This is the first of a series of posts about my family during WWII. For a brief history of the Netherlands in WWII, click here.
Most of the stories about WWII come from my mother’s side of the family. My grandparents were in their 30s when the war started, my mother was five, and my aunt turned one on a beautiful day in May 1940. (The family celebrated her birthday outside, and saw the first German planes fly over on their way to bomb the blazes out of Rotterdam.) My uncle was born two years later, in the middle of the German occupation.
I’ve always been fascinated with the stories my grandmother on my mother’s side told about WWII. My mother, who was dismissive at best about anything my grandparents said or did, dismissed the stories as sensationalism, since her family never did anything heroic or suffered any hardship in comparison to many others during the war.
This is certainly true; my family sailed through completely unscathed, but I still think the stories are interesting because a lot of them show how every day something could easily turn into a disaster, even if in my family’s case it never actually did. It’s what could happen that made daily life so scary and uncertain for everyone, even under the mildest circumstances, and what illustrate just as well as the stories of horror and heroics what it meant to be occupied.
For instance, one day my grandparents were both cycling back home from getting food somewhere, and when they were not that far from home there was a checkpoint that hadn’t been there before. Checkpoints just showed up from day to day, and it may have been set up because they were looking for someone in particular or for subversive activity in general, or because they were confiscating bicycle tires. Who knows.
Either way, when the soldiers at the checkpoint gestured to my grandparents to stop and get down, they fully expected them to obey. But my grandmother, who had been eating sugar beets and who knows what else of late, felt that she would have the runs the moment she got down from her bike, and she didn’t intend to get down until she was home.
So she kept going, screaming as she drove by, “Ich bin krank! Ich bin krank!”
(When she first told me this story, I hadn’t had German lessons yet, and in Dutch “krank” sounds like it would be related to “krankzinnig”, which means insane. So when she told me that the soldiers just looked at her in astonishment and did nothing, I could see why, because she must have been a totally convincing lunatic, better to be left alone. It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that “krank” means sick in German.)
In any case, she drove on, and my grandfather stopped and explained, and luckily nothing happened. So it was a funny story when she told it, but I later realized that it was the kind of situation that could just as easily have resulted in her being shot, depending on the reason for the checkpoint. And that my grandmother was taking quite a risk to maintain her dignity.
I’m sure some of you have much more impressive stories about encounters at German checkpoints on the street during the war. Write a comment.
Like you, the stories I have heard come from my mother’s side of the family for the simple reason that they were in the resistance while my father’s family were on the collaborators side. My parents got divorced when I was about 9 but I do remember that even long after the war, my paternal grandparents kept Hitler and what he did in high regards…
No need to say I don’t like them (and their attitude!) and after my parents got divorced my sister and I never saw that part of the family again.
As to war stories, I remember my grandmother telling me about a raid to look for Jews. It must have been about 1943 and they were living in the oud-West part of Amsterdam. When they barged into my grandmother’s house, she kept the door open because there was half a pig hanging behind the door. Then they went to the house next door and it was opened by a high-ranked SS Officer who demanded to know what they were doing at *his* house. Of course the soldiers were all apologetic and moved on to the next house. Good thing too, because all the Jews from the whole neighborhood were hiding in his house!
He was one of the few good ones who tried to do what he could to help out. Whenever he heard about a raid being held, he warned the people from the resistance and all the Jews who could moved through little gardens and other ways at night to get to his house because they were sure he would never get raided.
There are so many stories I’ve heard, but then my comment would become longer than your blog LOL so I’ll leave them here and there through your presentation I’m going to read now 🙂
Wow, I never heard of an SS officer helping Jews! That’s great! And good for your maternal grandparents! I know that during the war, my paternal grandfather and one of his brothers were anti-German, but another brother was an NSB member, and he harassed the other brother’s wife with letters when her husband was in hiding. So that NSB brother’s part of the family was also pretty much avoided.
To some degree (a very tiny degree) I would be able to put someone’s NSB past behind me if they realized how horribly wrong they’d been, but if your paternal grandparents still adored Hitler after the war, when “we didn’t know” really was no longer an excuse–yeah, that’s unbelievable. Thanks for all your comments. I really appreciate them.