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The Rest


Remembrance Day

Prayer and comfort in Sachsenhausen

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

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. ...