Hans Bouwman, Japan - 2 - The Dark Years of the War

The Dark Years of the War

As a young boy I was somehow caught up in the excitement of the war. During the mobilization of the Dutch army in 1939, I often had played ‘soldiers’ with my friends. Now, however, we saw the real thing. I remember the German army entering our city and occupying the radio stations and other important buildings and factories. As time went on I increasingly realized the horror of war.

For our family the first few years of occupation were not so bad. Although food was rationed, there was still sufficient to eat. However, the persecution of the Jews was a great shock for the Dutch people. Brain, one of my neighbourhood friends, was a Jew and it was through him and his family that I shared in some of the helpless fear they constantly faced.

Persecution of the Jews
The tragic ‘Kristallnacht’ of November 9, 1938 was the beginning of the persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime in Germany. During that night the shops, factories and houses of Jews all over Germany were attacked, damaged or set on fire. During that night about 200 Jews were killed, and from then on many Jews sought refuge in other countries. Assuming that Holland would stay neutral, as it did in the First World War, many had fled there and found a welcome. Dutch history is full of instances where Holland became a haven for people who were persecuted because of their race or faith. At the outbreak of the Second World War there was a large Jewish population living in Holland, especially in the big cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.

When persecution started in Holland, the Jews were marked out by a large orange ‘Star of David’, which had to be visibly worn on their clothes at all times. Public places like theatres, cinemas, parks, recreational centres, hotels and restaurants
were prohibited to Jews. Gradually they became the target of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jewish race. They were arrested and the process of deportation to the concentration camps began.

One morning a German truck drove into our street and stopped in front of Brain’s house. It was heartbreaking to see this family of five, including a baby, being herded like cattle into an army truck. Brain looked towards our house as he climbed into the truck, and I could see the look of fear and helplessness on his face. Again a family deported to an ‘unknown’ destination. As we peeped through the curtain to watch, my father said, “For these people there will be no return”. But he added words of comfort: “Hitler may do what he wants, and he may win many battles, but in the end he will lose the war, because he is persecuting the Jews, who belong to God’s chosen nation”.

In 1986 I was in Poland together with a brother from England offering the Christians material and spiritual help. While we were there a Polish brother took us out to Auschwitz. As we stood in front of the former concentration camp, this brother asked me whether I wanted to go inside, and I remember how I hesitated before giving an answer. Though I had not experienced the Nazi barbarities of a concentration camp myself, it certainly would bring back memories of the awful scenes of deportation, including those of my good friend Brain. We entered the iron gate above which the slogan was written ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’, which means ‘LABOUR SETS FREE’. As we went inside and strolled through the barracks, I thought about the desperate condition in which these people suffered during their last days on earth. We also stood still at the ‘Death Wall’, the place where every day at the early morning roll-call a number of Jews were shot to death, while all the others had to watch the execution. We entered the gas chambers and there I stood in the very place where Jews by the thousands had met an untimely death. Above the entrance door was a sign reading, ‘Shower Room’. It was there that they went through the door, naked, with a little piece of soap and a towel in their hands, assuming that they were about to take a shower. But instead of water, poison gas came out of the pipes to kill them! It is said that a gas chamber could kill 1,500 to 2,000 people at a time. After fifteen or twenty minutes all were dead and their bodies were burnt in crematoria or even at stakes. I could not look at all the evidences of torture and killing with dry eyes, realizing that no less than four million victims found their death. Behind huge glass windows were heaps of shoes, old fashioned glasses, dentures, shaving brushes and, what I felt to be most shocking, all the hair of the shaved victims. It was a terrible sight! This concentration camp, like so many others, was a place of sorrow and pain, of horror and inhumanity on an incredible scale.

auswitz gate

Entrance of Death-Camp Auswitz.  Above the entrance is written "Arbeit macht frei" (Labor liberates)

auswitz death wall

The "Death Wall" of concentration camp "Auswitz" where each morning people were executed for "misbehavior".  Today it stands as a memorial.

In Holland not one Jew was seen in the streets anymore. Nearly all were deported, fortunately some were able to go into hiding with the help of the Dutch people. At the end of the war only 5,000 Dutch Jews survived of the many who were sent to the concentration camps, where the inhuman practices of the Nazis were carried out to try and exterminate the Jewish race.

Persecution of the Dutch

After the Germans had settled the Jewish problem, life became difficult for the Dutch people as well. It was not allowed for more than three people to meet publicly. Because of ‘total war’, many German soldiers were on the frontlines, and men of the occupied countries were needed to fill their places in the factories. I still remember the day when this decree was promulgated by the Chief Commander of occupied Holland— one of many! Each decree was announced on bulletin boards which were erected in different places in the city. This particular decree caused a drastic change in my life. All males aged 16 to 60 were deported to Germany and forced to work for the war industry. The only alternative was to go into hiding. Often a sudden ‘razzia’ would take place, a search for men who were in hiding. A whole neighbourhood would be sealed off, so that there was no chance of escape. Each house was thoroughly searched out, not only for men but also for valuables. Anything made of gold, silver, pewter or metal was confiscated and used for the war industry. During the battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942, as the German front lines were suffering the brutal cold of a Russian winter, the Dutch people were robbed of sweaters, pullovers, blankets or anything else that could be used by the soldiers. The Germans entered the cold bedrooms of the Dutch houses and counted the blankets. Two blankets for a bed were allowed, but any surplus was confiscated. We lost three nice woollen blankets.

Underground Activity

To prevent people from listening to the radio broadcasts of the ‘enemy’, all radio sets were confiscated. Just before the outbreak of the war my father had bought a new radio set. The old one was turned in, and as long as we had proof of a confiscation document in the house to show at the time of a ‘razzia’, we were all right. The new radio set was hidden in a secret place, but each night we took it out and listened to the Dutch broadcast of the ‘Voice of America’ and BBC London. It was quite a nervous and exciting time. Doors were locked, curtains pulled and the volume was set as low as possible, as we stood attentively listening to the news. We had to be very careful, because not all people could be trusted. The common saying was: ‘The walls have ears.

Things became more difficult when gas and electricity were cut off. This was also the end of listening to the news. My friend Jan, who later in life became a radio technician, had made himself a nice crystal set. It received the newscast from London and New York very clearly. Through headphones we collected the news, typed it out on an old typewriter and distributed it in a one-page bulletin to people whom we could trust. In a small way, it was an underground activity, and not without danger.
One afternoon at 4.45 p.m., as we were listening upstairs in Jan’s bedroom to ‘The Voice of America’, we were unaware of the great danger we were in. The backdoor was not locked and three German soldiers had stepped into the house. Jan’s mother was intently occupied in solving a crossword puzzle, when suddenly the soldiers burst in upon her. “Where are the men”, they shouted. Even though very frightened, she did something exceptionally courageous. She ran to the stove, grabbed the poker, lifted it up and shouted, “What men? You have already taken away my husband from me and that’s enough!” Some time before, Jan’s father had been deported to Germany and was working in a factory at Osnabrueck. “Now, get out of my house and leave me alone!”, she yelled as loudly as she could, hoping that we would hear her voice and be prepared. However, we were so much involved in our ‘job’ that we did not hear anything of the tumult downstairs.

The soldiers faced what they thought to be a hysterical woman and, unsure of what they should do, they stood for a few moments in complete silence, overwhelmed by such a daring scene. Then the officer in charge ordered the soldiers to leave her alone. When the soldiers were gone, Jan’s mother stood trembling, as the full realization hit her of what could have happened. Coming in through the backdoor it would have been easy for the German soldiers to use the stairs to the bedroom first, but instead, they passed the stairs and had entered into the living room. What a protection of the Lord in a time of great danger! If they had found us with all the evidence of the written news from the enemy’s side, we probably would not be alive today. This was one of several instances where I was clearly spared.

‘D-Day’ and Arnhem’s Tragedy

The year of 1944 was an eventful one. On the 6th of June the Allied forces landed at Normandy in France to open up the ‘Western front’. There had been a lot of speculation as to where the Allied Forces would invade the European continent. The whole coastline along western Europe was built into a powerful defence bulwark, called the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Where would the invasion take place? In Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium or France? When ‘D-Day’ arrived we were so excited, knowing that the day of our liberation drew nearer than ever. During the first months, fighting was severe and many soldiers lost their lives. Then Paris was liberated and not long after that, Brussels, the capital of Belgium. Now the Allied Forces were not far from the border of Holland. On September 17, 1944, a contingent of the First Airborne division was dropped from the air near the Dutch city of Arnhem. I remember this Sunday afternoon so well. It was a bright day with a lot of sunshine. As many planes flew over our city, we were wondering what was going on. Particularly during the night we were used to hearing for hours the sound of sometimes hundreds of planes on missions to bomb cities in Germany. But now it was daytime and the planes flew much lower. It was not long before we received the news that there was an Airborne division parachuting in to engage in ‘Operation Market Garden’. The purpose of this strategy was to occupy the main bridge crossing the Rhine at Arnhem to give unhindered passage to the Allied forces from the south of Holland. More than 10,000 soldiers parachuted into territory occupied by the enemy. For the Dutch people it was such a thrill to know that our liberators were not far away, in fact only a 30 mile (45 km.) distance from our city.

It happened that at a location just north of Arnhem a strong Panzer division of the German army was present, and soon the slaughter started on the men trying to hold on to the Rhine bridge and the surrounding area. The fighting in the city of Arnhem was so severe that it became a battle over each house. Though the thrust of the Allied forces had been fast over the past weeks, here the situation changed completely. With the resistance of a reorganized and still very strong German army, the armies of the Allied forces in the south of Holland were not able to advance further north. It was a tragedy for the Airborne division to retreat after fighting so hard for a week to maintain control over the bridge. Withdrawn to a small piece of land, west of Arnhem, but still north of the Rhine, the soldiers could do nothing else but cross the river. During the night of September 25 the withdrawal started. Since the Germans were in a better position to control the Rhine, constant gunfire was directed at the men who tried to cross the river. Many were fatally shot within sight of safety and only 3,000 soldiers survived. Near Arnhem is the cemetery of the brave soldiers of the Airborne Division, who gave their lives for a military strategy which became a complete debacle. ‘Operation Market Garden’ is one of the greatest failures of World War II. With the title, “A Bridge too Far”, this tragedy has been filmed and also published. Holland could not be liberated yet, and from then on the Allied forces tried to thrust in an eastward direction into Germany. This was also not without bloodshed, as severe fighting occurred in the Ardennes in Belgium, where today rows of white grave stones in cemetries are the silent witnesses of a cruel war.

Hunger Winter

Since the debacle of Arnhem real hardship occurred in the still occupied part of Holland. There was hardly anything available in the stores. It was the time to wear ‘klompen’, because leather shoes were no longer available. Wooden clogs are much used in the rural areas, but not in cities. But towards the end of the war this was the only footwear which could be bought. With a little straw inside and thick woollen socks the feet stayed nicely warm in ‘klompen’. Soon the shortage of food became serious. Even with ration tickets, in use since the beginning of the war, food could not be obtained anymore. Stores had run completely out of food, and people in the big cities were struggling to keep alive. The only possibility of obtaining some food was to go out and get it from the farmers. These trips were called ‘hunger trips’. Thousands of people went on foot or, if they were lucky, on old bicycles to the farming areas in the north and east of the country, covering a one-way distance of easily 100 to 160 miles (150-250 kin). These trips were made under the most bizarre and dangerous circumstances. We too rode far distances to get some food, but were still fortunate to use our bicycles with massive tyres made from a strip of rubber of an old car tyre. Since money had hardly any value the farmers traded their potatoes and grain for things they wanted. My mother had still quite a lot of tea, and it was an attractive item for trading. Also, all our new bathtowels, dishcloths, sheets and ornaments were traded in. On the many ‘hunger trips’ I saw a lot of misery and suffering. During the five to seven day trip the nights were mostly spent in a haystack or, if we were lucky to get the farmer’s permission, we were able to sleep in the barn, above the cows. On one occasion on our way back from a hunger trip, while riding through wet and foggy weather, I was completely exhausted and very thirsty. Sparkling drops of misty rain had collected on the woollen mittens which my mother had knitted, and as I licked the mittens I was so thankful for this thirst-quenching refreshment which was like dew from heaven!

The greatest danger we faced were the bombardments and shootings by the allied bombers and fighter planes on truck convoys or buildings occupied by the Germans. Unfortunately the allied bombers occasionally missed their targets, and the surrounding houses were hit. As the planes swooped down we often had to dive into a man-hole alongside the road, or flatten ourselves against the wall of a farmer’s house. The noise, destruction, and death terrified me. One day a formation of 8 fighter planes attacked our city. The target was a villa where the German Commander had his Headquarters. We lived some distance away and were watching the planes from the roof of our house. It was quite a sight, but how sad we were when we heard that the target had been missed and that houses of Dutch people had been bombed resulting in death and destruction. A mother ran upstairs to get her three-month-old baby out of the crib, but it was there that both were hit by ammunition fired from the planes. I was always thankful for the days when there were no attacks from the air.

On another occasion because of curfew, we had to hurry home from our hunger trip. Curfew was from 8 p.m. till 6 a.m., and since the streets were not lit, we had great difficulty staying in the bicycle lane. It was a dark night. My father and I rode as fast as we could to be home before curfew time. Suddenly I discovered that my father had disappeared. I stopped and tried to locate him, but because of the darkness I could see hardly anything. “Dad, where are you?” I called out and strained my ears to hear his voice. I heard him faintly call my name and as I looked back, I found him tangled up in his bicycle at the bottom of a deep bombshelter hole along the roadside. I helped him climb out of the hole. Fortunately his injuries were not too bad. We dragged his bicycle out and managed to straighten it out. Then we quickly continued our journey and it was exactly at the stroke of eight when we safely entered our house. We were exhausted, weak, sore, and what seemed worst of all, hungry, but we were so thankful to have some food at hand to fill our hungry stomachs!

The time came when the Germans decided to close the bridges over the Yssel river, so that the farming areas could not be reached anymore. I remember our last ‘hunger trip’, this time together with my sister, Jean. Approaching a small village we saw a group of people standing by the roadside. We stopped to see what the commotion was, and saw to our great surprise a big pite of slaughtered calves. It was meat destined for the German army, but an accident instigated by the underground movement had occurred. The meat was piled up along the roadside, but there were no soldiers to watch over this treasure. My sister suggested that we should take a whole calf, instead of cutting off small pieces as others were doing. I held a big sack open as my sister slid the calf into it. Whether it was a good or bad example, I did not know, but other people started to do the same. In a short time the whole pile of meat was gone and there was not one calf left for the Germans. It was pretty awkward riding my bicycle with a calf on the back-carrier, but somehow I managed. At a farmer’s house we were able to trade some goods for potatoes and we arranged these around the calf, so that the meat would be hidden in the event of us being searched. Again we arrived home safely and were able to enjoy this delicious meat with our potatoes, a rich meal which we hadn’t tasted for a long time!

holland food drop red cross

Dropping of food parcels for people suffering from malnutition.

holland food drop red cross

Collecting the food parcels.

From this time on there was no possibility supplementing our food provision. What we had accumulated had to last till the end of the war. Not knowing when the end would come there was no guarantee that the food provision would last. With each passing day’s small ration on the table, my father always gave thanks for a ‘rich provision’, which consisted of cooked sugar beets and a few potatoes. I remember that we even vied for the crumbs on the table, and with the wartime custom of licking our plates clean, there was literally nothing left. During the ‘hunger winter’ many people died of malnutrition, especially among the young and the elderly. Hunger compelled people to eat their own pets as they did not have food for the animals and were hungry themselves. Then, when life was so bleak, the Swedish Red Cross arranged to provide food parcels. The Germans had agreed to this offer, and Swedish planes were allowed to drop parcels in certain designated areas. Although the amount of food was scarce in proportion to the heavily populated area in the west of Holland, every little bit helped. It was even more of a boost to the morale of the Dutch people who looked forward with great anticipation to the end of the occupation. For the first time in years we were able to taste white bread again. I still remember how white it looked!
Since gas or electricity was cut off, the cooking was done on a woodstove. The firewood was obtained by cutting trees in the woods. Gradually, even the trees along the roadsides disappeared. In the big cities people were so desperate that they chopped up their cupboards, parts of stairs and even ceilings to get wood for their stoves. At night the only light in the whole house was from a little wick in a cup of oil. We were one of the fortunate families in that we still had some oil on hand and needless to say, it was very sparingly used. In the dim light it was not possible to read or work, so instead we often sat around the table and played games to pass the time. On one occasion we were talking about the people facing starvation, and my brother Ad remarked, “I can imagine that some people would not mind being killed by a bomb, because that would be the end of their misery.” No sooner had he spoken these words when a plane flew very low over our house. We were all frightened and listened in rigid suspense. Then the tremendous sound of a terrific explosion reverberated through the night. We hid under the table till the plane was gone. Some windows in our house were broken, but because of curfew we were not able to venture outside to see the damage. The next morning we saw that some houses had been hit, and a lot of glass and bricks were scattered around; two elderly people had been killed.

There was also the tragedy of planes shot down by the Germans. I remember a plane that had been shot down during the night. Our curiosity led us to the crash site near by, and we were shocked to discover a boot with a human leg still in it. From the German side the rockets known as the Vi and V2 crossed over Holland and the North Sea on their way to targets in England. There was a launch-pad built in the east of Holland and many times we saw the rockets fly through the sky. It happened sometimes that a rocket would fail and come down like a fireball, as it did one time in our city. The cruelty of war was an increasing reality.

The suffering in Holland was not only felt in material things, but far more in respect to life itself. There was a very active underground resistance going on, and to suppress the under¬ground’s activities, the Germans knew how to use effective reprisals. For one German killed, ten innocent Dutch people were shot to death as an act of retaliation. This could happen unexpectedly while people in the street were forced to watch the execution. Many towns and cities have a monument as a grim reminder of these tragic executions. One night, not far from where we lived, there was an attack by the underground movement during which a German general was injured. The retaliation was nothing short of dreadful. All the men of the town where the attack had occurred were dragged out of their houses and shot to death.

Into Hiding
When I turned 16 my life changed drastically. I was forced to make a choice of reporting to the Germans for work duty or going into hiding. My oldest brother, Jo, had gone into hiding a few years earlier, but unfortunately he had been caught in 1943 and was deported to a labour camp in Germany. We did not hear about him until some weeks after the war had ended, when we were at last informed by the Red Cross that he was alive and recuperating in France from the maltreatment suffered under the Germans. Three months after the capitulation of Germany in the beginning of May 1945, he was able to return home. Because of my brother’s discovery and transfer to a labour camp, I lived in constant fear whilst I was in hiding. My father, being a carpenter, had made a ‘professional’ hiding place underneath the house. It could be entered by a trapdoor in the floor of a small closet. The space underneath the house was only two feet high, and it was very draughty and uncomfortable. I slept on a thin mattress placed on the sand and hoped it would be a secure place. It happened quite often that during a ‘razzia’ German soldiers searched for men one house after the other and sometimes used their pistols to shoot through walls, floors and ceilings. These ‘razzias’ were very frightening, and I hardly dared to breathe under the pounding of German boots above my head.

american army liberation holland

American troops crossed the border to liberate the southern part of Holland.

german pow holland

The first German P.O.W.'s in Holland

german army surrenders in holland

Surrender of German soldiers near my home town.

german army surrenders in holland

German soldiers are laying down their weapons.

Liberation Day
The spring of 1945 was beautiful, but being in hiding I did not get a chance to enjoy it. Rumours abounded during those days, and we often heard of both defeats and victories that were untrue. On the fifth of May, however, rumour became reality! At around 7.30 p.m. a few people ran out of their houses, grabbed each other’s hands and were jumping around for joy. This was the moment we had longed for, for so long. We realized what it meant—liberation! In only a few moments the main street on which I lived was filled with people. The atmosphere outside was lively and happy as people hugged, cried, and laughed. At around nine in the evening we suddenly heard gunshots from the Germans who were still in power. They ordered everyone off the streets within five minutes, as we were still obliged to keep to curfew time. In a matter of
moments the streets were desolate again, but how good it felt to have tasted something of our liberation, which now was just around the corner. That night I did not need to go into my hiding place anymore; I could sleep in my own bed without fear.

waiting for liberation in holland

Waiting for the liberation while the Germans were still in control.

canadian army hilversum

The Canadian army entered Hilversum as our liberators.

wwii liberation

Liberation! Never to forget.

victory parade canadian army ww2

Victory Parade of the Royal Canadian Army.