REMEMBERING ON THE ELEVENTH DAY OF THE ELEVENTH MONTH.
My siblings on our memorial trip to Ommen — the place of my sister’s birth — and where MY family survived the war years (before I was born).
The locals hold memorials at the stone to honour the fallen on the Dutch memorial day: May 4, which is the day before the official liberation day: May 5.
On Canadian Remembrance day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I remember World War II. My eldest brother is thirteen years older than me. He has some memories of war times, as well as his contemporaries – my cousins. I heard about those memories just recently. My parents did not talk about the war. Born after the war, I have no memory of it, although the war ruled my childhood and my parents, underneath it all, like ill-fitting and scratchy wool underwear: you get used to wearing it and it saves you from the cold.
The memorial for the victims killed at the prison camp ERIKA, at the edge of the territory of the former camp, now a camping for summer and winter guests. This is the only sign of what is left of the camp, with a few boards that were salvaged from the heap of debris by members of the Ommen historical society.
I heard about the war in grade school; my teachers focused beyond the three Rs on the perils of discrimination and intolerance. We saw photos and films with survivors from German concentration and labor camps and from the other occupied territories, shipped into cattle railcars and brought to near-extinction in camps. The pictures showed live skeletons, people that had survived the concentration camps—people that were Jewish, homosexual, developmentally delayed, or otherwise disabled, punishable by death in the eyes of the Nazis.
We as children saw piles of items collected from the victims by the staff of the German industrial-style extermination camps: millions of bones of the exterminated, piles as high as a house. We saw piles of suitcases, and boots, and hair to be used for pillow fill, and large dugouts with the emaciated dead, ready to be set on fire. We heard all of the atrocious facts of that war. It was a scary mystery to us children; how could this have existed?
We were shown these unimaginable things, so we would never let this ever happen again when we’d grow up and rule the world instead of our parents. We were educated, no, indoctrinated, to become tolerant and to appreciate differences in others, and learn to recognize the slightest signs of discrimination and racism. We children embodied the hope of our parents for a better future for the nation, for the world. No wonder we were the love children and despised war as adults – make love-not war!
The entrance gate of the prison camp ERIKA, model at the Ommen regional museum.
A couple of years ago my eldest cousin, over 80 years old, gave me his research into the family history; it contained a piece written by my dad on the wind-up of collaborators, after his town’s liberation by the Canadian allied soldiers. This piece of history started my questioning. He must have had a hell of a time protecting the citizens from the German army officials and the prison camp boss, and do his resistance work at the same time. The Nazis frequently shot non-compliant citizens for any small offense against the depraved Nazi regulations, or even for no offense at all, or just shoot them as hostages in retribution for resistance actions. Sometimes a person was shot in the street by way of an instant execution, just to set an example; thus the Nazis succeeded their occupation by instilling terror. It may have been a point of consideration with the Nazi occupiers that my dad was married to a German-born woman. In any case, he stayed on duty during this stressful time and remained the police chief until the Canadian Allies liberated my country.
The Concert Hall in Amsterdam where the Jewish citizens were collected after razzias in the city, to be transported to Poland’s extermination camps.
The appearance of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers served my dad well – up to a point. My Oma was friendly to the German soldiers during the occupation and identified with the Germans; most of her adult life she had been German. She was a staunch supporter of Hitler and openly adored him; Hitler gave pride back to the defeated and orphaned German nation after World War I. Hitler to her was finally someone who dared say the things many Germans were thinking already in a depressed and devastated country: It’s all those foreigners’ fault, those Jews. Never mind that these citizens were born German (or Dutch) and had been citizens for many generations; that was conveniently forgotten.
Not only she: it turned out the whole of Europe had been at the very least covertly, and often overtly anti-Semitic; nobody stopped Hitler’s fury to kill all Jews until it was too late. “I didn’t know” was a popular phrase.
My Oma gave the war effort collectors her metals, including the antique copper wares. My dad was pissed, but what could he do? The deed was done. His wife was her daughter. He didn’t want to alienate his mother-in-law, nor his wife.
The Sten gun used by the Illegality, dropped by the thousands by British planes. This specimen in the Ommen regional museum.
The last two years, I have researched the history of the occupation and found out that three years after the liberation it had become clear to the new Dutch government (from extensive investigations and trials of the most severe cases) that a good number of top civil servants had been criminally involved with the Nazis to an advanced level.
Although the cabinet and Queen had escaped to England at the time of the German invasion, the remaining deputy ministers remained in power and most willingly did what the Nazi governors told them to do. For the police, the deputy minister/state secretary of justice was the highest authority. He had instructed all policemen down the line to comply with all Nazi orders, especially those of the German head of police, SS boss Hanns Rauter. It left my dad scrambling for ways to subterfuge and avoid his superiors’ directions.
My dad in full uniform before the war. His horse was requisitioned by the Nazis, as were all other horses.
The Ommen Marechaussee brigade building, now converted to civilian homes.
The horse stables, now converted to garages.
The (former) hayloft over the stables.
So this building is almost a century old, but renovated a few times, of course. It is the side entrance to the former stables.
After the liberation, the civil service top brass was severely judged by the Extraordinary Court, which was instated for determining the conduct of the civil service during the occupation. The death penalty (abandoned before the war) was reinstated. For my father, it was significant that his top boss, the deputy/secretary of state of the Justice Ministry, Mr. Schrieke, was sentenced to death. My father’s direct superior in his region, Commissioner Feenstra, was sentenced to death and was executed the following year.
For judging the conduct of lower ranking individual policemen, the Extraordinary Courts did not consider the commands from the leadership enough justification. As policemen they should have known better and they were sentenced for overstepping the bounds of decency. In law, no crime existed in collaboration with the enemy, so the prosecution of war criminals broke new ground with describing the new crime of collaboration with the enemy.
It was noted that immediately after the war, rather extreme court judgments were followed by quick executions (=within a year). As time went on, the Queen pardoned many convicted civil servants that had not been executed yet, and the executions stopped. Mr. Schrieke escaped his death sentence, which was commuted to life in prison.
The Canadians are here liberating the town of Ommen! The bridge over the river Vecht was demolished, blown up by the German OT engineers, but quickly restored to functionality by the Canadian engineers.
Summerhouse in the Ommen forest (De wolfskuil) where during the war illegals hid crashed allied pilots.
I dove into my dad’s personal history and researched seventy-year old criminal files, hidden away in the National Archives. I found out what had happened. During the last two years of the occupation, my dad was assigned the role of informant/spy for the Illegality (resistance) and was told to establish relationships with the Nazis and the crew of the prison camp. He pretended to like the Germans and acted with calculated duplicity on instruction of the commander of his local resistance group. He played his role very well and appeared to be a collaborator, fooling everybody in town, including his reporters.
A group of Illegals in the woods.
He collected information from the local Wehrmacht commander about German troop movements and from the prison camp superintendent, a German SS boss, called Werner Schwier, and from his crew of men-hunting commandos. The prison was operated by the German Nazi police: Ordnungspolizei. In his role as police chief and trusted by the camp leadership, he was able to divert some arrested to freedom or intervene on their behalf with the camp boss, and he assisted with the illegal British weapon drops for the benefit of the area’s resistance.
Towards the end of the war, Dutch Nazis occupied a third of all positions in the civil service. The police force in general and the justice system was judged and found lacking. Many Dutch had actively caused the deportation of Jewish Dutch. Like so many others, my parents never wanted to tell us what happened in those years. Bury it, move on, don’t think about it was the thought of the day. That’s why Queen Wilhelmina handed down many pardons. There was no honor in survival those war years; too much had happened that nobody would understand who hadn’t been there. The words failed.
My dad’s brother-in-law was a Dutch Nazi, while another brother-in-law was the regional commander of the resistance group. My dad’s life must have been a balancing act, putting his whole family at even greater risk with a potential traitor in his extended family, and a wife he was not sure he could trust either.
War likely had a great impact on my parents. It might have contributed to my dad becoming such an intolerable straight shooter after regaining his freedom to speak and act according to his true beliefs. I have never given my parents enough credit for surviving and for staying on the right side during those years. I just had no idea.
What we call a knijpkat — sqeeze cat — a manual dynamo for a tiny flashlight (in the Ommen regional museum).
I am unable to push back tears when I see on TV expressions of gratitude on the faces of Dutch citizens and their children, even after 70 years. The Canadian, British, Polish and American soldiers became mythical heroes in my homeland. Although they were never in a war themselves, these Dutch celebrate the Allied soldiers, making a point of letting their liberators know – while they are still alive – that they are very appreciated. The Dutch remember the sacrifices of those that didn’t survive. I cry for the wonderment on the faces of the very few Allied veterans left attending the Dutch tributes. I am an immigrant. I remember my Dutch trauma on the eleventh of the eleventh month.
Only after it is too late and our parents have gone do we, children, become adult enough to really see our parents, and give them due credit.
War did not stop after WWII. Atrocities continue and the promise of Never Again was broken. We see refugees on TV by the millions seeking a place of peace – more are now afoot than after World War II. Discrimination of people that are different, look different, believe something different, and live differently continues, and in some nations became policy.
We are all guilty when we do not stop others in their exploitation of the vulnerable, not protest loudly enough, and of thinking it is not up to us to shelter the displaced or relocate refugees. Our parents’ promise “never again” we didn’t keep. I cry for that fact, and for the imperfect world we are living in, our environment so damaged, with so many damaged people without a peaceful place to live.
The world has become a country with many survivors of wars. If we do not stand for democracy and learn from our own traumas, if we don’t become a force for good, for inclusion and neighbourly support, we face another world disaster. Non-action is not an option; bystanders become a force for bad.
On Remembrance Day and every day of the year, let’s not forget!