that, the bravery and determination of my grandparents’ generation shaped my ideas about life. While they may laugh and say their stories are not so important, the stories they tell my generation matter hugely.

We deeply need to hear stories of the war, of liberation, of immigration. We need the mix of suffering and joy to be passed down to us so that we can live in hope. More than the names on the family tree we need to know how to live and how to die as free people – no matter what hardship comes. As sure as the choice the stories leave us with is this comfort: we serve a God who is unchanging. He can keep us in the midst of a storm. What is more important than that?

Read more Liberation Day stories from our readers.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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