by M.H. McKee
I was just a youngster when the Germans occupied the Netherlands in World War II. My family lived 25 miles southwest of Nijmegen, in a city called ‘s-Hertogenbosch. My father owned a seafood store and he would sometimes tease the German officers while they made their various purchases.
Few of the Germans could speak or understand Dutch, and Dad could understand very little German. The German officer would usually begin his order by using the word “Bitte”, which in German means “Please”. But “Beete” in Dutch means beets, and so whenever Dad heard Bitte, he would respond with: “Ik hep liever rode kool” which translates to “I would rather have red cabbage.”
The German soldier would usually respond by saying: “Was sagen sie?” or “What did you say?” Papa would just shrug his shoulders and with a straight face answer: “Ik verstaan geen Deuts, ik weet niet wat jy will.” This translates to: “I don’t speak German, and I don’t know what you want.” At that point, all of the customers in the store–except for the soldier–would burst out laughing. The soldier would usually get angry, turn on his heels and then storm out the door. It’s a wonder Dad didn’t get shot.
The store, which also served as our home, was located in front of a big, yellow chocolate factory, and there wasn’t much space between our deck and the windows of the factory. One day German soldiers arrived to pick up the men who worked in the factory. Some of these workers were taken away and never seen again.
That afternoon I heard a knock on the back door that led into our kitchen on the second floor. I ran and got Dad and when he opened the door we were greeted by a large group of men from the factory. They were very excited and begged Dad to let them escape through his store. They told him they had wives and children at home and didn’t want to go to prison.
After inviting them inside, Dad began to prepare several packages of fish heads. He wrapped the fish in old newspaper and gave each man a package. He then instructed the men to walk in twos–two or three minutes apart–out through the store’s front door. Each pair was instructed where to walk once outside the door. The first pair, for example, was told to cross the road and keep going. The next two were to turn right without crossing the street, and the next pair was to go left without crossing the street and so on. Everyone was advised not to run or do anything that would draw the attention of the Germans.
A few weeks later, German soldiers came and took my dad away. They put him in the local jail and–as we discovered later–he was scheduled to go to the concentration camp at Vught, approximately 15 kilometres away.
The day after Dad was arrested, my eyes became all crusted over and Mother had to wash them out five or six times a day. I was about eight years old at the time, and fearful that I would never see my dad again.
Mother went to the German authorities and told them the story of her little girl and how she was going blind and was terribly afraid for her father. She went back day after day and bribed the German commander with alcohol. During one of her visits to the commander’s office, Mother was told that her husband would return home on a certain Monday at 5 p.m.
All of our friends and neighbours told mother not to count on such promises. “Don’t get your hopes up,” they said. But Mother kept her hopes up and on the exact day and at the exact hour Dad walked in the door. He had been gone for five weeks and had lost a lot of weight. His head had been shaved bald and his clothes were dirty, but none of that mattered to us. He was home. We had him back.
Roughly 20 minutes after his return, my eyes began to feel a lot better. And to this day, I can only surmise and wonder why things happen the way they do.
Not long after that–in the middle of the night–there was an air raid on our town. Dad had instructed that if an air raid occurred while we were in bed, we were to get up immediately, throw our bedding down the stairs and jump right on top of it. Everyone took him at his word, except my brother who hesitated at the top of the cellar stairs. He insisted that Mother jump first, but Mom had no time for indecision. She responded by giving him a little shove to get him going, but Brother fell and hit his head on the stone wall. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t serious.
Several weeks later, Mother had a kettle on the stove in the front room. It was just about to boil when the air raid siren sounded. Mother dumped the water in the stove and down we went into the cellar. Sometimes we were down there for several days and nights.
Our basement was shaped like a wine cellar. It had arched ceilings and stone walls. One night while getting ready for bed, Mother was holding a flashlight that was shaped like an army lantern. All of a sudden she screamed blue murder. We all stared at her, then followed her frightened gaze up to the ceiling where we spotted the head of what looked like a giant creature. We quickly realized that it was just a shadow–the flickering shadow of a mouse that had climbed onto the front of Mother’s flashlight.
Access to the cellar could also be gained through a trapdoor on the outside of the store. These doors didn’t lock properly, and so one morning Dad installed a heavy duty lock. He told us he had to do that before the Germans paid us a visit. That same night, German soldiers arrived and tried to pry open the doors, but they were unsuccessful.
Dad told us the Germans were looking for bicycles and the ones they found they confiscated for their own use. We had three bikes hidden beneath straw at the bottom of the stairs to the trapdoor. All the German soldiers had to do was throw a cigarette down through the cracks and into the straw. I remember Dad and Mother clamping their hands over our mouths so we would not yell.
One day the train station was bombed and a whole lot of people were killed or wounded. Some of the injured got first aid, others weren’t so fortunate. Some of the injured walked and others were carried past our house. Some were half-
bandaged and others dragged themselves along. It was not a pretty sight. Mother tried to shield me from this by hiding me behind her skirt, but I managed to get a peek and I wish I hadn’t. These things you never forget.
The front window of our store had been covered with plywood and all the windows upstairs had heavy curtains on them for blackout purposes. Doing a wash was something else. Whenever Mother got a chance to do that–which wasn’t very often–she hung the sheets double in the attic. One day after wash day, a bomb exploded and some of its shrapnel sliced through the roof of our house and put holes in Mother’s clean sheets and clothing. I will never forget how angry she was.
In the fall of 1944, the war came even closer to our home. I remember the two army tanks that were parked across the road. A third was parked just two houses down the street, while a fourth was two houses up the street. We lived in the cellar and when the cannons were shooting, the whole house shook and this brought dirt and dust down on our heads and clothes. The air was so thick with dust that we had to cover our mouths with wet handkerchiefs.
One particular stretch in the basement lasted three weeks. During that time we did our potty business in a pail, and that didn’t smell very nice. In fact, we didn’t smell very nice, and we had very little to eat and drink, but thank goodness we didn’t have to eat tulip bulbs like some people did. We ate a kind of cake that had no icing, but lots of molasses. It was very dry and it was our main course for three or four days.
Then came the day when an Allied tank across the street got hit right in the muzzle. Its barrel split open like a flower, and we heard soldiers screaming inside, but they couldn’t get out. The whole tank was burning and the curtains on the bank across the street caught fire. The next thing we knew the house next door and our roof were ablaze. Needless to say, Dad and Mother got us out of the cellar in a hurry.
Across the street were Red Cross men waving a white flag. Dad and Mother put me in an old baby carriage, and then Dad placed the store’s money box on top of me along with a pile of clothes. He pushed me as fast as he could away from the house, while Mother pulled my brother and sister along.
We ran along several streets until we came to an army tank at an intersection that was shooting at the German soldiers. The tank was an Allied tank, but it was a dangerous place to be and so we ran on through the streets. We eventually ended up in a public washroom where the smell was overpowering.
We soon got out of there and walked for several kilometres around the zones where the fighting was taking place. We eventually arrived at Dad’s former house and stayed in the basement for about a week. Five weeks later we arrived back at our home and discovered that the whole block of houses across the street had been reduced to rubble. Destroyed also were the three stores next to the cigar store in our neighbourhood. By then the army tanks were gone, moved off to another part of the country. Our city had been liberated and we had Allied soldiers in the streets. Everything was a mess, but at least the terrible shooting had stopped and we were alive and together.
The war was very much a part of my childhood and while I am trying to put some of the memories behind me, I must always remember those brave men and women who gave up their lives to set us free. Throughout the year Dutch children put flowers on the graves of these courageous people, a clear sign that the graves are looked after with great love and affection.