Feature: The Final Year of the War through the eyes of two Dutch womenArticle by Tom Bijvoet
Seventy years ago World War II entered its final phase. We will follow events in The Netherlands during those last grueling months through the eyes of two Dutch sisters, my grandmother Clasina and great-aunt Tiny Wisman, whose wartime diaries I recently discovered. They had been separated by the front after Operation Market Garden started on September 17th. Clasina, the director of children’s home Gelria, together with her staff, her two daughters Riet and Hélène and her sixty charges ended up on the liberated side of the front. Tiny, a schoolteacher, lived with their parents in occupied Utrecht, where the Nazi-induced famine which was to become known as ‘The Hunger Winter’ was starting to be felt. In the previous issue of DUTCH, the magazine we left Tiny on October 22nd 1944, after the gas supply in Utrecht had just been cut off. On October 25th, Clasina quoted from a speech she gave at a birthday gathering where several Allied soldiers were present, explaining how the Dutch people had “waited for years to be liberated”. Many suffering Dutch citizens had to wait many more months, which Clasina highlights in a speech she gave to the assembled staff and residents of Gelria on Christmas Day, 1944:
But especially these days our thoughts go out to parents, relatives and good friends with whom all contact has been lost for so long now. We know they are enduring very difficult and dangerous times, and we have to live with the uncertainty about their fate. Sometimes I panic at the thought that we live in relative comfort here and that they, to put it mildly, may be living in dire circumstances and may suffer cold and darkness. And now we are going to celebrate Christmas, a feast of light and luster, while the world around us is in darkness. We must, however, trust in Him, who until now has blessed us wondrously and who also has the power to watch over all our loved ones.
But we jump ahead in our story, way ahead. Nevertheless, Clasina is spot on in her assumption that her relatives in occupied territory suffer cold, darkness and hunger. In early November Tiny notes:
Our electricity has been cut off. The evenings are indescribably long. We float little pieces of cork with a wick in them on some oil in a saucer. These little floaters give some light in the darkness, but not enough to do anything by.
Because it is too cold to run classes at school, we give the children the option to pick up some homework twice a week. There is not much interest. Now we have been asked to do a shift at the soup kitchen. We have to supervise the public and the staff. I work one day and am off for two, which suits me, because I have lots of errands to run.
The food situation is getting steadily worse. Nothing is available for our ration coupons anymore except jam and some legumes. No more butter. 1¾ liters of milk (0.45 gallons) for four weeks. Potatoes: 1 kilo (2.2 lbs) for three weeks. Bread has already been reduced to 1½ loaf per week. Fortunately, apples are available in abundance. So we have purchased a good stock of them. They form a very tasty addition to our diet. We are also fortunate not to need the soup kitchen yet. People who do need it have to turn in their ration coupons for potatoes and legumes and in exchange get half a liter (17 oz.) of food per day.
Under the harsh circumstances of cold, hunger and darkness people still tried to keep their spirits up by adhering to time honored rituals. But it was extremely difficult to maintain a positive spirit as can clearly be read between the lines in Tiny’s November 5th entry:
Mother’s birthday. Because of the sorely felt absence of Clasien and her kids, it is not a festive day. A courier brought a package from Henk and Corry (Tiny’s brother and sister-in-law). A letter and a new translation of the New Testament. That was really nice! And, despite everything, we still had some visitors in the morning and the afternoon. We had nothing to offer them except some candies that I had made. We did not have butter to do any baking, but I did make some pumpernickel squares with cheese spread. We will not soon forget this 1944 birthday.
In addition to the privations of hunger and cold, there were other serious threats to the Dutch in occupied territory, including the ongoing Allied bombings of strategic targets. Tiny writes regularly about bombing raids on Utrecht and surroundings. We’ll quote just one entry here, but there are many:
Monday, November 6th
Today I was on duty in the kitchen at our school. The weather was bright and sunny, so the roaring sound in the sky began early. At nine, the air raid alarm sounded, but it was not until ten that it really started in all its intensity. The noise made by anti-aircraft guns and the impact of bombs was terrible. It sounded really close by. All the people from the houses around the school fled into the school. We were all shaking with fear as we expected a direct hit. When it was quiet again we ventured outside and saw a dense dust cloud over Springweg (Spring Road). We could not even see Bartholomeusbrug (Bartholomew Bridge) because of the dust. It turned out that the Neurological Clinic on Nic. Beets Street had received a direct hit. There were many casualties, including two preachers, Rev. Immink and Rev. Heikoop who were visiting patients, two doctors, ten nurses and many patients. Terrible. The university hospital lost all its windows. They immediately started to evacuate the patients, and whoever could go home was taken there, including Mrs. Cornelje and her son, who are now being cared for by her mother.
In the afternoon they came back for the same targets: Station, and railroad yards and bridges. Again major destruction, including five houses in Poortstraat (Gate Street). In addition to the destruction of many houses there are all the windows that are blown out. They are now boarded up with wood or cardboard, which gives the area a very desolate look. We cannot be grateful enough for the fact that so far we have been spared.
In addition to the danger of war, there was the ever looming threat of a razzia, during which the Germans would cordon off whole city neighborhoods and go door to door, forcibly gaining entry to houses searching for men to be sent to Germany to assist in the war effort. The most extensive razzia of the whole war in The Netherlands took place on November 9th, 10th and 11th 1944 in Rotterdam. In a methodically planned operation, with the intent of rounding up all men between the ages of eighteen and forty, fifty-two thousand men were captured and sent to Germany. That number represented three quarters of the men in the assigned age group. Tiny writes in her diary on the day of the razzia:
New horrors. The first groups of men from Rotterdam are coming through on their way to Zevenaar and beyond. Despicable, their treatment and the way they are herded and chased along in the pouring rain. No one is spared in these razzias. Even severely ill patients have to come. They spent the night in the Tivoli concert hall and the Municipal Theater. The people of Utrecht helped them a lot there. Some doctors spent the whole night caring for them.
On the same day she continues to write about the dire food situation and the black market bartering that people have started to engage in to survive:
The quest for food is getting ever more difficult. Especially our stock of potatoes is declining at an alarming rate. We cannot buy anything with our ration coupons. In desperation, I go to several addresses with mother’s black winter coat, because you can do nothing with money. The coat buys us a barrel (mud) of beautiful potatoes. We feel so rich, we can hang in there for a little while longer.
A sense of solidarity also kept the population going and even the divide between Protestants and Catholics that seemed unbridgeable before the war gives way:
Especially for the young, a lot is being done to fight malnutrition. The Red Cross gives a meal several times a week to eight hundred children, and also the Roman Catholic and Christian Reformed churches have joined forces and, by late November, will be supplying fifteen hundred children with one meal a week. Beautiful work, and also encouraging to see that in this way the different denominations find each other.
While Tiny was dealing with the deprivations of the early days of the Hunger Winter, Clasina may have been liberated and may have been free, but the difficulties in running her children’s home under wartime conditions were by no means trivial.
Besides, the danger posed by actual battle had not disappeared for her simply by ending up on the other side of the front:
Monday November 13th 1944, Lage Mierde
After my happy diary entry of October 25th, now we have a truly sad story: the first wartime casualty among our group, Henny Diks. She went to Nijmegen on October 29th to visit someone in the Canadian Hospital when she was hit by shrapnel on Haterse Brug (Haters Bridge). Her right arm was shattered; she got a shard in her lung – which fortunately could be removed immediately – and a small flesh wound in her leg. The doctors hope to be able to save the arm, but it will probably remain stiff for the rest of her life. Despite all that she was extremely lucky, the girl cycling next to her was killed. I became very anxious when she did not return home Sunday night when I heard about the aerial attack near the Canadian hospital. When I had not heard from her by Monday, I asked one of our English friends to drive me to Nijmegen, and there I found her in one of the air raid shelters of the Canadian hospital. She was in pain, but was brave about it. It was a sad trek through all the hallways and shelters of the hospital, which were filled to the brim with casualties of war.
Note the diary heading: ‘Lage Mierde’, a small town in the very southern part of the province of Brabant, near the Belgian border. When we last heard from Clasina she was in Berg en Dal near Nijmegen, where her children’s home Gelria occupied three adjacent houses. What happened? Again… the war:
On Sunday November 5th, rumors spread rapidly through Berg en Dal: Evacuation within three days. I immediately went out to find some official communications on the matter and alas, it was true, although no one yet knew how, why and when. On Monday, I heard that we would be leaving on Wednesday at about 1 p.m. No one knew yet what our destination would be. We started packing immediately, but Monday evening, a great upset: the baby house was hit by two grenades. The destruction was immense, especially at the back of the house, but the main thing was: none of the staff or any of the babies suffered as much as a scratch, which has to be regarded as a great miracle, given the damage to several rooms. We immediately had to move the children to one of the other houses by candlelight (the electricity was off again). English soldiers came over to help so the move happened quickly. We had to improvise sleeping quarters in the kitchen and pantry, but despite everything they were all fast asleep by eight.
Although the evacuation was meant to be for the safety of the Berg en Dal villagers, it did not sit easy with Clasina. She had to leave lots of supplies behind, including the carefully prepared preserves that were supposed to sustain children and staff through the winter. The trip to Lage Mierde and the reception there seemed quite disorganized:
We believed that our destination was a convent in Boxtel. We traveled in a huge convoy of trucks and cars. First we went to ‘s Hertogenbosch, which, by the way, was quite extensively damaged. When we arrived there we thought we’d be at our destination within about half an hour, but no, the convoy switched direction toward Tilburg. I got a bad feeling about that, just wandering the highways with my seventy people without knowing where we were going. In Tilburg we turned toward Turnhout, which made us think we’d end up in Belgium. Fortunately this was the wrong way. The cars turned around and we continued into southern Brabant until we got to the hamlet of Lage Mierde. Our final destination turned out to be a former forced-labor camp. It was cold, damp, without any heating and more than primitive. I felt very dejected and immediately went to the camp commander to request that we be allowed to stay at the convent’s girls’ school in the village, and that’s where we are now. Also primitive, but at least there’s one heated classroom where we spend the entire day with seventy people. We sleep in three classrooms, one for the babies, one for the school-aged children and one for the older girls. We’re all sick from the long trip. Our food is brought in from the camp and is worse than bad. There is no way they can organize it. The village only has eighty-eight inhabitants, and now they have to deal with this fifteen hundred-person invasion.
It turns out that the biggest problem in Lage Mierde is the boredom and the absolute inadequacy of the facilities. As late as December 7th, a month after the evacuation, Clasina still yearns for Berg en Dal, despite the proximity of the front. She writes:
The situation in Berg en Dal is reportedly extremely tranquil, which makes this whole evacuation so difficult to accept. Nijmegen, especially the eastern part, is constantly bombarded with grenades, and every week at least seventy houses are destroyed. Yet Nijmegen is not being evacuated! It is definitely a fact that spying has played a major role in our evacuation. Our English friends had already said that, and it was confirmed by the vicar when he visited yesterday: the weak stance of the local authorities toward collaborators eventually got to the English. We can be thankful to our ‘leaders’.
December is a month of family get-togethers and festivities. The separation from each other and the lack of basics made for a difficult St. Nicholas Eve and Christmas for both Tiny and Clasina. From Tiny’s diary:
Tuesday December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve
Automatically our thoughts go to December 5th 1943, when Clasien and the kids were here and when we celebrated Sinterklaas together. Now we have no desire to do anything, with just the three of us. But in the afternoon our downstairs neighbors invited us to come and spend the evening with them. We quickly wrapped some presents for them and put them in a basket. In the time-honored way, someone banged on the door and the basket was brought in with loud cheers. At eleven, we went back up, and the neighbors had helped us through a very difficult time.
How has Clasien spent this December 5th? Oh, if only we knew something.
Clasina celebrated Sinterklaas by organizing an evening for staff and children, with small gifts and a long traditional Sinterklaas rhyme, with either a friendly or mildly critical personal message for everyone. She also included a more general note of thanks for living in freedom and relative abundance compared to the people in the occupied territories.
Survival during the Hunger Winter depended to a large extent on luck and relationships. Tiny’s brother Henk, who lived in a rural area, sometimes managed to get a hamper sent to his relatives in Utrecht. The food situation is dire, she writes. But also:
Christmas Day, 1944
A courier came from Deventer who brought good tidings from Henk and Corry and a Christmas hamper containing two loaves of rye bread, one jar of jam, ersatz tea and a tin of home baked cookies. I made some apple fritters, so that we could celebrate a traditional Christmas.
Clasina managed to organize a grander Christmas dinner. She borrowed an organ for a church service, managed to find candles and even a Christmas tree. We started this installment of the series on Clasina and Tiny Wisman with a quote from Clasina’s Christmas speech in which she unwittingly echoes the sentiments that her sister entrusted to her diary on Christmas day, in dark, desolate, occupied Utrecht on the other side of the battle lines:
Of course we are in Berg en Dal with our thoughts, especially now during the holidays. We think: ‘How are they doing? How are they coping with the cold and the shortage of food.’ It is now four months ago that they were here with us for Father’s birthday. We have not seen them since. And now we say that we would be fortunate to see them in another four months. Maybe we won’t even have contact again then and maybe it will be as late as summer. If only we knew whether they were alright! And they would like to know about us too, of course, because they are surely also worried about us. We must entrust all of this to Him, who governs us and takes care of all of us. Overall, we have had a good Christmas and are blessed above all others!
Inspiring words, which bring us to the end of this second installment in the series of excerpts from these two wartime diaries. In the next issue, we will pick up the thread with the events of January and February of 1945.
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