by Eugene van der Heijden
(Published as “Smeergeld” in “The Escape Nieuwsbulletin,” No. 80, March 1994. Translation by Marjan van Buggenum, July 2006)
Amidst the growing stream of slush money revelations that at the moment go around from Italy via Limburg to Suriname, your chronicler–as a true citizen of the slush-money-province of Limburg–feels himself compelled to make a full confession; that he has been involved in a slush money affair – and that with the enemy during the occupation years. What made me do this?
For that, first an informative prologue with regard to the circumstances. We have to transfer ourselves to the Dutch-Belgian border area south of Tilburg. If you look at a map you will see that there is a striking bulge north of the Belgian border. In the right-hand corner there lies, on the Dutch side of the border, the community of Hilvarenbeek. On the Belgian side, the border community of Poppel, and a bit further into Belgium the village of Weelde. This area, with Baarle-Nassau to the left and Lage Mierde to the right, was the operating area for illegal border crossings of the Escape Line. After the war it became known as the Comet-line and Dutch-Paris-line. That Karst Smit played a major role in this will be known to the readers of The Escape. I also did my share within this line.
Between Hilvarenbeek and Lage Mierde lies a big forest of a few thousand hectares along the Belgian border. Before 1900 this was an immense heath land, which shortly after the turn of the century was exploited by the life-insurance company “Utrecht” and planted with pine trees. In the ‘40’s it had matured and marked the kilometers-long Belgian border distinctively. On the Belgian side, the forest changed drastically into poor meadow and arable land. A sandy path parallel with the border marked the crossing.
There was a 500-meter stretch of no man’s land on both sides. The sandy path was patrolled by German border guards. The Dutch side was ideal terrain for our activities to cross the border unseen with refugees. On the other side, the sandy path led to Weelde, 7 km further on, where there was a stop of the Poppel-Turnhout bus-tramline. In Turnhout we changed to the tram to Antwerp and from there to Brussels by train. If we left home at 4 a.m. we could be in Brussels at 10:30 a.m.
A reader who has studied the map carefully could ask me why we didn’t choose Poppel as our first destination, it was much closer to our departure base, Hilvarenbeek, and it would shorten our bike/walking trip by 15 km. But there were two major drawbacks to this route:
– The route to the crossing was very near our village and you risked being recognized by someone from the village. And if you were seen walking with complete strangers in the direction of the border, that could give rise to curious gossip. And that was almost as dangerous as downright betrayal.
- But the main objection to Poppel was that it was situated on the main Tilburg–Turnhout road and there was a base of the German border patrol with heavy patrolling.
That’s why we took the safer route through the forest of “Utrecht.” And that it was safe is proven. Hundreds of men found their way to freedom via the Weelde route. The route was set up by Karst Smit and his colleagues Dave Jonkers, Huub Meeuwisse, Albert Wisman, among others, who were stationed in Hilvarenbeek.
In Hilvarenbeek for years there had been a marechaussee barracks for the border guards in this region. Patrolling the border was one of their main occupations. However their patrolling often served other purposes than intended by their superiors. For the ‘good’ amongst their superiors this was quite obvious. Karst can tell you everything on this subject. Of course they knew the border area inside out. Even better than your chronicler, who lived there all his life. And these were the men who helped me to cross the border with refugees.
Especially with Jewish refugees and Allied pilots, a risk free passage was necessary. For the times that we traveled to Brussels on our own, we took the risk. At the most you could be taken for a smuggler, unless you had incriminating papers on you. The risk on the journey back was much greater, because you missed the cover of the forest to approach the border unseen. You were already visible from quite some distance. And once it did go wrong!!
It must have been in the summer of 1942. Returning from Brussels I had changed my Belgian identity papers for my Dutch ones a few hundred meters from the border. My Belgian papers were in my socks and my Dutch papers in my pocket.
There was not a living soul to be seen on the border and I thought I could stroll across to recover my bike that I had hidden between some bushes a few 100 m down the road. Then suddenly, “Halt;” a German border patrolman had probably seen me coming, hidden himself in a ditch, and was ready to arrest me. With his gun in his hand he came towards me:
– “What I was doing?”
– Easy – “I had visited my grandmother who was ill in Hoogstraten in Belgium.”
– Of course I knew I wasn’t allowed to cross the border here.
– “Yes, yes, but at the official border crossing I would never have gotten the permission to cross for such a visit.”
– “Yes, yes, so I did it this way.”
– “Kommen Sie mit!”
No, not that, I couldn’t allow it. They would search me and find two sets of identity papers. Then my grandmother story would be worthless. Walking along him I looked at him – he didn’t look like a scary German after all. It was worth a try. I changed my role into that of a pathetic smuggler who thinks that everything and everyone has a price!!
– “If I would give you some money you can buy yourself some extra Schnapps (gin) and I can go home, so we both will be satisfied.” (This in very poor German).
I already grabbed my wallet from my pocket with 60 Dutch guilders. They were given to me in Brussels to hand over to Mr. Brasz of the Escape group in Enschede. These 60 guilders – almost a month’s wages for a 21 year old in those days — could be my rescue. Then my guard sees a farmer with horse and cart and he orders me to wait. Thank God he takes the bait. When the guard returns I do my bid:
“Funfzig Gulden – Wieviel Mark ist dass ?” (How many Deutschmarks is that?)
– “Nicht genug.” (Not enough.) – because he had to share with his partner down the road.
- Second offer: “Sixty guilders.” – everything I had on me.
– “Wieviel Mark ist dass?
- I think – up with these guilders, and say: – “A hundred Deutschmarks.” [Actually 90 DM.]
– After some hesitation: “Oke!!”
– I hand him over the 60 guilders.
– “Don’t say anything to the marechaussee.”
I wave this away – as if I’m far too good for this kind of people – bah, those men!!
(I acknowledge my treason to my friends in the corps, but I do hope that, considering the circumstances of place and time, Karst and ex-colleagues will forgive me.)
I could go home – although he ordered me to get off the road and walk under cover of the trees. I retrieve my bike and ride home elated.
How I, after this incident, changed my border-crossing technique – with varying success – I will relate to you next time.