Vacuum ’40 – ‘41
by Eugene van den Heiden
from The Escape Nieuwsbulletin
No. 83, Dec. 1994
Translation by Rianne Lovett, July 2007
That the Netherlands army capitulated so fast during those May days of 1940 must have been a heavy shock for me. So detailed are my memories of the early morning of May 10 and the two days after yet so empty is my memory of the radio broadcast that brought the news of the capitulation.
The memories of those first weeks of the war have stayed etched in my mind as when the stream of German troops marched on the country road past our house on their way to the front in Belgium and France. At that time there was little motorization which thus called for soldiers doing long day marches with their supplies in vehicles pulled by horses. In this way the complete repertoire of German marching songs reverberated past our house. Now, 50 years later, a fragment still lights up in my mind, “Denn wir fahren gegen Engeland,” (“Then we go against England.” In this way they filed past, some limping with blisters on their feet.
It was also the days of the fight over the bicycles. I still see my father running after a German who had pinched his bicycle from behind our house. Luckily he had the forethought to let the air out of the tires. The German angrily threw the bike into the ditch. Triumphantly, my father returned with his bike.
We see a neighbor woman handing some fruit to passing military. We know she is not pro-German. Has she for a moment forgotten that these are enemy troops and not Dutch solders on maneuvers? My 16- year-old brother runs over to her to help her out of her dream.
I have rarely seen him so indignant.
One German company was bivouacked in the village school. Mountains of straw were carried inside. The next morning the head of the school must first ascertain with his own eyes that not a bit of straw has been left behind in the classrooms. Then they will resume marching in order to sow death and destruction somewhere. Has the commanding officer momentarily forgotten that his march is not an environmentalists’ boy scout trip?
A passing soldier comes walking around the back of the house. His feet are in shreds. My mother silently lets him inside this enemy in the house that a little later will become a refuge for people in hiding. She looks after him. Has she forgotten that an enemy is standing in front of her? Or does her motivation come from a spring of a higher order? Her children have looked on silently. In the mean time the drama of the crumbling armies of Belgium and France takes place. With the weapons and strategies from 1918 they thought they could turn around the tank army of 1940.
Unaware of the calamities that would occur, I stood one morning next to a group of military engineers who were busy building an emergency bridge over the creek near our house. There was an officer supervising. He did little more than glance at the site. I felt myself being pulled toward him. Here then finally stood a spokesperson from that devilish empire that so shamefully assaulted us. It was at his feet that I could throw my accusations and my pentup indignation. Here stood the Third Reich. How I addressed him I don’t know anymore.
I could unload my indignation about the insolent infringement upon our neutrality. His reaction: What neutrality?
On May 9th some English had already landed near IJmuiden. I was perplexed. Already for years the prisoner of the Hitler regime’s propaganda net, he would also have believed this obvious bit of fiction. At this point no army report from the Fuhrer’s headquarters announcing the successes in France had yet boomed like a Listz prelude over the radio. (These announcements of German successes seized us with fear all the way up to Stalingrad).
Still for the moment as ignorant as my opponent, I could admit my full-hearted belief in the invincibility of the French army. “To crush a small non-military country like the Netherlands is no great feat, but in France the German army will be smashed to pieces just as in the First World War.” I must have told him this in about that manner. And my belief in this was so strong, a belief that was fed by the stories of my Flemish uncle from his four years in the trenches on the Iron Front [Russian Front?]. I don’t know how my opponent reacted to this.
Maybe after hearing so much haughty misunderstanding he decided to say no more about it. Possibly at that moment he had his own doubts. This last could have consoled me; if these verbal confrontations with an opponent gave me relief back then I no longer know. In any case it did not relieve a younger brother who stood next to me. He was just telling me a few weeks ago that at the time he thought certainly I would be arrested immediately.
Even when Belgium capitulated my belief in a quick victory was unshaken. Not until the Germans broke through the French lines, reached the English Channel and drove the English into a heap at Dunkirk did the disillusionment come. After the French capitulated the realization came that the war would still continue a long time. However, we continued to believe in ultimate victory even though our convictions were sorely tested by the facts and eaten away by emerging doubts that Hitler then perhaps would still have been right and we would be victims of a horrifying misunderstanding. The doubts resulting from heavy disillusionment did not come closer than the periphery of our thoughts and beliefs. There was no way that they could undermine our certainty. I know others mentally bruised or less calm who succumbed. I would not have liked to be their judge.
With the catastrophe in France, waiting for a quick Allied victory was at once over. Now from one day to the next our relationship with the occupiers changed. Now there had to be preparation for a long occupation. An attitude of resistance existed but initially we didn’t know what to do with it. Concrete goals that the resistance could aim at still lay over the horizon. The goals did not come clearly into view until 1941 with the increased German pressure. For the time being the actions were mostly flawed and senseless and don’t accomplish more than individuals venting their feelings of opposition. At least this is how I saw it in my own neighborhood. It still had to be learned that the occupiers would react rigorously to relatively innocent and juvenile delinquent-like offenses.
My younger brothers and friends were all in the risk-taking age of between 16-18 and they were very active in this behavior. I, myself, was luckily 3 years older and busy with studies and work and thus much more careful and less impulsive. When my brothers and sister put out the flag on August 31,1940, the Queen’s Birthday, I took it inside all the same. My brother, Staf, who is three years younger didn’t hold back from any act of bravado to express his resistance.
For example, on a Saturday afternoon the NSB were going to have a propaganda meeting in the town square of Hilvarenbeek. He climbs the tower with several friends, locks the entry at the bottom of the stairs, rings the carillon and bells which makes it impossible to understand the NSB speaker.
When the NSB leader, Mussert, holds a propaganda meeting in Tilberg, he interrupts the closing, jumps on the running board of Mussert’s car and reproaches him for acting like a traitor. NSB escorts beat and force him off the car with clubs. An NSB mayor comes to Hilvarenbeek. In the place where there formerly hung a portrait of the Queen now hangs a portrait of Mussert. Staf breaks in one night, steals the portrait and puts it down a well. He was at that time in a class preparing for high school final exams. His opposition to the injustice of the German occupation, against the raging of National Socialism was so absolute that it could only end with him giving his life. Losing him was for me the loss I mourned the most.
It was in the course of the year 1941 that our as yet undirected resistance efforts became concentrated and then aimed at helping persons in hiding and refugees. A pair of more or less accidental encounters were decisive. In that year I made the acquaintance of Harm van Oosten from Staphorst. He brought me into contact with people from a resistance group in Drente that was part of the circle of Peter van den Hurk (only discovered a few years ago). In this way the door was opened to helping those in hiding with coupon vouchers and false papers. Later he brought into the N.O. pilots who had come down in the polders and even a map of the Havelte airport which I handed off in Brussels to be passed on to England.
At least as important was my making the acquaintance of Karst Smit in the early Spring of 1942.This encounter brought me to another aspect of resistance work namely helping fugitives on route across the Belgian border to Switzerland, Spain, England.
This took me into the faster currents of resistance activities.
More about that in the next installments.
Eugene van der Heijden