War through the eyes of a child: Alice Kuik shares her memories of World War II
“The horror and sacrifices of those who endured a war must be recorded and remembered. If we fail to do so, we will soon take peace for granted and exaggerate small inconveniences.” – Jan Hendrik LuitenA CHILD OF WAR My birth must have been a moment of mixed emotions for my parents. To be sure, I have every reason to believe that they were delighted with the arrival of their first-born child. However, my birth took place just three months after the German army had invaded the Netherlands. I was not born in a country where we could speak freely or go outside without worry. No, I was born in a country that was tightly controlled by an enemy. Fears and secrets were a normal part of my life. I was born a child of war. Yet, the horror of war was not unbearable for me. I endured it with acceptance and resilience. This remarkable ability to take things in stride had two reasons. First of all, I did not know what it meant to live in peace. I was not able to compare my current situation to better days. War was all I knew. But the second reason was more significant. At all times I felt supported by people who cared for me. My mother absorbed my fears when she took me in her arms. The members of our extended family provided emotional support and practical help. And, last but not least, I was comforted by the prayers that were spoken at meals, at church, and at times of great concern about loved ones. It is to honour my parents and family members that I feel compelled to share my story. I understand now that their practical helpfulness and their natural loyalty were expressions of their love for God. By their actions they unwittingly taught me that the Lord can always be trusted, and that He always hears our prayers. Even when the enemy is constantly harassing us. THE WAR COMES HOME My memories of the war would not have been so vivid if my parents would not have provided a hiding place for a Jewish couple. But they did, and soon the Germans suspected it. Without delay they placed our house under surveillance. I was completely unaware of the hiding place. But the stress of being watched by the Germans without knowing the reason for their suspicion had a deep impact on me. Mind you, my parents did not seek the danger. Their defiance of the Germans happened as a natural outflow of their faith in the Lord and their love for the neighbour. Our family belonged to the Reformed church in Enschede. Their minister was a man whose faith showed itself in his works. He had taken it upon himself to obstruct the plan of the Nazis to eradicate the Jews. Not only did he preach this conviction from the pulpit, but he also practiced it. With relentless determination he collected the names of the Jews who were short-listed for transportation to the death-camps. He then carefully selected members in his congregation who would be suitable to hide these Jews. It is telling of my parents that they were among those whom he selected for this onerous task. Of course, I was too young to know what was going on. But even if I had been old enough, my parents would not have discussed this matter until I was asleep in my bed. I can imagine that my father was immediately convinced that this was a task that the Lord placed on his path. My mother probably thought so too, but my father’s conviction allowed her to voice the objections. Where do we hide them? We cannot risk putting Alice’s life in danger! And we have no idea how long this war will last! What if the Germans find out? Then we will all die! What if the Jews get sick? And how do we keep it a secret? But soon all the concerns faded to background. My parents were already making plans. A hiding place could be constructed upstairs. The cupboard in the spare bedroom could be enlarged toward the back. Soon the construction started, with the help of my father’s brothers. The back of the original cupboard was replaced with a door that could be locked from the side of the room under construction. Attention was paid to details. The newly created space was decorated with brown-yellow wallpaper. I remember that wallpaper distinctly because after the war my sister and I used to play with our dolls in that room. But of course I do not remember anything of the construction. Neither was I aware of the fact that my parents had opened their home to Alfred and Reina Hen, whom they soon affectionately referred to as “our Jews.” And so it happened that my parents, Jan Hendrik Luiten and Geertruida Klos, became personally involved in the Second World War. NOISES AND WHISPERS I have no early childhood memories of a carefree summer evening, or of a cheerful family gathering. No. My first memories consist of unpleasant noises. I could clearly hear them in my bedroom when my uncles and aunt visited my parents. It sounded as if they were all talking at the same time, at the top of their voices. Through the closed door of my room I could feel the tension. Something was wrong. My uncles were very agitated. They were discussing the war. They always talked about the war. I got the impression that the situation was getting worse. The voices of my aunts sounded very worried. Once in a while I could clearly hear them sigh. All the voices together sounded restless. It was oppressive. I wished my mother would come to my room. The daytime had bad noises too. There was one sound in particular that scared me. It was quite different from the secretive talking of my family. This sound came from outside. It started as a rhythmic rumble in the distance. As it came closer I could sense its vibration in the air. Then the group of marching German soldiers appeared in full view. Proudly they paraded through our street, loudly stamping their boots to the beat of a song. The sound of the song was aggressive. I vividly remember the words “Ach wehr fahren, ach wehr fahren gegenüber England,” “We will make war, for sure, we will make war with England.” It made me feel terrible. I felt the fear in my stomach. But the most alarming noise may well have been the roar of the fighter planes. I could already hear their faint drone when they were still far away. Slowly the faint drone turned into a deafening rumble, right above our heads. Then it faded away again, like a ripple. It left me wide awake and worried. At the time I did not even understand that these planes were bombers on their way to a target. To my surprise I noticed that the sound of the family gatherings at our house was changing. The uncles and aunts still visited us. We needed each other. But they started to whisper, afraid to be heard. To me their muffled voices were much more unsettling than their loud noises had been. It was clear that my family needed to be very cautious. They were on guard, constantly. No-one else was allowed to hear what they were talking about. Someone could be listening in! A German soldier, or a traitor. It was very unsettling. I tried to be brave. But it was not easy. Alice's father, Jan Luiten WITHOUT MY FATHER Little did I know that my family had good reasons to be on guard. Not only did we hide two Jews, but my father had made the decision to join the Resistance. Both were serious infractions of the German rule of law. Both were punishable by death. After my father joined the Resistance he did not come home anymore. Often we did not even know where he was. This was very difficult for us. We felt lost and lonely without him. Thankfully our extended family continued to look after us. My grandfather supplied us with bread from his bakery. Another relative, who owned a branch of the well-known grocery chain “Spar,” always made sure that we had a sufficient supply of groceries in the house. My mother’s younger brother and his wife, who were childless, visited us often. Together our relatives were a source of light in these dark days. Not surprisingly, the Germans noticed that my father stopped coming home. His absence seemed convincing proof to them that we were hiding Jews. As a result our family was placed on an even higher level of suspicion. At any time of the day a group of Germans would come to our house, banging on the door with great force and shouting, "Wo Sind die Juden?" "Where are the Jews?" But, however thoroughly they searched our house, they did not find Jews. In no uncertain terms they questioned my mother about my father. Boldly she would enter into an argument with them, explaining that they had no reason to be suspicious. With brave determination she dodged their questions about my father, calmly stating that she expected him home in the next day or so. My mother would always take extra time for bringing me to bed on days that the Germans had searched our house. "Where is Papa?," I would ask her. She could not say. But she prayed with me, and sang songs. Her soothing voice helped me to feel safe again. It was during these dark days that my sister Hinke was born. One morning it was not my mother who called me out of bed, but Tante Aaltje, my aunt. I was very surprised. I was even more surprised when I noticed that my mother did not come to the breakfast table. She was staying in bed. That was not like her at all. But, thankfully, Tante Aaltje took charge of the things my mom usually did. She was also the one who told me that I had received a sister. I did not know what to think. Where did the sister come from? Where would she sleep? Tante Aaltje suggested that I should see the baby. But I was not sure. Everything felt unreal and scary. Soon I realized that things had changed. My mom and I were not together anymore. We were joined by a little person who needed care around the clock. It was sad that we could not tell my father about our baby sister, because we did not know where he was. Would things ever become normal again? I kept asking about my father. And I always received the same answer. We did not know where he was, or when he would come back. We were not even sure if he was still alive. Over time this uncertainty became our new normal. We accepted the pain of not-knowing and forced ourselves to carry on. For my mother this new normal included looking after the Jews upstairs. Then we received the devastating news that my father had been caught by the Germans. He had been transported to a concentration camp in Germany. I did not fully know what that meant. But I did understand that his situation had become dreadful. And that he might die. I felt lost. I wanted to cry. Everybody seemed numb. The silence did not feel right. But at that moment there were no words. Only sighs. And silent prayers. THE WORST OF TIMES The news that my father had been caught changed the way I looked at things. I gave up hoping that he might come home soon. I started to imagine how we would live without him. I was sure that my mom would manage well. The evidence was clear. She kept looking after her regular commitments. She took care of my sister. She kept our house tidy and clean. And she prepared the meals with the groceries that our family provided. At the time I did not understand how lonely she must have been. One day I noticed that my mother took a tray with food upstairs. I was confused. Maybe she brought it to her bedroom for a late-night snack. But I could not figure out exactly where she took it. I sensed that it was not any of my business to ask about it. But boldly I asked her anyway. “Mom, where are you going with the food?” Without blinking an eye my Mom answered, “I am looking after a sick dog.” That was exciting! It had never occurred to me that the secret would be a surprise for me! My imagination soared. Soon my mom would take a healthy dog downstairs, and I would have a playmate. I would take the dog for walks. I could look after feeding him. And maybe he could sleep in bed with me. At the first opportunity I shared the exciting news with my friend next door. The friend hastened to tell her mother. At that point the situation took an unexpected turn. My friend’s mother rushed over to our house. She talked to my mom in a hushed, but agitated voice. Only after the war I was told what transpired in the conversation. The neighbour lady explained to my mom that soon the whole neighbourhood would know that she was bringing food upstairs for a sick dog. But they would very likely understand that we did not have a sick dog upstairs. And not all the neighbours could be trusted. My mother should be careful not to draw any attention to our house. We were already under suspicion! But I think that the Germans had made up their mind already at that point. Their suspicion that there were Jews in our house was all but proven. They were dead-set on finding them. One day we heard the loud singing and stamping of marching soldiers in our street. It stopped at our house. We were holding our breath. But soon all doubt was removed. After a loud knock a large number of German soldiers barged inside. Suddenly the house was filled with dark-grey uniforms and Wehrmacht army caps. My mother placed her arms securely around me. The soldiers searched for a long time, especially upstairs. But again, their search was unsuccessful. Venting their anger they grabbed my mom by the throat and kicked her into the hallway closet. Then a soldier looked at me, picked me up and threw me into the cupboard too. Another soldier started to kick me viciously. I felt the blows of his heavy boots on the lower part of my back. It was hurting badly. Their kicks damaged my spine. For life. The incident in the closet changed me. It destroyed my hope that things would get back to normal. I lost my childlike optimism. The Germans would undoubtedly come back to our house. My father was gone. Dead maybe. My back hurt. I was concerned for my little sister. I was confused by the secrets. But I felt safe with my mom. And I loved it when the relatives came. Thankfully my family had an inner resilience. They had a faith that passed understanding. I felt that. NO MORE WAR A while later I noticed that the conversations of the relatives were changing again, slowly but surely. But this time it felt like a good change. Their voices became less hushed and more cheerful. Excited even. Other things changed as well. The German soldiers were not marching through the streets of Enschede anymore. Their bragging songs had stopped. Then the exuberance broke loose. The war was over! It took a while for me to understand what it meant to live without fear for the enemy. The marching Germans had disappeared. There were no strange secrets anymore. But there were surprises. One day my mother called me to the kitchen. Two people were sitting at the table. A man and a woman. I had never seen them before. My mother told me that these people were Jews. They had lived upstairs in a secret room. My eyes must have been wide with surprise and my mouth probably fell open. The Germans were right then. We had been hiding Jews. Our Jewish guests turned out to be good company. It was very nice to have them in our house. Not much later the relatives began to discuss the Dutch Resistance workers in the German concentration camps. Supposedly many of them had started to walk home from the camps. That was very good news! Filled with new hope I asked my mother when my father would be coming home. To my disappointment she told me that we could not be sure that he was coming back. He could have died. In the camp. Or on the way home. That worried me. But I remained hopeful. My hope started to soar when my mother told me a few days later that trains had been arranged to bring the liberated prisoners home. A train was scheduled to arrive at the Enschede railway station once a day. Names of passengers could not be provided. Although there was no certainty that my father would be on one of the trains, this was very good news. On the day that the first train was to arrive we got up early. It would take us about an hour to walk from our home on the outskirts of Enschede to the railway station in the centre of town. And we surely did not want to be late. We left the house in high spirits. My sister sat up in the stroller which my mother pushed with joyful determination. And I walked, hopped and skipped the whole way. As we came closer to the railway station we met several other excited people. This would be a day of happy reunion. It could be. We knew that not everyone would come back. But we wanted to be hopeful. We arrived at the train station plenty on time. The wait was long. But finally we could see the train in the far distance. It came closer and closer till it screeched to a halt. The doors opened. Strange-looking men came out. Their eyes were hollow and their bodies had points sticking out at the shoulders, the hips, and the knees. All the women looked closely to see if they recognized these strange men. Soon shouts of joy filled the air. But my mom was not showing any excitement. However hard she looked, she was not able to pick out my dad. Slowly it started to dawn on us. He was not on the train. The way home seemed very long. My mother was crying. But the next day we went again, in good cheer. We were convinced that this would be day that my father would have made it on the train. If he was alive. But again he was not there. On the way home I looked at my mother. She was crying. And so it went, for what seemed an endless number of days. Every morning again we left hopeful; and every afternoon we came home sad. Then the trains stopped coming. My mother was informed that the transportation of liberated prisoners to Enschede was completed. I decided not to believe any rumours anymore. The devastation of false hope was more hurtful than the nagging pain of hopelessness. I tried to stop thinking about my father. Life continued. I helped my mom and I spent time with my friends. One day I was playing in our backyard with some of the neighbour girls. Suddenly we heard happy shouts and laughter coming from our house. My mother appeared in the door opening and started calling my name. I ran over to her, curious to hear what was going on. “Alice! Sweet girl! Dad has come home!” What? Really? I could hardly believe it. Overjoyed I rushed inside. I ran into the kitchen. There was a man sitting at the table. I stopped in my tracks. Was that my father? He talked to me. “Hi Alice,” he said. “I am so glad to see you again. Mom was right. You have grown into a beautiful girl.” Gently he reached down to hug me, but I drew back. This man could not be my father. He did not look one bit like the wedding picture that we had treasured so dearly during his absence. And he stank terribly. I was scared. I looked up at my mom, and ran away. My mom did not call me back. At the end of the day she asked me if I would kiss my father goodnight. But I couldn’t. The next morning “our Jews” joined our family for coffee. We had a nice time with each other. It was clear that Mr. Hen and the man who said he was my father knew each other well. My supposed father used Mr. Hen’s nickname, “Frans,” rather than his formal name “Alfred.” It made me think. I was still not sure that this strange man was my father, but I was starting to consider the possibility. Mr. Hen must have been watching me. Turning towards me, he said, “Alice, do you trust me?” I had to think about that for a minute. Then I nodded. “Very well,” he continued, “Would you believe me if I said that this strange man is your father?” After a pause, I nodded again. Mr. Hen had one last question. “Would you give your father a little kiss to show him how happy you are that he came back?” I decided to stand up. Slowly I walked over to my Dad. He smiled at me. Then I did it. I gave him a little kiss. It was scary. And it was good. I was only five years old when I reconnected with my father. But the connection lasted till death parted us. And his memories are alive in my heart. From this moment on “our Jews” became our honourary relatives: Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. It took time before my Dad was ready to share his story with us. He never told us the whole truth. He was not able to. He left out the most painful, most disturbing parts. He did not want to relive them, and he wanted to spare us the extent of his misery. And no one prodded him. He did, however, share the story of his liberation from the concentration camp. The Resistance workers in the concentration camp were never officially informed that the Germans had surrendered. But when the rumours of the German capitulation were eventually confirmed, the prisoners started to escape in small groups. My father and two other captives decided to undertake the journey home together. It was not an easy trip. Much of their physical strength had been lost due to the hard labour, mistreatment and malnutrition during their camp years. But they were helped along the way by German farmers. They discovered that many Germans had hated the war. These people were grateful for the opportunity to provide hospitality to the survivors of the camps. After several weeks my father and his two friends arrived at the border-crossing between Germany and the Netherlands, not far from Enschede. It was a very emotional moment. Soon they would embrace their loved ones again. They did not know what had happened to them in their absence. Maybe not all of them would have survived the war. But they trusted that the Lord, who had stood by them in their dark hours, would also have cared for their loved ones. In that confidence the three men traveled their final miles back to their families. THE WAR REMEMBERED The war may have been over, but its horror continued in my soul. Throughout my childhood I relived the fear that I felt when the roaring fighter planes dropped their bombs on our town. For many years I had nightmares about the sight and sound of these low-flying bombers. In these dreams I vividly heard the rumbling roar of bombs that fell on homes and stores, reducing them to ruins. I would wake up in a sweat and run to my mother’s bedroom. She comforted me with tight hugs and soothing words. I did not know at the time that these bombings were accidental droppings by American planes that missed their targets in Germany. After the war our family stayed in close contact with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina. They found a place to live not far from our home. This provided us with the opportunity to visit each other regularly. Together the families reminisced about the hiding years. I was impressed to hear that Uncle Frans had kept himself busy with reading as well as writing. Together with other Jews who survived the war they decided to rebuild the synagogue in Enschede. When the restoration was completed they invited my parents for a tour. To their joy my parents accepted the invitation. Soon I was old enough to help Aunt Reina with small housekeeping chores. There was always something to do, the more so after the birth of their son. On Saturdays I had a special task. They did not do any work on that day of the week as it was set aside as the Sabbath. They could not even switch on a light. However, they did not object if I performed this task for them. Aunt Reina then treated me to a piece of delicious cake which she had baked the day before. Eventually the three of them emigrated to Toronto, where Uncle Frans started a successful tailor business. But their immigration did not prevent us from staying in touch with each other. My Dad needed to regain his strength. But in due time he, my mother and our dear relatives were all convinced that he was ready to return to work. Without delay he contacted the textile factory where he worked before he was taken prisoner. It was a great joy for him to hear that his previous position was available! I am sure that it made his transition from captive Resistance worker in a concentration camp to fulltime employee much easier. The fact that I passed his place of work every day on my way to and from school made it even more wonderful. What a big difference for me, from fearing that you might never see your father again, to walking by his workplace twice a day. I was very happy. A number of years later my brother Andre was born. We were very excited, and exceedingly thankful for our abundant blessings: health, family, friends, food, employment, and now a baby brother who was born in a time of peace. Several years later our family of five emigrated to Carman, a small town in Manitoba. Our correspondence with Uncle Frans and Aunt Reina gained a new dimension. We could understand their situation much better having experienced an emigration ourselves. My mother sealed the mutual friendship when she traveled by plane to Toronto. She was a brave, loyal woman. And my father was proud of her.
****The house today: Alfred and Reina Hen hid in the attic Several decades later it was me who made a historic trip, together with my husband Bert. We had decided to pay a visit to the country of our birth. One place we were sure to visit was Enschede. I was eager to show him the place where I was born. It was not difficult for me to find the old family home. “Bert, here it is,” I said. As I was saying these words, the present merged with the past. This was the place where I was born. In this house the Jews were hidden. Here it was where I had suffered the fear of separation from my father. Here it was that I endured the house-searches by the Germans. Here it was that I was kicked into the hallway cupboard by German soldiers. As I was sharing these stories with my husband, the front door opened. A woman stepped outside. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked. “No, this is the place where I was born,” I answered spontaneously. Immediately the woman opened the door wide and invited us in. But I was hesitant. Would it be appropriate to accept her invitation? Would I not impose on her privacy? But Bert put a bit of pressure on me. He would not want me to have regrets later, and he was curious to see the house. I felt a bit tense as we walked through the front door. Tentatively I looked around. The house was not as big as I remembered. But I recognized the hallway, the door to the living room, the kitchen. We went upstairs. The lady explained that her husband was working on some renovations. With anticipation I turned my head to the place where I expected the entrance to the hiding place. But all I saw was a wall with holes and loose boards on the floor. The husband was taking the hiding place out, board by board. Then, with a shock, I noticed that the brown-yellow wallpaper was still covering the walls. “This is the hiding place,” I uttered. “Our Jews lived here.” “Really?” the lady called out. “Please tell me more about your parents, and about the people that lived here in hiding.”
****Throughout my life I have often reflected on the war in the Netherlands. At the time I saw it through the eyes of a child. I feared the marching Germans. I was worried about my father. But I found comfort and safety in the arms of my mother. Now I have reached the age of the strong. Over the years I have learned to see the magnitude of the Second World War. Entire nations lived in fear. Many Jewish families were killed. Healthy young men died a horrible death, on both sides of the war. And wars continue to be waged. Yet, I have also learned to trust the Lord. We do not have to fear. He is our shield and our tower, our comfort in life and in death.
This first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2018 issue.
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This is the story of my paternal grandfather's last year on earth. He was a man of unwavering faith despite suffering arrest, incarceration, indignity, illness, and death. He was active in the Dutch resistance movement against Nazism and encouraged fellow prisoners in the various jails and camps in which he was held. Here is the story of his resistance, arrest, incarceration, and death in the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen. This story is a reworking of a chapter (pp. 192-200) out of the book Velsen Bezet en Bevrijd (The Occupation and Liberation of Velsen) by Guus Hartendorf (used here with his permission) and published by Velserbroek, 2000, translated by the late Rienk Koat of Langley, B.C. in 2000. ***** In 1912 Taeke van Popta, at the age of 30, became the principal of a Christian school in IJmuiden, a port city in the Dutch province of North Holland. He soon became engaged in all manner of other activities, such as youth groups, catechism, and consistory, and was the initiator of a Christian Society for Mariners. In the classroom and at the youth clubs he gave many young people in IJmuiden a sense of self-awareness and responsibility to the Lord and the neighbor. In the providence of God this laid the groundwork for subsequent resistance work against the Germans in World War II in which he, friends, and former students would be involved. ARRESTED By the time the Second World War broke out, my grandfather, Taeke, was retired, yet he remained active in the field of education. He did a great amount of work for the Society of Christian Teachers in the Netherlands and Overseas, the Protestant Christian Teachers’ Society, and he was on the Executive for the Reformed School Society. On January 9, 1942, the Nazis enacted a law in the Netherlands that prohibited the employment of Jewish personnel in all schools. Taeke had strong objections to this decree and did not hesitate to communicate this in letters to various school boards. This would be his undoing. He was arrested for the first time in the early hours of January 18, 1944. Several days later he was released and he soon after wrote about his experience: A few weeks ago Jan Fidder, formerly secretary of the Anti Revolutionary Party was apprehended in IJmuiden. About a week later Mr. Geert Visser, who works at the employment office, and I were taken from our homes. At twelve midnight the doorbell rang, with police in front and at the back of the house. The house was searched and I was then taken away by the Germans. In the police van I found Geert Visser. On the following Thursday Fidder as well as both Geert Visser, and a brother of his who had also been arrested, were released and allowed to go home. I was released on Friday. The problem was the issue of counterfeit permits to restricted areas along the coast. Jan Fidder was suspected to be involved in this business, and then it was thought that a small group was involved, which resulted in trying to find its members among the good acquaintances of Jan Fidder. Fortunately, I had nothing to do with this. But initially one didn't know what the meaning of all this was, and so I had expected that I would be a prisoner for quite awhile. After the hearing I thought that I would be in prison for at least half a year. So we felt we had received quite a break. During the search in the house, the deportment of the policemen was civil. At the farewell the children saw to it that I could take along a Bible and Psalter. Next morning I started to sing in my cell, and both Jan Fidder and Geert Visser, who were in an adjacent cell, were singing along. We sang quite a few psalms and hymns, and after the meals we took turns reading from the Bible and praying. Because of the little window in the door we could understand each other quite clearly. Others, too, started to sing along to the extent of their knowledge of psalms and Christian hymns. When Jan Fidder and Geert Visser were no longer there, the other prisoners asked me to continue reading and praying. They were prisoners who didn’t know a single psalm or hymn. I made an attempt, and it was only during “Ere zij God” that a few could join in. But our reading and praying were much appreciated, and were listened to silently and reverently. And so it was that we three had some blessed days there. Yet we were very glad that this affair so quickly took a turn for the better, and that we could go home again. Meanwhile I was enriched with some knowledge about life. The fact that faith had been a support for many prisoners became clear from other conversations and published writings. Geert Visser's brother Jur, arrested on March 1, 1945, wrote: You ask why there were so many Reformed people active in the resistance movement? This came about because of the outstanding education they had received in catechism classes and youth societies. Church, also as a body working in society, ranked first. The school was an extension of the family. You could rely on that community. They were, mostly, dutiful Dutchmen. “Old” Van Popta, as he was respectfully nicknamed, had trained us in the youth society. Likewise by means of his articles in the church bulletins he instructed us to resist the National Socialist Party . Taeke's daughter-in-law, Ida, wrote: My father-in-law was deeply involved in everything related to Christian education, but in doing so he could be rather careless. Correspondence with several school boards about the Nazi decree to lay off Jewish personnel were never properly disposed of. This was also the reason that we, my husband Wiepke and I, but also the other children, more or less forbade Father to engage in other resistance work as well. By virtue of his work he had established a huge number of acquaintances, and he well known since one half of IJmuiden had attended his school. He was, so to speak, part of the Reformed circuit. A few months later the Germans raided Taeke's house again. The police report of May 5, 1944, reads: By order of the captain, chief of the police force, arrest was made of Taeke van Popta, born January 7, 1882, principal of a Christian school. Incarcerated in cell J, Tuesday, May 9, 1944, at 14:30. The arrested Van Popta was transported to the Security Police in Amsterdam, under escort of H. A. de Jager. Apparently, the Nazis had uncovered certain written publications at a different location in the Netherlands. The documents were advisory letters and recommendations to various Christian school boards. When he was interrogated, Taeke assumed total responsibility for all the letters because otherwise the inevitable result would have been the rooting out of the entire resistance movement of the Protestant Christian Schools, and many more arrests would certainly follow. ARRESTED AGAIN We learned some of the details of this, his second arrest from a tribute written by a Mr. Dirk Bothof, a fellow prisoner at that time. Early 1944, during a house raid, some incriminating papers were found in colleague Van Popta’s handwriting. These papers contained what was considered to be illegal advice in the field of education. After having been interrogated several times, and then returned to his cell, he was confronted with the name of a person who might well have been the author of some of the incriminating material. As matters stood, however, Van Popta received the courage to protect all areas of Christian education from additional hazard by accepting the full responsibility for all the incriminating documents. It was my painful duty to witness this confrontation personally. I was the last one (before the cell door was definitively closed behind him) to give him a handshake and look him straight in the eye. And when I, deeply moved, wished him God’s strength and nearness, his eyes lit up and he was at that moment completely reconciled with his dire circumstances and he apologized for the troubles he had caused the Society and me personally. High-spirited and unbroken he entered his solitary confinement. His work will remain a blessed memory in the domain of Christian education. The letters that Taeke sent to his wife, Regina, permit us to follow the further developments after his arrest. He describes the situation he found himself in through rose-colored glasses, but since all letters were censored, this attitude comes as no surprise. On May 9 he was transported from IJmuiden to Amsterdam, where, as he reported, was interrogated in a “civil manner.” On May 19 he was transported again, to camp Vught, a Nazi prison and transit camp. On June 4 he wrote the following to his family: Dear Regina and all of you, Don’t expect me to return soon. Another destination is quite possible. Life is good. Food is good and sufficient, plenty of bread. Then there are the parcels as well. Would like to get some sugar, syrup, toothpaste and brush, my pocketknife, suspenders, and a woollen vest. Have done all kinds of work. Exercising, cleaning barracks and camp grounds, compressing rags, peeling potatoes, sorting potatoes and bagging them. Have a chance of landing a good job, thanks to some intervention. I’m able to cope well, am in good spirits and think that Regina will be too. Keep courage as you did in January. Hygiene, sleeping accommodation, and medical supervision are excellent, but there is uncertainty, lack of freedom, home life, personal work, almost no Sunday observance to speak of, yet continue to pray, read the Bible, and experience the communion of saints, also in this place. Jan Bruinsma was here, too, but is now in Venlo. Don’t change Aaf’s plans. Somehow we’ll manage to muddle through all this. We are safe in God’s keeping, Who ordains everything. This should bring forth the fruits of trial. I am longing to get a sign of life from you. Your loving T. In his second letter (of June 18) Taeke emphatically requests them not to send him food parcels each week, since the food rations of his family are smaller than what he gets in camp. He makes it sound as though everything is just fine there. But he would appreciate it if the writers would utilize the full allowable length of a letter, i.e. four full pages, his wife three pages and the children the remainder. About his stay in Amsterdam he wrote: It was rather congenial in Amsterdam. First with 2 Roman Catholics, later with 4 prisoners of which 3 Reformed. Nothing was struck out in your letter. Will let you know if this should happen. Best regards, your loving T. In his third letter, of July 2, Taeke thankfully acknowledged having received some tasty items and comments on the successes his children achieved in school. He asks for some toiletries and a pair of socks. He lets them know that he has gained twelve pounds. The mood is dampened in the middle of July, for he wrote on July 25 that he was no longer permitted to receive mail or parcels in retaliation for the escape of a number of prisoners from his barrack. After “Crazy Tuesday” – the landing of British Airborne troops near Arnhem in the eastern part of the Netherlands – camp Vught was evacuated. The prisoners were transported to an unknown destination in Germany. A parcel sent to Taeke did not reach him, and some of it was returned to the family. Prisoners who had been released were unable to give any information about Taeke to the Van Popta family. Rusting barbed wire at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany NEWS FROM SACHSENHAUSEN For several months the family lived in uncertainty, until the arrival of a letter in November of 1944 from a Mr. Pierre Hartendorf who had been a fellow prisoner of Taeke. Mr. Hartendorf had been arrested in July of 1944 because he had been hiding Jews. He met Taeke at the Vught prisoner camp. After “Crazy Tuesday” he and many fellow inmates were transported to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp, near Berlin. There Mr. Hartendorf met Taeke. After his release Hartendorf received hundreds of letters from all over the country, from people seeking information about their relatives who had also been prisoners in Vught or Sachsenhausen. Hartendorf was as helpful as he could be and wrote letters to families of prisoners known to him. He wrote the Van Popta family as well. Here follows a passage from his letter dated November 7, 1944: Dear Mrs. Van Popta, Quite unexpectedly, on Thursday morning Nov. 2, I was released from Concentration Camp “Sachsenhausen” and sent home. I frequently socialized with your husband and, although I was unable to say farewell to anyone during my last day there, I would like to tell you that spiritually and mentally he is doing well. I think that I would be acting in accordance with his wishes by forwarding to you his best regards. Yours truly, Pierre Hartendorf. Soon after he paid a visit to Mrs. Van Popta to speak with her and the children about the hardships the prisoners had to endure, for, felt he, one could not do this well by letter. Another fellow prisoner, Mr. A. Wittebol from Maastricht, wrote the family after the liberation of the Netherlands: The first time I saw your father was in Vught, but that was for only a few weeks. Thereafter we met again in Sachsenhausen, where life was difficult. But your Father was still in good health there and always full of life. This was most noticeable when he talked to us. The routine was that the available ministers would come together in the morning to decide on the Scripture text for the day, which would then be relayed by the pastors with a few devotional words to those who were interested. Your Father did this too, and although he was not a pastor he did this with so much fervor that quite soon every morning he was surrounded by a sizable crowd. This was not permitted, and he was, as I recall, warned twice by the guards, since the crowd had become so large that it couldn’t help but attract their attention. By virtue of his talks he encouraged and supported many in their difficulties. Since I left Sachsenhausen on November 17, I am unable to write about later events there. THE LAST LETTER It is in January of 1945, shortly before his death, that Taeke wrote his last letter to his family. So as to avoid any difficulties with the censors he wrote it in German. The envelope stated: “Geöffnet Oberkommando der Wehrmacht” . Taeke wrote the letter while facing death and in it said farewell to his loved ones: My dearest Regina and all of you, Trying to reach you by this letter; should it arrive, please write me. Still in good health and cheerful. The one who trusts will never be dismayed. Work is not heavy; sufficient clothing. But less food. Until now God has helped me. Pray that I may be permitted to return my love to you. You’ll be suffering hunger and cold. Hope and pray that you’ll get through it all. Winter has started, but it’s not too cold. Still sleeping well. Prayer and consolation: Ps 25 - “Forgive my transgressions for thy goodness sake.” Ps 73 - “Though in grievous suffering my heart and flesh may fail.” As in Romans, in all these we are more than conquerors. Longing for you and news. That is a strengthening bond. Greetings to family, friends, and dear grandchildren. I can see Jaapje before me. Am always praying for you. Our prayers join one another. May God protect you. I am in His school. All earthly things pass away. Life and love are everlasting. Greetings to all. Your loving T. On January 21, 1945, Taeke passed away in the concentration camp from dysentery. The family only learned about his death on June 3, 1945, after a fellow prisoner contacted Regina. Three years later she received word from an official at the municipal registry office that her late husband’s death had been officially recorded on December 5, 1947. The written notice ends with these words: For the sake of finalization, you are advised that application for transcripts of these records may be made at this office, to be accompanied by cogent reasons stating the objectives for their issuance, and by remitting any administrative charges incurred thereby. A more chilly and business-like tone is hardly conceivable. Any attempts by family to locate Taeke's grave remain unsuccessful. AN ACCOUNTING There is a short sequel to the Taeke van Popta episode. Tjeerd van der Weide, mayor of the municipality of Velsen, had been personally involved in the arrest of Taeke. After the war he was apprehended for his involvement and tried by the Special Court Assembly in Amsterdam, September 23, 1946. According to a news report on the session, Van der Weide had delivered Van Popta over to the Nazi Security Police. The newspaper account included this admission from Van der Weide: “Yes, I started the ball rolling, but I didn’t realize the consequences it would have.” During Van der Weide’s trial, Prosecutor Nicco Sikkel read a letter in which the former mayor had written that things had become boring in IJmuiden: “We, too, should start with raids.” He then went on to express the opinion that for each “pro” (German sympathizers) that were killed ten “anti” (anti-German) must die.” Mr. Sikkel went on to say that the name of Mayor Van der Weide was mentioned with fear and trembling in IJmuiden and throughout Velsen. The summons lists a large number of criminal offences. tThe prosecution demanded the death sentence. Finally, Van der Weide was called to the stand and a newspaper reported him as saying: For years I was convinced that I would eventually be shot. In what manner I did not know, but now it does not come unexpectedly. I would very much like to say, however, that I am terribly sorry that people have suffered because of me. I don’t consider the death penalty the worst thing that could happen to me; I think it is much more grievous that I have betrayed my country. Therefore I beg for clemency. There was to be no clemency. On June 6, 1947, Van der Weide was executed as one of the few collaborating Dutch mayors. Rev. George van Popta is the Minister Emeritus for the Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church, and he blogs at VanPopta.ca. This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue....
Adult biographies, Remembrance Day, Teen non-fiction
BOOK REVIEW: The Hiding Place
by Corrie Ten Boom 1971 / 225 pages This was such an encouraging story, and in so many ways. If you know only the barest details of Corrie ten Boom's life story you might mistake her for a superwoman. After all, this is a lady who lost her father and sister to the Nazis, and who had to endure deprivation and cruelty of a German concentration camp and yet she still managed to forgive the very people who did her so much harm. That certainly doesn't sound like any ordinary person! However, while Corrie was most certainly a special woman, her biography is all about God's greatness and not her own. HER WISE EARTHLY FATHER... In the first third of the book she sets the scene, telling of her early life, and sharing the sage wisdom of her father. Once, when she was a little girl she overheard someone talk of "sex sin" so she went to her father and asked him, "Father what is sexsin?" He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At least he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it up on the floor. "Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?" he said. I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning. "It's too heavy," I said. "Yes," he said. "And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a heavy load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you." And I was satisfied. More than satisfied– wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions – for now I was content to have them in my father's keeping. ...POINTED HER TO HER HEAVENLY FATHER Later she, still as a child, she has her first encounter with death – a small baby in an apartment on her same block has passed away - and she can't stop worrying about what she would do if her father and mother died. She can't eat, and can't stop crying. In response, her father points his little girl to her Heavenly Father. Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. "Corrie," he began gently, "when you and I go to Amsterdam – when do I give you your ticket?" I sniffed a few times, considering this. "Why, just before we get on the train." "Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we're going to need things, too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will looking into your heart and find the strength you need – just in time." And that is just what Corrie finds, when years later this ordinary woman, who led such a quiet life for her first 48 years, finds herself as the leader of a Resistance cell, hiding Jews and members of the underground, stealing ration cards from the Nazis, and providing whatever help she could to whoever came asking. And that is what she found still in the midst of the Nazi concentration camp, surrounded by cruel guards and biting fleas. God gave her just what she needed, just when she needed it. This is a wonderful story that will be encouraging to anyone contending with discouragement, sickness, or the death of someone close to them. Miss ten Boom wants us to know that God never stops being good, even when we ourselves are wavering as things around us go so very badly. We can trust Him. We can count on Him. He loves his children! I'd recommend it to anyone 16 and up and suggest it as a very good offering for any reading group - it would foster some wonderful discussions. There is also a "young reader's edition" which has been abridged to about half the length. But they accomplished this feat by taking out all the charm. The original reads just as you might expect an older Dutch lady to talk, but the abridged version has only a flat, generic narration to it - Corrie's unique voice is gone. So give it a skip, and go with the original, even for "young readers." Jon Dykstra and his siblings blog on books at ReallyGoodReads.com....
Book excerpts, Remembrance Day
Living through World War II
This an excerpt from Gerda Vandenhaak's "Geertje: War Seen through the Eyes of a Child as an Adult" ***** I am lining up for food. I can feel the crackling of the papers my mom put under my jacket against the wind. I have in my hands a round brown enamel little pan with two black handles. The edge is black too and there is a chip broken off the edge. We line up at the soup kitchen. I see no adults. It must be for children only. But I do not see my brother and sister. The soup smells good. It is grayish brown. It makes me feel good inside.... **** I keep looking at my legs. They feel so heavy. I am surprised every time I look at them. They look the same. It seems like I am wading through something heavy. I don't know why I feel this way. I did not find much food today, only a white paper bag with some powder in it. I don't know what it is. I did not even steal it. I just found it on a windowsill. When I walk into the house, mom right away puts her arms around me and says: "What's the matter?" Nothing is the matter. I only have this powder and I hand it to mom. Mom smiles and seems to be happy with it. "Salt," she says, "Real salt, this is great." She pulls me towards her and holds me and then I tell her about the dead people and the three that we knew. Mom cries and I let her. "Are you sure?" she asks. "Yes, I checked," I tell her. Then my mom holds me so tight, it almost hurts, but it also makes me feel good. Mom says it is a good thing that they do not shoot children, so I won't tell her about the twins.... My brother and I are standing outside in the darkness. Our backs are pressed against the wall of our house. I am seven and my brother is five years old. I can feel the roughness of the wall under my left hand. My brother is very brave. He holds my hand very tightly. I am never afraid. My mother said to wait before we start walking, to wait until we could see. And if we were afraid to look up to the stars and God would look after us. We have to get some milk for the baby. Mom only has water for her. We have to go to the second farm. Mom said not to go to the first one. We walk slowly, we do not talk, not even whisper. People are not allowed to be outside after eight. We come to the farm and knock on the back door, it opens and a hand pulls us inside. The door is closed behind us and then a candle is lid. The warmth of the place puts its arms around us. "What do you want, you are only kids," a voice says. We ask for some milk for the baby. The farmer’s wife smiles at us and says, "Yes." I can feel my insides again. The farmer’s wife says we can come again, as she fills the milk container. When we get home, mom hugs us so tight, it almost hu rt again. Mom loves us so much.... **** I did it! All morning I had waited on the side of the road with the other kids. The trucks with the sugar beets would come by. This was the place where the trucks really slowed down, because of the curve. I had jumped on the back of the truck and now had three sugar beets – two I grabbed and one that fell down after me. My arm was scraped and blood trickled down one leg, but I did not feel it at all. I was so overjoyed with the beets I ran all the way home. My brother and I cleaned the beets in the kitchen sink and then we sucked on them. I can still taste and feel the breaking of the beet skin. It felt funny and ribbling. For the next two days we sucked the beets. At night we would climb in mom and dad's bed and huddle together under the blankets. I don't remember what happened after that. But I do know that was the last time I needed to steal food.... **** I sit between them, my mother and her friend. We are taking the horse and buggy to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, to visit dad and the friend’s husband. The buggy belongs to the friend. We have two plates of food wrapped in towels, in the back. They talk softly right above my head. I can hear every word. The steady talking makes me sleepy. I am so hungry and now we are bringing food to the camp. Why? We need food ourselves! Suddenly we are there. I even see my dad. He is wearing pajamas… strange. Mom's friend talks to the guard. The guard shakes his head. Mom starts to cry, so the guard does not look at her again. We go to the fence. The men all look funny, as if they are dead. I have seen dead men, but the men here still walk. They guard starts yelling and the men leave, including my dad. He looks at us, his eyes are very strange. Then he leaves too. We go back home. In the back are two plates of food. Mashed potatoes with red cabbage. Mom says we can share it when we get back home. I want to eat it so badly, but I keep thinking of my dad and I feel bad about wanting the food. I don't want to feel anymore.... **** I am setting the table in the dining room. Mom is singing in the kitchen and that makes all of us happy. She got a whole whack of potato peels and she washed them and washed them. Now they are cooked and she added some red cabbage. Mmm… It smells good and we are getting a meal today. It is my brother’s turn to sit in dad's chair today. As usual, I open my eyes real quick, just for a second, while mom prays. I am sure that when mom prays, God, Jesus and the angels are there in the dining room with us. Again I was not quick enough. We start to eat, then suddenly a siren, shooting and yelling. We all jump up and run to our hiding places under our house. We have three hiding places under our house. I know that, but mom does not know that I know that. I have taken my plate of food with me and go to the farthest corner of the place, my little brother next to me. Other people are coming in and find a place to sit. I hold my plate close to me, my arms protective above it. Someone sees my plate and food and wants to take it away. I start to cry and suddenly there is my mom. She says: "This is still my house and this is my daughter. This is her food and she is going to eat it." My mom sits next to me and I still remember the feel of her arm around me as I was eating then. I just could not stop crying and my sobs fill the room. People are telling me to be quiet, but I just can’t. I eat and I sob and sob. Even when I was quiet my body kept shaking. All night my mother kept her arm around me. My big sister was on the one side and me on the other, my brother next to me. I did not care about all the other people, just about us and my mom. All night long there was yelling and loud noises around us and all night long mom prayed. First out loud with all the people and then softly just with us.... **** Mom woke us up and told us to get ready, quick. "Dad is home,” she said “and we have to flee.” In minutes we are on the road, mom pushing the baby buggy. In the middle of the night we ran. All I remember is the confusion at first: the shooting, yelling again, the piercing scream of some missile and the terrible fear. We wound up in the middle of a skirmish near Nykerk. A soldier came and told dad to go the other way. I remember hiding under a bridge and waking up in the morning in the middle of a field with dad’s arms around the three of us. We started walking again along a path at the bottom of the dike. I remember mom pushing the buggy and in it the baby and a little pan of cooked horsemeat, taken from a dead horse behind our house. I remember dad suddenly having a bicycle. He was walking alongside it, my oldest sister sitting on the crossbar. I remember my brother walking in front of me, step by step. His feet were bleeding and we were walking on all alone in the countryside. Late in the afternoon we rounded a curve in the dike and we saw a farmhouse. I can still see it. It had orange ribbons all over it and a sign that said they were free!! We did it. We somehow had broken through and were free. I really did not know what that meant. They, the farmers, welcomed us and took us in their home. The farmer’s wife set us all at the table and gave us a bowl of hot oatmeal. Then she poured milk over it and brown powder. Brown sugar, she called it. Dad prayed with us. His voice again sounded funny and mom cried. It was the most wonderful meal I had ever tasted. We all sat there and smiled at each other and cried some more. Dad said we were free and the war was over. We would never be hungry again. The next day we reached our destination, Putten.... This first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Reformed Perspective. ...