Hans Bouwman, Japan - 1 - Early Years of Life

Early Years of Life
It was a very cold winter and the freezing weather had come to Holland much earlier than usual. Canals and lakes were frozen solid, and the ‘Hollanders’ made good use of their ice-skates. Children criss-crossed the ice to go to school, and the adults also used this cheap transportation to get to work. Cities like Amsterdam with its many canals portrayed cozy Dutch winter scenery. In the late afternoons, both young and old glided across the ice for pleasure. Here and there along the canals, little canvas stalls were set up to sell the famous Dutch hot chocolate, which was a nice treat in the cold and windy weather.

It was in this gripping winter of 1928 that I was born as the youngest of four children. I was born of parents who knew the Lord Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Their conversion had occurred only three years before. My parents had always been religious people who went faithfully to church, and my father read the Bible daily at the table, and prayers were said. My mother was from a large Roman Catholic family of nine children. When she married a Protestant, her family broke off all ties, and she was completely ignored, if not forgotten. Having deserted the ‘one true church’, she was treated as an apostate, and as a small boy I often wondered why her relatives never came to our birthdays and holiday get-togethers. It was only years later that the enmity gradually thawed and contact was re-established. It was very nice to get to know the many relatives, especially grandmother. She was living right in the centre of Utrecht, a big city in the middle of the country. The little alley opposite the railway station with its small houses is still there today, and I remember that little cottage so well where I thoroughly enjoyed the baking and cooking of my grandmother.

Missionaries in Holland
One day in 1925 while my mother was doing her shopping, she was kindly invited to attend Gospel meetings which were being conducted in a public hall. With two young children at home, my parents could not attend the meetings together, so they decided to take turns. A gentleman from Scotland was the preacher, and my parents were quickly impressed by the simple presentation of Scriptures concerning salvation. They had never heard the Gospel preached like this in their church, and now for the first time they became deeply concerned about their souls’ salvation. It was during these meetings that they realized that religion could not save them, but that only the Lord Jesus Christ could. Under much opposition they left the denomi¬national church and joined themselves to the company of believers, gathered unto the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The preacher, Mr. Peter Wilson, was born in 1876 in a little place called Chirnside in Scotland. He felt called by the Lord to serve as a missionary, and at age 25 he sailed to Sarawak on the north-west coast of Borneo, at that time a British colony. Mr. Wilson’s desire was to eventually go into the Dutch part of Borneo (the former Dutch East-Indies). With this in mind he had already learned the Dutch language while in Scotland. However, the Lord did not allow him to realize his ambitious plans. Ill-health compelled Mr. Wilson to leave Borneo prematurely, and as he was not able to undertake the long sea journey back to Scotland, he sailed instead to a new country, New Zealand. There he started a new chapter in his personal life. After his health had improved, he married Miss Ethel Rose Brice. Both had a deep interest for the Lord’s work in the Netherlands, and it was not long before this compelled them to sail from New Zealand to Europe.

Just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 they moved to Holland. Because of its neutrality in the on-going war, many refugees from different parts of Europe had fled to Holland. As a result, Mr. Wilson received permission from the authorities to be the ‘chaplain’ in refugee camps. Thousands of refugees in great despair heard the Gospel preached to them, and many accepted the call and got saved. Only eternity can show the result of this great work.

After the war the Wilsons moved back to Scotland to wait for further indications of the Lord’s guidance. In 1920 they returned to Holland, but this time to settle as the Lord’s servants among the Dutch people, where their efforts were really blessed. Mr. Wilson saw many people saved, especially in the north-eastern part, which was the poorest area of the country. The local people there made a living as turf-cutters, cutting pieces of peat to be used in the old-fashioned kitchen stoves. To reach these rough men, most of whom were communists, Mr. Wilson even went into the cafes (like a bar today) to talk to them. Despite the rough and godless atmosphere, the Lord was able to soften many a stony heart. A time of revival ensued, and many of these people accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The rough day-labourers were simple and direct in their speech but powerful in their testimonies, for in poor circumstances they had a deep experience of the love and care of the Lord.

In the western part of the Netherlands also, Mr. Wilson held Gospel meetings which resulted in the conversion of many people. These Christians continued in the ‘ways of the Lord’, and after being baptized they were added to the fellowship of local assemblies, which spontaneously came into existence in the various places where the gospel had been preached.
Mr. Wilson went to be with the Lord in 1951. Even today there are still a few older Christians who were saved through the powerful preaching of this servant of the Lord, who showed such a great love and concern for the Dutch people.
Another missionary, Miss Emmy Treasure from New Zealand, lived for some years in Holland to help the Wilsons in their efforts to proclaim the Gospel, and she was very active in reaching the children. I remember being in her Sunday school class as a young child. These were the missionaries at a time when Holland was in need of the simple Gospel.
After my parents heard the gospel preached by Peter Wilson and became Christians, they were ostracized by the people in their former church. The pastor continued his visits for a time in an attempt to keep his sheep in the fold. But having entered into an assembly of the Lord’s people, they enjoyed the fellowship with the believers who really cared for them. Having a conviction about the place where the Lord dwells among His people, theie was for them no return to a traditional church where the Gospel had been lost.

I had a happy childhood. As a boy I loved to play outside in the fields or in the woods and to sail my toy boat on the lake. Going to my father’s workshop was fun too, as he would often let me play with scraps of wood. My father was a hard worker who spent many long hours in his carpentry workshop, and he was able, though with difficulty, to maintain his business through the years of depression. He took pride in his work, thus giving it the quality that generated customer demand even in those hard times.

My carefree, happy childhood came to an end on May 10, 1940. My father woke early in the morning to the sound of airplanes and went into the livingroom to turn on the radio. What he suspected had become reality: war had broken out for Holland! It was not long until we were all listening to the continuous special news bulletins. The German army had crossed the Dutch border at 3 a.m. in the morning. The Dutch soldiers were facing a well disciplined and very powerful force. There was severe fighting to hold the first line of defence in the east of the country. When the Germans pushed through, the Dutch army retreated behind the ‘Holland Water Defence Line’, made up of lakes, rivers and inundated land. To retreat to this area, the Dutch army had to pass through our street during the night of the 13th of May. It impressed us so much to see the exhaustion of the soldiers, who had fought for four days and were still fighting against an overwhelming power. Everyone knew that it was of no use to continue any longer, especially after German planes bombed the city of Rotterdam. This was in the afternoon at 2 p.m. on the 14th of May.

During the occupation, as a sign of a silent demonstration, in many homes the curtains were closed for an hour on the 14th of May from 2 p.m. till 3 p.m. The bombing of Rotterdam was done on an open city, without any military target. The ultimatum singled out other cities to be bombed unless there was an unconditional surrender, and that happened in the early hours of a beautiful evening on the 14th of May 1940. This day is one of the most tragic days in the history of the Netherlands. Already during the time of mobilization, loudspeakers were located at strategic spots in the city for the mayor to address the people. During the days of fighting, the mayor would speak to the people every evening at 7 p.m. This is how we heard the news that the Dutch Commander-in-Chief had capitulated to the Germans. I remember that there was complete silence in the streets and in the houses. Then there was crying, especially over the unknown future. Little did we realize that the five days of fighting would be followed by five terrible years of occupation!