Border Games

“Border Games” (Grensperikelen) from Orlogsherinneringen (War Memories) – by Eugene van der Heijden, from The Escape Nieuwsbulletin, No. 90, October 1996, pp. 21-24. (Translation by Daniel Van Alderwerelt, June 2007.)

The triangle Antwerp–Brussels–Turnhout, our area of operations during the war, had since my early childhood been a familiar area, just as Kempen and Bossche Meierij north of the border had been. I was just as comfortable with the Flemish variation of the Dutch language as I was with the Brabantse variation, even though I had been raised with the standard Dutch language. The Flemish variation was the language of my Flemish mother, her ten brothers and sisters, and my grandmother. Their homes before the war had been the destination of my bicycle trips in that area.

This meant that I felt extremely comfortable there during my illegal operations, and even more so after I obtained a perfect Belgian identity card.

During one of my first trips home from Brussels, after getting off the train in Antwerp during a late and dark evening, on my way to a bed at my aunt Pauline’s, I was approached by an Antwerp female who offered me her services. I was able to respond to her in my best Antwerp that I thanked her but that I did not have the “urge” at that moment. Immediately after the adventure of being arrested at the border and my successful bribery, as described in my earlier Escape article “Smeergeld,” I had started searching for a less risky border crossing for my trips home from Belgium. Along the sandy road from the Belgian village of Weelde to the border, a walking person would be visible to the German border guards from 300 meters away. Along the Belgian side of the border there was no wooded area which allowed me to reach the border unnoticed. And I did not want to count on a second successful bribery situation.

Therefore, this time, I was on my way from my Antwerp aunt to the Belgian border village of Essen, which was located along the border alongside the road from Antwerp to Roosendaal. My uncle Guust lived there. He worked for the Belgian customs office and I thought that he would be able to show me a safe place to cross the border. Knowing his life, I knew that I did not have to suspect him of pro-German or similar tendencies. He was five years old when, in 1900, my grandfather died suddenly. Social services did not exist. The family had to leave the little house they lived in and which belonged to the factory where he worked. And so my grandmother was out in the street with her eleven children. The four youngest ones were taken away by the priest and as orphans found a home with the nuns and that included my uncle Guust. When in 1914 the war started, he escaped to Holland and signed up as volunteer at the Belgian consulate in Rotterdam. That same year, as a soldier, he was in the trenches along the Ieper in the last part of Belgium that was still free. By war’s end, as one of two of the survivors of his company, this wonderful man was a very strong anti-church and communist individual. Moscow had become his new religion. I did not have to suspect him of German sympathies.  And indeed, he showed me a very near and very safe border crossing point.

On the northern side of the village [Essen], on the Belgian side of the border, is a road that runs exactly east–west along the border. There was a German border post just where this road crossed the main road from Antwerp to Roosendaal. Along the border road there was a farm about 150 feet beyond the crossroad. To the left of the farm, right up against the barn was a narrow path that led to a Dutch house on the other side of the order. An ideal place to cross the border quickly and without being seen. I thankfully made full use of it. In fact I was so thankful that a few weeks later, without first going by my uncle, I went straight from the Antwerp streetcar to the now-known border crossing.  Full of confidence I walked from behind the farm along the road………and ended up running into a barrier of chicken wire and barbed wire, still shining it was so new, on the Dutch side of the border. For a moment I felt caught in a trap, with German eyes watching me.

And then it all of a sudden struck me: there must be an opening to serve the houses on the Dutch side. In order not to attract attention, I changed over to a slow walk as if I was totally at home and went in a western direction away from the German post.  And indeed, after some 50 meters there was a small opening leading to the garden of a house. I stepped through the opening and immediately changed over to fast walk and, coming around the corner of the house, I ended up in an extensive and fenced-in vegetable garden. Without looking to see if anybody was around, I quickly walked the length of the vegetable garden, climbed over the fence at the end and ended up at the edge of a wheat field with stalks that reached to my waist. I made my way through the field in a half circle to the right so that I would come out of the field a couple of hundred meters past the German border post along the highway in the direction of Roosendaal.  Normally that is quite a job, but, when it really started raining hard, it became a heavy duty thing. Never have I been so soaked through, covered in mud, and looked like a homeless person.  And that is exactly what a Dutch border guard on his way to the border must have thought. He got off his bike and asked for my papers. My identity card still showed the temporary job that I had in 1941, namely, head of rationing service! Apparently that put him at ease. Silently he returned my ID card to me. Most likely, along the way some questions will have occurred to him. Perhaps he saw me as a fanatical botanist.

I had the whole rest of the day to dry out since the train for Tilburg [probably RoosendaalBredaTilburg] would not leave until very late in the afternoon.  This certainly was not an experiment that I wanted to repeat.  No, I would have to find another “legal” uniform so that if someone saw me from a distance it was as someone who was authorized to be in the closed border area. For a moment I thought of a marechaussee uniform. But I put that thought aside quickly. Even if I succeeded in getting one from one of my many police friends, it would not work. I would have to put it on just before reaching the border area and then take it off again as soon as I had crossed the border and then put it away in bag. No, that would actually increase the risk. What I needed was the uniform that the border agents used.  It was just an orange armband with the Dutch coat of arms on it in black and you could just put it away in your pocket. Normally border agents would wear civilian clothes but during the occupation they were required to wear the orange armband so that the German border guards would be able to distinguish them from the general population.

Just by chance, one of our best comrades in the underground was a border agent, Niek Bout.  He was much concerned about the large razzias that he had seen in Amsterdam and so he did his best to help escapees and individuals working in the underground. He was stationed in Hilvarenbeek. In the late summer of 1942 he was transferred to western Holland. Shortly before his departure he succeeded in swiping an armband for me from the supply cabinet. It was only after the war that I heard that during an underground action he had been arrested by the Germans and that he was executed on 3 April 1945. I know he faced his death with courage. I think of him now with admiration.

With his armband on my arm I had not, since mid-1942, had to crawl through weeds and ditches in order to approach the border. About 500 meters before reaching the border I simply slipped the armband on my arm and about 500 meters on the other side of the border I would take it off and slip it into my pocket.  Just as if I was a prewar walker, I now crossed the forbidden border area with the utmost of ease and a feeling of total security.

Yet, in this “uniform” which was so simply, I had made a mistake which enabled a knowing person to see from a distance that not all was right. So, three weeks later, on my first trip so “dressed” I was spotted as a phony.

One Sunday morning, after mass, at the corner of the square, a young man whom I vaguely recognized signaled me to come over. “Hey, come over here for a minute.”  It turned out to be an old classmate from years ago. At that time he lived with his mother and brother in a small rundown little house somewhere in the back country. When I was a child, my mother would not allow me to go over there. “Decent children do not go over there.” But I nevertheless did so on the sly.  Now he worked as a farm hand on one of the farms in the border area. He was known as a smuggler. In addition he dealt in bicycles which he stole in Belgium and sold for lots of money in Holland, out of reach of the Belgian police.

So, because of his subversive occupation he was particularly alert to anyone who looked like a policeman or border agent and appeared in his area of operations. Apparently, from a distance he had seen an up-to-now unknown border agent, recognized me, and also noticed something unusual. “Hey, I have seen you come by here. But you are wearing the armband incorrectly. Border agents wear it on the other arm.”

So he was a professional who admired the tricks of a colleague smuggler and was not adverse to point out a beginner’s mistake. He did not ask anything further and I said nothing. Two understanding colleagues!

I thanked him and went on my way a whole lot wiser. Obviously I had still not fully mastered my role.