Savoring My Dad’s Fascinating WWII Stories
My grandparents and father were strong supporters of the Dutch Resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands
“It is easy to find truth, though it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.” —Ven. Fulton Sheen
Growing up, I remember my dad telling stories about his boyhood encounters with Nazi soldiers in the Netherlands and my grandparents’ involvement in the Dutch Resistance. I thought they were totally fascinating, and my heart was filled with admiration toward all of those who had the courage to stand up against Hitler and his ruthless regime. Decades later, my dad’s stories have taken on a whole new meaning for me. In them, I now find more than a sense of fascination and wonder — I find a critical guidepost and an anchor I never thought I would need.
My father grew up in a Dutch Reformed family with nine children, in a village outside of Amsterdam named Nieuw Vennep, which is located about 13 kilometers from Haarlem, the birthplace of Dutch Resistance hero Corrie ten Boom. He was a boy when the Nazi regime occupied the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945.
For at least a year during the occupation, numerous Nazi soldiers were stationed directly across the street from my father’s home, as they had taken over a Christian school where they lived and did their exercises. The soldiers took the liberty to conduct random searches of homes in the village whenever they pleased, in order to intimidate and control the villagers. My father remembers them storming into their home from time to time without warning.
They had a particular interest in my grandfather because he had his own sawmill. They would demand that he use his tools to construct things for their building projects. Cleverly, while making use of their ignorance, he would stall their encroaching schemes by telling them things such as that he needed a new saw that could be purchased only hours away. When the soldiers would finally find the location he suggested, they would discover it was only an abandoned building.
The Nazis had confiscated all of the radios in the Netherlands at the time and made it illegal for non-Nazis to own one, out of fear that the Dutch people would discover the truth about what Hitler’s regime was actually enforcing upon the world. However, my incredibly courageous grandfather Jacob still kept his, despite the tremendous danger it put him in to do so. He was one of only two people in his village who secretly kept a hidden radio. This radio was of great importance because it was one of the only ways that the Dutch Resistance was able to carry out their work in their village.
The Dutch Resistance was an effort supported by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who reigned from 1890 until her abdication in 1948. When Hitler’s regime took over the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina was forced to flee to Britain — however, she did not leave her people behind in her heart. In fact, she took charge of the Dutch government-in-exile, quickly setting up a chain of command. Like Winston Churchill, Wilhelmina broadcast inspiring and encouraging messages to the Dutch people over Radio Oranje. The messages revealed the truth about what the Nazi Regime was actually conspiring to do, and in them, the beloved queen was not afraid to refer to Adolf Hitler as “the archenemy of mankind.” Her broadcasts were eagerly awaited by her people who listened to them clandestinely, at a risk to their very lives. Each day, my grandfather would listen to the queen’s message, and then quietly pass it on by word of mouth throughout the village. The messages gave the Dutch people the hope they needed to get through those arduous times.
There was a group of Christian families in Nieuw Vennep who worked together to help save the lives of gypsies and Jews who were being sent off to concentration camps. The Nazis made it illegal to own a bicycle during their occupation because they didn’t want Dutch citizens escaping to other countries or even leaving their own cities. My dad recalls that there were a number of people who “rebelled” against these unjust laws and kept their bicycles, using them secretly. There were faithful Christians who, when the soldiers would come to a town to line up Jews, “dissenters” and gypsies up to bring them “away” to camps, would sneak a bicycle to some of them so they could escape.
My grandfather and grandmother were strong supporters of the Dutch Resistance, and did whatever they could do to combat Hitler’s efforts, regardless of the peril it put them in. They even allowed an underground Resistance soldier to live in their home. He would kill Nazi soldiers at night and hide in their home during the day. When the soldiers came to do random searches, he would hide in potato sacks in their attack.
The Resistance soldier’s girlfriend lived in Amsterdam, and because they were starving out the city at that time, she would bike 15 miles each way out to my father’s home in the middle of the night, every couple of weeks. My grandmother made her plates and plates of beans and potatoes to eat before she had to sneak back to the city on her bike. My father remembers the malnutrition being so severe that, at times, his family members had boils on their skin. And yet, they didn’t fail to reach out to others.
Whenever I ask my dad about the war, and whether he was afraid, he just talks about how they trusted in the Lord. Although my grandparents didn’t have the fullness of the Christian Faith found in Catholicism, they made impressive use of the graces that they could find in the Word of God. They prayed the Psalms together a couple of times a day after family meals, which gave them incredible fortitude in the midst of the worst of trials.
During these days when Truth is a prime target and despair, immorality, hatred and angst seem to reign in our culture, we can look to the heroes of our past for hope. By God’s grace, their courage can become our courage, their strength our strength, and their goodness can raise our eyes to heaven, the “only goal of our labors,” as St. Therese of Lisieux once said.