… AS TRANSCRIBED BY TONY WELCH
Defying the German military regime that occupied Holland for five long years might be likened to a game of chess. Essentially non-violent in nature, Dutch resistance during World War Two largely centered on gathering intelligence, occasional acts of sabotage, and harboring downed Allied airmen. Among the many resistors who participated was a commercial grower of flower bulbs, whose entire family of five engaged in numerous forays against the common enemy. What follows is a first-person narrative of those tense and terrible times.
At age 23 and living at home with his parents, John Kapteyn and his brother Boudie helped establish a local branch of the Resistance in Sassenheim, a Dutch town of 6,500 inhabitants. Now approaching his 95th year, John consented to share his memories of those dark days that politically divided so many of his countrymen. For the Kapteyn family of five, the drama begins inside a crippled B-17 returning from a bombing mission over Germany.
The flak-damaged Flying Fortress (ironically named ‘Straighten Up And Fly Right’) enters Dutch airspace with three of its four engines fading. The doomed aircraft continues its rapid descent south of Amsterdam. Among the nine-man crew is radio operator Albert Morrison Cobb.
Cobb: “I helped throw out everything that was loose in the plane, and then started sending S.O.S messages to our home base in England in case we ditched in the North Sea. But we never made it over water. Our pilot, Bob Proudfit, brought us down and I can say his wheels-up crash-landing was near perfect – thanks in part to the flat open countryside. Two of the men aboard were wounded.
“We were soon confronted by a number of Dutch civilians who came running up out of nowhere. They took us to a lakeside building where we exchanged our flying clothes for blue workman’s coveralls, so we’d blend in. Some of us even got wooden shoes. They also fed us. Three days later we were split up and delivered to different Dutch households.
“My first home was with the Kapteyn family in the town of Sassenheim. I stayed with them from November 5, 1944 until February 12, 1945. The Kapteyns had two sons – John Jr. and his older brother Boudie – and a daughter, Cobi. We celebrated Christmas together. The co-pilot, Lieutenant Harvey Walter, was lodged in the same town and he joined us. As time passed, we moved from place to place – by boat, by bicycle, by milk wagon or whatever other horse-drawn conveyance the underground could lay its hands on. An unending journey – or so it seemed to me.”
Staff sergeant Cobb and most of his crew eventually made their way to the outskirts of Rotterdam. They then continued south, where in late March, 1945 they met up with advancing soldiers of the First Canadian Army.
John Kapteyn: “Sergeant Cobb arrived in Sassenheim along with Lieutenant Walter, the co-pilot. Where Cobb was quiet and reserved, Walter was his alter ego. To put it plainly, he was belligerent, loud and stubborn. Like they say – it takes all kinds.
“Lieutenant Walter was placed with the Boot family. The Boots lived on the south side of town, the Kapteyns on the north side. I gave strict instructions to Walter – as well as Cobb – not to contact each other. It was too dangerous. Once, I heard our front door bell ringing and there stood Walter. He said something like ‘Hi’ – as though everything was normal. Here was an American airman, prancing footloose and fancy-free in occupied Germany territory making house calls! He asked for Cobb and I told him: ‘Get the hell back to the Boot’s home –and don’t talk to anyone on the way!’ Considering the severe wartime conditions then prevailing, my parents and others like them took a monumental risk harboring Allied escapees. Just how risky makes me shudder, even now. Had we been discovered, Cobb and Walter would have been taken into custody and sent to a German POW camp. As for my parents, they would have been shot by a firing squad in front of their house. And the house itself set on fire as an example. But not before being tortured and half-beaten to death by either the Gestapo or the Sicherheitsdienst – the intelligence service of the SS — in an attempt to get them to reveal the names of fellow resistance members.
“Sergeant Cobb was a pleasant guest. He helped with whatever came up, and fit in well with the family. However – and strange it was to us – neither he nor anyone in his family ever thanked my parents for hiding and feeding him. In a role reversal — when I called on Cobb at his family farm in La Grange, North Carolina in late 1945 — we discussed the possibility of entering the flower bulb business together, in which commercial enterprise the Kapteyns had flourished for three generations. But nothing ever came of it. Cobb went his way, I went mine.”
Assignments within the “Interior Fighters,” as the resistors dubbed their clandestine organization, varied widely. Finding shelter for downed aviators was of primary concern (an average of three aircraft a day – both German and Allied –came to grief over Dutch territory during five years of aerial combat). Spreading the word, both good and bad, was another priority. German propaganda — via newsprint, posters and radio — was countered in kind by the underground, ample proof that two could play at the espionage game. Telephone code words were an absolute necessity, to thwart possible eavesdropping by the wire-tapping Gestapo.
Kapteyn: “In nearby Leiden, as in a number of other cities, there was an underground news bulletin printing shop. I had no idea where it was located – none of my business. When word reached me that a bundle was ready for pick up, I went to the Biesiot café where I took a seat and ordered a cup of ersatz coffee – real coffee being non-existent. My contact was with a certain waiter. Once he recognized me, he would casually point toward a wrapped bundle in a corner near the coat rack – the all-clear signal. On departing with the bundle, I then took the ‘Blauwe’ tram, an inter-urban streetcar, to Sassenheim. The tram usually consisted of two or three walk-through cars. I would lay the bundle on the overhead rack and then find a seat in the adjoining car — far enough away but still within sight of the bundle. If there should be a sudden luggage inspection by the Gestapo or the civil police, as sometimes happened, I had nothing in my possession to inspect. Once, I noticed two guys eying the bundle, which made me suspicious. So I left it behind. Once back in Sassenheim I delivered the bulletins to ten trusted people who in turn passed them on.
“During the war there were four categories of Dutch citizens – underground resistance fighters, uncommitted neutrals, and those who openly or secretly collaborated with the Germans. Plus a handful of double agents who dared to play one side against the other. The unaligned neutrals were in the majority, and customarily avoided contact with either side. A country divided, thanks to our tormentors.
“My sister Cobi moved to Amsterdam and after six months joined a local resistance group. Dressed in a nurse’s uniform, she served as a courier distributing revolvers, hand grenades, Sten guns and other weapons that were parachuted in bulk by low-flying British cargo planes at night. She did all this, mind you, peddling an overloaded bicycle. At first glance, Cobi’s boldness might seem to border on the insane. It was not uncommon for the Gestapo or SS to suddenly stop and block off all street traffic, then search and question each detained traveler. But for whatever reason, anyone associated with health organizations such as first aid workers and doctors were seldom confronted. Purposely dressed as a nurse and riding her bicycle, my sister was ignored and thus able to avoid detection. I might add that our hatred of the Third Reich was greater than our fear of it, which drove us to take risks that often stunned our adversaries.”
Outbursts of defiant behavior soon became commonplace as stricter laws were imposed in regard to civil disobedience. One of many such incidents occurred when John was attending a martial arts class in Leiden. To a man, the students were intensely anti-Nazi, as evidenced by the following blow-up on a busy city street in broad daylight.
Kapteyn: “On the last day I attended this course, one of the students – who was also the teacher’s assistant – came running into the building all out of breath and told us to get out, shouting: ‘And don’t come back!’ He’d been outside walking with the teacher some blocks away. The teacher was notoriously short-tempered, and when two German soldiers approached from the opposite direction, a sidewalk collision was barely avoided. The soldiers roughly pushed their opponents aside – at which point the teacher, a Jiu-Jitsu expert — angrily grabbed one of the soldiers and tossed him over his shoulder onto the pavement. Without hesitation, the second soldier drew his revolver and shot the teacher dead. His assistant escaped and came running to tell us the Germans might show up at any moment. As the entire class fled out the back door, one of the students grabbed the enrollment records containing the names and addresses of everyone in the class – quick thinking on his part.”
“A man’s home is his castle.” This sentiment, dating back to Roman times, held no water in wartime Holland as the Kapteyn family would shortly discover.
Kapteyn: “At 8am on May 9th, 1943 the Germans took over our house. Raus! – get out! Nine hours to vacate. On previous occasions we temporarily housed German soldiers, but nothing like this. Three Wehrmacht officers showed up with several local officials from the housing authority. The house was to be occupied by German army personnel, and converted for use as a recreation center and canteen. Now my parents had to find a new home.
“The three-story house had a fairly large and attractive interior, and I think the Germans saw that as a total waste of space for just my parents and myself. We were given strict orders to leave everything in the house except personal belongings.
“Father told me to go immediately and gather up the entire field crew. As a grower of flower bulbs sold in half-a-dozen countries, the firm of B.D. Kapteyn and Son had converted half its bulb acreage to growing sorely needed vegetables as well as two acres of leaf tobacco – a very valuable trading commodity. He also sent for nearby owners of handcarts who would lend us their carts for a day. Once assembled, the field workers were given the task of emptying drawers and removing all the furniture which they then carted off to the company warehouse. Finally, other neighbors came over with an assortment of sagging beds, worn rugs, rickety end tables, wobbly chairs and so forth, with which to refurnish the house.
“The makeover was completed in time, just as the new residents arrived that evening at 5pm. They turned absolutely livid! I had never before heard my father tell as bold a lie as he did that night. He eventually convinced the Germans that the contents of the house had been there forever – take it or leave it. Two years later we got the house back. It was nothing but a pigsty. Little wonder, considering the swine that dwelt there.”
Throughout the occupation, the Dutch were confronted with a series of compulsory labor laws imposed on its male citizenry, each one more brutal than its predecessor. All able-bodied men ages 18 to 45 were subject to the Auslander-Einsatz edict (deportation of workers). In effect, a manpower draft backed by threats of physical enforcement. At war’s end, only about 40% of this industrial work force returned from Germany, the rest having perished in Allied bombing raids or succumbed to disease, malnutrition and overwork. John himself narrowly avoided a similar fate, thanks to a foggy windowpane…
Kapteyn: “My mother, father and I had just finished lunch. Mom went upstairs to take a nap, while dad and I remained in the living room to have a discussion. Father suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and hissed: “Quick! – get out!” It was pure luck that our living room windows facing the street were fogged up that day. Dad could see anyone approaching our front door. But oddly enough — from outside — no one could see in.
“I spun around to find two uniformed Germans and a local policeman coming up the sidewalk. While father slowly reacted to the buzzing doorbell, I quickly flew out the back door.
“Once inside, the trio asked for me by name and also inquired as to how many people presently lived in the house. My father replied that he and his wife resided within, but that his son was not home at the moment. The intruders then entered the living room and upon noticing three dirty plates sitting on the coffee table, their facial expressions hardened. ‘Oh!…’ dad responded with a smile. ‘The extra one is the housekeeper’s plate.’ The militia then departed, with instructions that I was to report to the City Hall Police Station immediately upon returning home. Ha! — fat chance! At this point I was well beyond the back gate, furiously pedaling my bicycle to our family doctor’s house. For the next six weeks I boarded with three different farm families in a nearby town. I was more than happy to help out with the field chores.”
As the Interior Forces increasingly spread its tentacles, John became associated with other resistance members. One in particular – Hans van Eck – took John into his confidence and they became close friends.
Kapteyn: “We made it a point to connect every once in a while…stay in touch. Hans was into it right up to his neck. I knew of one railway bridge he dynamited – and the locomotive that derailed as a result. To add insult to injury, the explosives he used were stolen from a German-operated coal mine in southern Holland. Yes – believe it or not, we have coal in Holland, buried under many layers of peat. Hans was also a determined bank robber, complete with face mask. But not to fill his own pockets. He used the stolen money to buy black market food and other necessities for people in hiding.
“Hans wanted badly to escape to England and join the military there, a distance of just over 200 miles across the North Sea. He was adamant about it. And he planned to do it in a canoe, despite the fact that the coastal waters were mined and heavily patrolled. He invited me to join him but I lost my nerve. Eventually Hans and another friend did take off in a kayak on a moonless night in good weather. And that’s the last anyone ever heard of him.”
Like invading locusts, the Germans descended on Holland’s agricultural industry. Their primary target was the enormous stockpile of vital foodstuffs meant to supply the Dutch people under wartime conditions. By the end of 1942, what was left of the inventory had been shipped to Germany. From that point on, the majority of Netherlanders suffered a hand-to-mouth existence.
Kapteyn: “The authorities issued a series of ration coupons, without which food and fuel could not be purchased in the open market. This led to increased black market activity, as well as break-ins and armed robberies at a number of coupon distribution centers throughout Holland. The last half-year of the German occupation was a living nightmare, especially in the densely populated western provinces. The official daily bread ration – made from flour containing 30 percent sawdust — gradually fell to 400 grams. Beginning the previous November and continuing to war’s end in May 1945, store shelves in the big cities were virtually empty. The Dutch government in exile ordered a six-week railway strike, and that clinched it. In retaliation, the Germans cut off all supplies of food, fuel, clothing and even medicine going to the west, including Amsterdam. An estimated four million people – half the Netherlands population — were barely kept alive by community soup kitchens. The main course consisted of cabbage leaves and potato peels. The result being, some 18,000 deaths were attributed to malnutrition by the time the war ended. It’s hard to imagine today – seems more like a fairy tale – but the entire tulip and crocus crops for 1944 entered the food chain in an attempt to fill in the gap. My father opened his bulb warehouse, and within two hours nearly 300 people lined up. Mother cooked tulips just once – so we’d know what it was like. They were boiled like potatoes and tasted terrible. Our family was fortunate, in that we could grow most of our own food. If it weren’t for the Allied air forces, many more would have died. The British and Americans air-dropped thousands of tons of food in numerous locations – which is another story in itself.
“Before long, meat of any kind became a distant memory for city dwellers. Early on, our family began trading homegrown tobacco to other farmers in exchange for illegally slaughtered meat. Slaughtering of livestock was only allowed under German supervision. And of course most legal meat went to Germany or to German soldiers stationed in Holland. We traded tobacco not only for food, but also clothes and shoes – all without ration coupons. During the winter of 1944, Sergeant Cobb showed us how they cured ham ‘down in North Carolina.’ What a treat!
“One day a girl I judged to be about 25 years old came to our door. She was desperate, crying and obviously starving. Mom invited her in and made up a double-decker sandwich. She told us her father had died from starvation the day before and that his body was in her pushcart. She was returning to her home in The Hague, some 20 miles away. During her journey she tried to trade linen and silverware for food, but with scant success. Others in equally dire circumstances had preceded her, so that farmers along the way now had all the silverware, place settings, quilts, paintings and other family paraphernalia they could possibly use. There were no means of transportation other than carts and bicycles. Bicycle wheel rims were now mounted with sections of garden hose in place of worn-out rubber tires. The city folks were starving while the farmers had mountains of grain, potatoes, celery, sugar beets, rutabagas and turnips but no way to get them to market. Able-bodied but equally hungry men remained in hiding due to forced labor roundups. That left just the women, young teenagers and old men to scrounge the countryside trying to keep themselves and their families alive.”
But wait, says John – there’s more! Let it be known the indomitable Dutch dismantled their own dwellings in a determined effort to stay warm during the coldest winter in two decades.
Kapteyn: “City dwellers also suffered in another way – they nearly froze to death for lack of heating fuel. Empty homes in Amsterdam’s old Jewish neighborhoods were dismantled for firewood, their previous inhabitants having been shipped off to death camps by the thousands. In the remaining homes around town, interior doors, windowsills, fireplace mantles and shelving were also converted to firewood. Add to that the removal of roof rafters – skipping every other one and praying that the roofs wouldn’t collapse. Substitutes for kindling included splintered toilet seats and even soiled toilet paper. City parks were stripped of their foliage, as well as wooden benches. Street signs and boulevard trees were also fair game. You name it – up in smoke it went. Entire households huddled together in their living rooms, beds and all, to be nearer their wood-burning stoves. To this day the Dutch refer to it as their Hongerwinter, right up there with any biblical famine you care to name.”
The enterprising Kapteyn family was no stranger to America, having visited bulb-buying customers in the U.S. during the 1930s. Beginning in January 1940 — to gain experience — John accompanied his older brother Boudie on sales trips throughout the Midwest and east coast. Returning post-war to America – and determined to start out from scratch on his own – John Kapteyn’s newly formed Holland Bulb Company gradually built up a steady clientele. In 1984, John retired in Portland, Oregon and sold the business to his son Bruce. Thereafter, John and his wife Riet devoted much of their time to foreign travel, visiting thirty-three countries in all – plus a dozen return trips to Holland over the years.
John has a favorite Dutch saying: “De aanhouder wint.” Or: “The persistent one wins.” That’s how he knows he’ll still be around on February 19, 2015 for his ninety-fifth birthday. “I only plant daisies,” he quips. “I don’t push them up…”
A special note of gratitude is owed to Amy M. Kapteyn Welch
(no relation to Tony Welch), who was the guiding force behind
her father’s efforts to compile a detailed history of the Kapteyn
family dating back to 1538.