We Remember: World War II
by Jeanette Hofstee Milgrom, Becketwood Member
The Netherlands, WW II, 1940-1945
It was early in the morning. My father was shaving in the bathroom. I heard him say to my mother: “The Germans are invading our country." I had no idea what that meant. I thought that if I was hungry and wanted some bread, I would have to ask for it in German. I was eight years old. I soon found out what the invasion was all about……
Belgian soldiers were standing underneath the chestnut tree in our front yard in Terneuzen, shooting at airplanes overhead. They were defending us from the Germans. My parents summoned us to the basement for safety.
We were to spend many evenings in the basement, or rather: the cellar, a small area down the steps off the kitchen, designed to keep food and vegetables cool, in the absence of refrigeration. Our family established a routine for the coming weeks (or was it months?). Around 10 pm the sirens went off. Our tasks were clear: my older brother, Henk, got our younger brother, Wim, out of bed. I grabbed Hanny, a toddler, and down to the cellar we went. My mother came down with my father, who was not well. A Lichtkogel went off, brightening the sky, and the bombs started to drop. Nobody talked about how scared they were. Sometimes we played board games, trying to distract each other and ourselves. It was kind of cool and damp in the cellar. And so we waited until the all-clear alarm went off, and we stumbled up the stairs, back to bed, chilled and tired.
Early on, during a period of particularly heavy bombing, our family went to stay with my Uncle Herman's family. They lived in Biervliet, a small town a few miles away from our city Terneuzen, and they had a bomb shelter in their back yard. It was cramped with all ten of us in a small space. My uncle, a physician, would step out periodically to provide first aid to wounded people. My aunt Coenie was not dealing with the situation very well. She would get “hysterical” periodically, wailing. We were not used to that; it was about as frightening as the bombardments.
Another aspect of this period was the Verduistering or blackout. All citizens were ordered to darken all windows or turn off indoor lights after sunset. I think that was so that any reconnaissance planes would not be able to find strategic locations. We also taped up the windows with masking tape on the inside. That way, if a bomb fell nearby and shattered the glass, it would fall on the outside rather than into the room.
THE YEARS OF NAZI OCCUPATION
The invasion and bombing were over, at least in our part of the country. The Hitler regime set the rules. The atmosphere was one of constant anxiety, at times acute fear and dread. We did not know what to expect from one day to the next, but we knew it would only get worse. It did, starting with rules to limit the Jews' freedom.
Also, during these years, my father got sicker and sicker. He went to the University Hospital in the city of Groningen, diagonally across the country from Terneuzen. Our family travelled back and forth. I went back and forth between four different elementary schools in five years.
I heard the grown-ups talking about the rationing of food and other things. They said some people were buying zwart (black) food. Not knowing about a black market, I associated zwart food with rotten meat. It sounded very unappetizing.
We soon had a substitute ophthalmologist taking over my father's practice. His name was Dr. Hupsel. He ate dinner regularly with us: my mother and the four children. Being our guest, he got to serve himself first. He always took a double portion of meat. That is mostly what I remember about Dr. Hupsel.
My brother Wim, then five or six years old, decided to make a little business out of the fuel shortage by selling eierkolen (egg-shaped coal). He probably figured that we had so much of it in the coal bin that he could put some of it in a small bucket and sell them door-to-door, to the neighbors. I do not know who or what stopped this ingenious practice.
We had two rabbits in cages in our backyard. They were of the Vlaamse Reus (Flemish Giant) variety. Henk and I considered them our pets. We would put them in their bottomless rabbit run on the back lawn, dig up dandelions for them, and "steal" carrots from our cellar to feed them. The time came that the grown-ups started talking about slaughtering the rabbits and eating them. Henk and I were appalled, but our opinion was not asked. I do not know whatever happened to the rabbits. I know I did not eat them. They were probably sold to a neighbor.
When I was in fourth grade, 1941-1942, our whole family moved to be closer to my father and the hospital in Groningen. I said goodbye to my school friends, piano teacher and Girl Scout group and started over in the small town of Paterswolde, a 30-minute bike ride from Groningen. I was bored, very bored, in my new school. They advanced me one grade. I was still bored, and according to my mother I was intolerable at home. My mother had the good sense to take me to an all-girls' school in Groningen. I was conditionally accepted. I was behind in French. I worked hard, and then met the entrance requirements for the ‘HBS’ high school.
By the time I went to high school the whole country was running low on fuel/power. Half the high school buildings were closed, and we all went to school half days. We did our homework by daylight, moonlight or a tiny tea light: a small wick that floated in oil. It created quite a mess when someone accidentally knocked it over.
The general anxiety in the country was growing steadily. We knew that Jewish people, heavily concentrated in Amsterdam, were being deported to concentration camps in Germany. Other folks who were sheltering Jews were rounded up. Also, young men were randomly picked up in razzias and sent to labor camps in Germany. My mother's foster brother Klaas Rozendaal was one of them. And: "intellectuals" were picked up and taken to a camp in Vught. My uncle Wim was one of them. They came to his home on a New Years's Eve. He tried to escape via the back balcony, which did not work. He was taken to Vught. My brother Henk was in his teens, and increasingly in danger of being picked up in a razzia.
More restrictions were put on Dutch citizens. We were cut off from news sources: radios were forbidden. The Dutch royal family had relocated to England. Periodically, adults in our house in Paterswolde listened to the radio, "hidden” in the basement. I recognized the B.B.C. by the Morse code for the letter V: short-short-short-long. The V signified Vrijheid (freedom).
In addition to the radio, my mother was hiding silverware and other valuables in the basement; I'm not sure why. A bigger item was a car in our garage. My uncle Gerrit was a car dealer in Groningen and had asked us to hide one of his cars in our garage. We did. My life was full of secrets those years. I knew that telling or acknowledging any of those secrets could cause someone great harm………
My father had been in and out of the hospital in Groningen, with a number of strokes.
The last time I visited him in the hospital I knew instinctively that he would not live much longer. He spent his last three months or so at home in Paterswolde. He was bedridden, paralyzed and speechless. Our front room became a sick room. My mother cared for him: feeding, bathing, all of it, with the help of periodic visits from the public health nurse.
We worried about what might happen if the Nazis had come in, in one of their random acts, and found this adult man in bed. My father would have vocalized, without being able to say words. The Nazis might have assumed he was faking the whole thing; no way of telling what they might have done. This did not happen, but we worried----.
My father passed away in the spring of 1943. He was almost 40 years old; I was almost eleven. A krentenboompje (small wild plum tree) along our driveway was in bloom.
During another period of time my grandparents, Opa and Oma, came to live with us. They had sold their big farmhouse and were waiting for a smaller home. Opa and Oma occupied our dining room, the only room that was heated with a coal/wood stove. No central heating. Once a week, Saturday evenings, each of us got to take a "bath" in this dining room: I would strip down, wash myself with a bucket of warm water, and put on clean clothes for the rest of the week. Someone would hold up a large towel for privacy. Quite uncomfortable!
The stove had an extension, meant to keep food warm. My Opa loved his pipe and had grown his own tobacco. After the large tobacco leaves had been hung to dry, they went into a small wooden barrel. Then Opa put the barrel on the stove extension to ferment. One time the barrel started smoking. My mother opened the closest window and threw the barrel out into the side yard. Opa came in, very upset, saying: “Godverdomme, Godverdomme!!” That was the only time I ever heard my good-natured Opa swear. Then he went outside to save his tobacco.
Other things related to stoves and heating happened in those years. For a while we had bricks of peat stored in the garage; we simultaneously experienced a flea feast. The fleas jumped from the peat to us, and then to our bedding. I became the family expert in catching fleas. On a slow day I would randomly take a blanket off someone's bed, hold it against the window light, wet my finger and thumb and take out the flea. Then I crushed it and flushed it down the sink. It was quite a skill to develop. The supply of fleas was infinite, so I had plenty of practice.
Across the street from our house was a small tree plantation. During the day the 'NSB-ers' (Dutch people who sympathized with the Nazis) cut some of the trees down. My brother Henk and I had a routine: at dusk I stood in the middle of the road. When the coast was clear, I signaled Henk. He dragged the small tree trunk across the road. Then, together, we carried it into our side yard. This was a scary activity. I was always very relieved when we had Henk back home, safe and sound. The next day we sawed the tree into pieces and split it into firewood.
In the building next to our house, our neighbor lady had operated a boardinghouse. The German soldiers had taken it over and were living there. They seemed to be friendly, middle-aged men. Our neighbor lady told us that they really wanted to be home with their wives and children. For a while they let us have one electrical cord, going across our driveway into our kitchen. Nobody seemed to worry about an extended, exposed 220-volt cord in a damp climate.
Clothing for four growing children became a problem. The main supply was hand-me-downs within the family, and repairing what was wearing out. Being the oldest girl in the family, I darned many, many socks, heels and toes. However, when I outgrew my shoes I had only two options. One was my mother's shoes (she had plenty of shoes, all with a medium heel; can you imagine an eleven-year-old girl wearing those?!). The other choice was wearing wooden shoes. I choose the latter. I learned to replace outgrown sweaters by unraveling several old ones and knitting a new one out of two old ones. One example of this I remember specifically. I created a sweater with uneven stripes of green and yellow for my little sister Hanny. Then I extended a brown knit skirt with an edge of the same green to make it into a matching outfit.
Other things such as household items became increasingly scarce. There were two kinds of soap bars we could buy: lucht zee' (air soap) or klei zeep (clay soap). The one was very lightweight, the other heavy. Neither of them foamed. I had to stand in line for one bottle of diluted shampoo, periodically. This made my mother and me decide to cut off my braids, so less shampoo would be needed. It was quite traumatic for me…… Also, toilet paper was in short supply or unavailable. Then we had to substitute with newspaper—it did not work very well.
Food, or lack thereof, was of course a major issue. We always had enough potatoes. I peeled a small bucket full of potatoes every day, especially when we were a family of seven, including Oma and Opa. Anything other than potatoes seemed to be rationed, in limited supply, or plain unavailable.
We thought we were pretty clever inventing our own peanut butter (that is what we called it). We roasted some raw wheat kernels in a frying pan with some oil, and, if we were lucky, some salt. Then we put it in a coffee grinder and voila: peanut butter! I also came up with a way to give some people presents. The process was: hamsteren (hoarding) small bits of a desirable item over time, either from my personal portions or from the family supply. Then I would give it to that person on their birthday and make them very happy. Examples of this may have been: matches, toilet paper, table salt.
The mere transportation of food could be dangerous. For a while we were able to get one liter of milk a week from a dairy farmer. He lived two times forty-five minutes by bike from our home in Paterswolde. On Friday evenings at dusk Henk went and got the milk. As he was in his mid-teens it became too risky. The Nazis might just pick him up and take him—wherever. Then I was given the job. It was scary for an eleven-year-old girl, too.
While we always had something to put in our stomach, I had fantasies of what to eat when the war was over. It included: all the white bread-with-real-butter I could eat (we had brown bread with margarine), and: hands full of chocolate. We knew that people in other parts of the country were starving. In view of that reality the grown-ups instructed us NEVER to say “Ik heb honger” (I am hungry), but rather “Ik heb trek” (I have an appetite), probably better translated as not to say “I am starved” but rather “I am kind of hungry.” Meanwhile, during the hongerwinter (hunger winter, 1944-45) many, many persons in Amsterdam actually did starve to death. Their food supplies had been cut off. People were eating tulip bulbs and dakhazen (roof rabbits, meaning: cats). At any time of the day one could see a hearse going down the street……….
The Allied Forces gradually came to different parts of the Netherlands. In fall 1944 there was a big battle in the city of Arnhem, strategically located on the river Rhine. We hoped our turn would come soon. It came in spring 1945.
Out of the corner of our kitchen windows in Paterswolde we watched the German army retreating, driving their tanks north towards Groningen. Shortly after, the French Canadians rolled in on their tanks. In my memory the retreating Germans were sad, middle-aged men in old, rusty, muddy tanks. By contrast, the French Canadians were fresh young men with shiny tanks and equipment. My memory probably played some tricks on me here. The Canadian soldiers were stationed in Paterswolde for a while, bombing the city of Groningen. This took away some of our joy, as we had relatives and school friends in Groningen. Then the bombing stopped.
Happy days followed. Some of the Canadian troops were stationed in the wooded area immediately next to our house. My brother Henk and I let some of the soldiers sleep in the beds in each of our bedrooms for a while. I slept in the bathtub instead. Henk and I freely roamed around our neighborhood. Soldiers would cast away half of their still-lit cigarettes on the streets and Henk gleefully picked them up and finished smoking them. I wandered around the woods next to our house. I noticed the soldiers used tree stumps as tables and on these "tables" I found leftover white bread with real butter!! I ate them. I was elated. It felt as if, after five years, a big dark cloud had blown away, a heavy weight was off my shoulders, the constant fear of danger to others and myself had been removed.
The Germans surrendered. Holland was free again.
THE WAR WAS OVER.
IT WAS 5 MAY 1945.