“Oil Company Petonqua” by Eugene van der Heijden, (“Oliemaatschappij Petonqua,” The Escape Nieuwsbulletin, No. 88, March 1996. Translation by Daniel van Alderwerelt, August 2007.)
I described my first meeting with “Verhoef” (Alphons Theissing) in July 1942 in Brussels in my story about the early history of the Dutch-Paris line. He was just as mysterious to me at that time as he has remained up to this day. He operated along the escape line from Amsterdam via Brussels, Paris and Lyon to Switzerland and helped Jewish friends escape that way. He had an illegal border crossing point near the border village of Putte. He was now looking for a safer crossing point – thanks to marechaussee help – in the Hilvarenbeek area.
Apart from the fact that Verhoef was a pseudonym, he told me absolutely nothing about his activities. He would send me a message from Amsterdam about our next meeting. And that happened several days later. A telegram asked me to come to Amsterdam. At the appointed hour I found him in the coffee house NZHTM across from the Central Station. We exchanged contact addresses. He gave me a Mrs. Poel on the Stadionkade. I gave him the family Krauss on the Vanderstichelenstraat in Brussels. I have no recollection now of what we talked about, except one crucial question which he asked: How do all of you pay for everything? In our idealism we had never thought about that. We had been so glad that we finally had been able to contribute in the battle against the Nazis that we thought it logical to pay for everything out of our own pocket. It had so far really cost us very little. The bicycle was our transportation to and from the border, my mother always had an extra bed ready and for food we were always able to get some extras from friendly farmers and without the need of ration coupons. And once across the border, the escapees were on their own. So far it had been mostly Frenchmen, a few Jews and a couple of young Dutchman who wanted to go to England and almost all of them had their own contact addresses outside Holland.
Verhoef’s question was a question coming from a professional. He confronted us with the choices we now faced. To continue in our old amateurish way would become impossible. Because of security concerns we would need to start operating with pseudonyms. That meant that we could not give escapees the addresses of the safe houses which they would reach by themselves. As strangers we would have to pick them up at their home address and subsequently deliver them to a to them unknown address in Brussels. As a consequence the frequency of travel increased. Of course it became impossible to pay for this out of our own meager funds.
“Do you get funds from elsewhere?”
“Okay, come along then ….”
He goes to the phone and calls a taxi.
A taxi? I ask myself. They are only allowed to be used for medical cases. Is Verhoef somehow above the law?
The taxi arrives and takes us to a street that I recognize as the Prinsengracht. He stops in front of a small office building. Verhoef goes inside, leaving me in the taxi. It is a typical canal house, rather narrow and high; a sign over the windows and front door says “Oil Company Petonqua” When Verhoef returns to the taxi he hands me an envelope. “Here’s a thousand guilders. Let me know when you have spent it all. And remember: you do not know this address”.
One thousand guilders! I had never seen that much money at one time. As a young teacher, having recently completed my training, I had just finished my first temporary assignment of replacing a teacher who had been called up. My salary for the month was 82 guilders. This went into the family pot and helped my mother in looking after seven children. I only kept pocket money of 5 guilder a week for myself. These were difficult times coming right after the economic crisis of the 1930’s during which the otherwise well run tobacco shop of my father had barely survived.
I was very careful with my thousand guilders. When 14 months later I had to go underground myself, I still had a couple of hundred guilders which just lasted me to my own liberation in October 1944.
“Where did Verhoef get this kind of money?”
We never asked him about that. But we did have our suspicions. The Jewish individuals to whom he directed us in Amsterdam lived in the rather well to do neighborhoods of New South and the Stadium. I remember several doctors from the Jewish Hospital and business managers from the textile sector. In addition, he periodically handed us packages to be delivered in Brussels. We never asked about the contents. We suspected that this way Jewish and non-Jewish-owned stock certificates were smuggled to Switzerland. According to Karst Smit it also included diamonds. So he financed one activity with the proceeds from another activity.
It was by accident that I learned his real name. For one of our meetings in Amsterdam, he took me for a meal to Americain on Leidsche Plein. As he headed for a table, someone hailed him: “Mr. Theissing”. I still know exactly what I thought at that very moment: now I hear something that I am not supposed to know. I have to forget that name. And I forgot that name. It was as if by some magic the name was erased from my memory. Even if I was subjected to severe torture during interrogation I would not be able to say it.
Only after the war, as if it was for the first time, did I hear his name directly from him: Alphons Theissing. In the memoirs of Miss Kraus he was referred to as “Mr. Alphonse”.
He was in his mid forties, a man of the world and sometimes a bit frivolous. Octavie, the bright-eyed owner of the Border Café complained more than once to Karst Smit about the difficulties she had with Verhoef’s advances. Once he really embarrassed me. It was during one of my first trips to Brussels, still in the early phase of our contact there. During a visit with the family Kraus, it had become too late to leave and still cross the border in time. I could not go to a hotel because I did not yet have a Belgian identity card. Verhoef had the solution. He knew that close by was a small “rendezvous hotel”. They did not ask for identity papers there. The police avoided the place. You did not have to have female company. A man on his own was acceptable. You paid for your room up front and nobody asked anything. And so he proposed this to a serious Catholic village youngster still under the influence of a very strict boarding school upbringing. A room in a house of sin! Mrs. Kraus immediately noticed my embarrassment and offered me the sofa in the living room.
Verhoef had something that we, in our youthful enthusiasm, did not have: a critical suspicion with respect to escapees with long complicated stories. We blindly trusted our illegal contacts and their couriers. The realization that even there, there could be a lack of careful checking of individuals who wanted to escape to England only came later after some sad experiences for us and tragic consequences for some escapees. Verhoef at least twice took us to task concerning the consequences of serious blunders. And so I remember the story of a Dutch pilot who was our guest for several days. He claimed that he came from Leiden, had served in the navy air force, and after the surrender had tried but failed to escape from the island of Texel to England in the last remaining fighter plane. He had done some illegal work, and in order not to attract attention had joined the NSB and gone to Germany to work in the Heinkel aircraft factory. While back in Holland on leave, he had come into contact with the Enschede underground and through them with our contact man Brasz. With a bunch of spy details concerning the Heinkel factory in his head, he now wanted to go to England. Brasz therefore directed him to Hilvarenbeek. He seemed a very nice fellow and we were much impressed by his exciting tales as were apparently our English friends. But not Verhoef. Immediately after we had delivered the man to Brussels, Verhoef became somewhat suspicious during the first interrogation. He seemed far from precise with respect to the details of the Heinkel factory. As an international dealer in among other things airplane engine oils, Verhoef was much better informed. When, during a subsequent interrogation the man added contradiction to contradiction, he was quickly unmasked. The only truth in his story was that he had been a pilot and a member of NSB (before the war not that unusual in the army). He had volunteered to work in Germany, had second thoughts about that and did not return from a week’s leave. He could not return to Leiden. In Enschede he found a job as a waiter. There he met several members of the underground, succeeded in gaining their confidence and heard from them about the possibility to be able to go to England. That would solve his problems. After the war he would be rehabilitated as an ex NSB’er and would now also avoid the danger of being caught by the German’s as a contract breaker. But he understood that as a simple individual he would not find the help he needed. So he invented the story of sabotage, airplane factories and war secrets. Once he had gained the confidence of Brasz, the rest would just follow by itself.
Verhoef had a problem. Sending him back to Holland was impossible. Letting him loose in Brussels was even worse. He felt the only solution was to hide him somewhere for the duration of the war. So, he took him to the then unoccupied part of France where he was safely put away in a prison. How Verhoef managed to do that remained a secret. We did not ask him for any details. And it remained an unanswered question whether or not he had told us the whole truth.
In the early days of 1943, Verhoef was arrested close to the Swiss border. That was most likely done by the French police because after the war he reappeared healthy and sound as could be. An arrest by the Germans would have been much worse unless I underestimate his ability to bribe them.
His arrest did not have any repercussions for us or for Brussels. The contacts with Krauss, Benno Nijkerk and Witse (Wisbrun?) remained in tact.
In her letter dated January 1943, quoted below, Mrs. Poel confirmed Verhoef’s arrest.
Dear Mr. v. d. Heide
Thanks for your last letter. I hope all is well with you, also at home. That accident of the uncle of Yvonne Mary is terrible. I have heard that it will take about a year and a half before he will be all better. Fortunately he is a strong individual and because of that he will perhaps get better sooner than the current estimate.
Please deliver the enclosed letter to ………….. (unable to decipher)
Kind regards, H. Poel-Donkers.
For many years after the war I have searched for the location of Oil Company Petonqua but without results. I had hoped to unravel the secrets of Verhoef.
No results until Bob de Graaff, a historian intrigued by my story, started a search. Here are his findings (25 February 1996):
Alphons Theissing (1902-1964) a merchant from Laren whose family was involved in several companies. He became a director of NV Oil Company Petonqua, located at Prinsengracht 318, in 1937. This company was formed in 1935 and was most likely dissolved several years after the war. From 1943 on, the merchant named Henri Poel was listed as director. The purpose of the company was the importation of and trade in engine oils and related products.
 “Jan Weidner and the Birth of the Dutch-Paris Line,” The Escape Nieuwsbulletin, No. 88, March 1996.
 Located southeast of Bergen op Zoom at probably the point on the Dutch border closest to Antwerp.