Interview with Eugene van der Heijden, 1994, located at Verzetsmuseum (Resistance Museum, Amsterdam) by Megan Koreman. (Translation by Katrina Cooper, Oct. 2010.)
EUGENE VAN DER HEIJDEN, PASSEUR (FERRYMAN), HILVARENBEEK NOORD-BRABANT
I came out of an agricultural school as an educator; in those days it could be years before there was any work for you. I had to enter [military?] service in 1940, but because I still needed to take exams in June of that year I was able to put it off until August. We lived in Hilvarenbeek, a large family, devoutly Catholic. My father had a small cigar factory but during the crisis business dropped off. We felt deep sympathies for the events in Germany. We were certain that with the well-equipped French army so close, the Germans would not invade Belgium and the Netherlands. For us, the Dutch Union was initially the only was we could show resistance. Here in North Brabant there are resistance cores which grew up after the Union was banned in 1941. We became active with the assistance of those in hiding when in 1941 the first regulations were set in place against young people forced to go work in Germany. We got coupons from a resistance group working out of Drenthe. As an educator I was exempt from the Labor Inset (forced work in Germany).
We started helping refugees on a spring day in 1942. I was addressed on the street by a policeman, Karst Smit. He knew that the Van der Heyden family was trustworthy and not afraid to engage in dangerous activities. He wanted us to shelter a French military man for a few days, who had escaped from a prisoner of war camp in North Germany; they had “surprised” him at the border. I said without hesitation, “Yes, bring him, but bring him at about 2 o’çlock. That’s when my mother takes a nap. When she comes downstairs at 2:30 we’ll see how she reacts.” And so it happened. My mother comes downstairs and I say, “Mother, do you have any idea who this is sitting at the table? It’s a French prisoner of war who escaped and wants to get back to France. Her reaction? “Oh, has he eaten, is he not very tired?” And it stayed that way for the whole War. It is a beginning, and then more come.
At one time were are sheltering for a few days, also at the request of Karst Smit, a married Jewish couple. They were David de Jong and Rie Koster from Amsterdam. They were enthusiastic about the disinterested help they were receiving [Bruce: in context I think this means help lent as though it were not a big deal], they knew things could have gone differently. And they asked, “When we get to Brussels, can we put you in contact with friends there who urgently need safe transport over the border?” In Brussels I came into contact with mister Theissing, who introduced himself as mister Verhoef – I knew he came from Amsterdam. He was like a detective out of a movie, with a sort of a Stetson hat with folded-down rims and eyes that peered out from behind glasses. So he appeared in the café where we had agreed to meet. And thus with him began the intensive flight line from Amsterdam via Brussels, the Dutch-Paris Line. It was only much later, when I read the book Flight to Freedom by Herbert Ford about Jean Weidner, that I realised I had been present at the birth of the Dutch-Paris Line. I also only learned the name Dutch-Paris Line after the War. Arrangements always went through Verhoef, and he directed himself almost entirely toward those fleeing Amsterdam and environs, although we were able to help some Jewish people escape Enschede and surroundings, even, I believe, as far as Deventer.
There were Jewish people, especially those coming from the cities, who had absolutely no idea how things worked. For starters their baggage had to be reduced to within transportable limits. Until the border, travel was by bicycle. Policemen guided us across the border, still the border by Hilvarenbeek, and after that you had to take over as ferryman (passeur). First you walked a long sand road about 7 kilometers long to the main road from Tilburg to Turnhout. There we boarded a little tram to Turnhout.
I was well known in Belgium. I was myself half Flemish; my mother was from that area. Belgium was for me a second Fatherland. Regarding the required identity documents: initially they were taken by the police from smugglers, annotated slightly, and then a photo was pasted on. This until we established contact in Belgium with the Kraus family; one of the sons of the family worked in the City Hall in Brussels. There was a thriving trade in Belgian identity cards. When Verhoef had to take people from Amsterdam that way, passport photos of the people were sent to me. I handed the cards along or sent them delivered them in Brussels, where they were made into identity cards. The cards then arrived ready to go in Hilvarenbeek. At this point a signal was sent to Amsterdam: send the people. Once they were in Brussels with the good passes, nothing more could happen to them. I took people to various addresses in Brussels. Initially the Kraus address, then later that changed because the Kraus family found the assistance of non-French people to be, to put it carefully, not entirely kosher. We received new contacts from Theissing: Benno Nijkerk and an address in Paleisstraat, in French Rue du Palais [and in English Palace Street] , the address of one Witse or Wisperen.
I had an impeccable Belgian identity card. Until the border I carried my Dutch identity card in my inner pocket. Once well and truly across the border I put that into my sock and brought out my Belgian identity card. I no longer have that card. The morning the Germans came to my house, I fled and left the card with the people among whom I found my first refuge. Sadly, out of fear they burned the card in the heater.
Theissing/Verhoef arranged everything regarding the Jewish refugees; we communicated by telephone or I received a telegram. Concrete agreements were made in Amsterdam, in the coffeehouse of the North-South-Dutch Tramway Society near Centraal Station. Otherwise it involved the Engelandvaarders who came to us in Hilvarenbeek via various illegal channels in the area, and whom we took to Brussels. Sometimes the refugees travelled completely alone; they just needed to get across the Belgian border. The first problem was always getting across the Belgian border. We received help from the military police in Hilvarenbeek, such people as Karst Smit. From time to time military policemen were transferred to other posts and new ones arrived. Karst Smit, for example, was transferred after 6 months. In Baerle-Nassau, also especially favourably positioned, he helped guide airmen over the border. Airmen went via Baerle-Nassau, Jewish refugees via Hilvarenbeek; that’s how it was organized. The airmen were a type apart anyway, young men with a taste for adventure. A huge difference, thus, between them and people of 50 years or older, or people with small children. It requires a totally different ambiance surrounding the work. I knew that people were going through to Paris, but I only did part of the route, to Brussels.
I always introduced myself as “Vos uit Brabant”, never naming a specific place [Bruce: in addition to being a relatively common last name, Vos means Fox; I think he chose it to be clever].Otherwise our house would probably have been stormed by fleeing people. The cover name Vos was good in Brussels and in Amsterdam.
The journey always went well, I was always lucky. Others were arrested and never came back. Once I was badly frightened, on the way back from Brussels. I was 30 meters into the Netherlands. A German leapt suddenly out of a ditch behind me and called me back. I started a story about my sick Belgian grandmother, but that didn’t work. I had to go with him to the checkpoint. On the way I make him an offer, he didn’t look so very German. I offered him money for Schnapps if he would let me go. After some laudatory speech and bargaining, it worked. I received a warning: DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO THE MILITARY POLICE. I gave him 60 Guilders, money from Brussels intended for an illegal club in Enschede. That was my purchase price, my wager if you will.