A Safe House: Holland, 1940-45|
by Maria Jacobs
Canada and the Liberation of The Netherlands, May 1945
by Lance Goddard, ed.
Post Your Opinion
by Clara Thomas
Holland was overrun by the Nazis in 1940 and occupied until 1945. A Safe House tells the story of Maria Jacobs, ten years old when the occupation began, her brother Wil, and her mother, Lucie, who sheltered Eli, Naomi, Lena and Joe, all Jews, in their home during these dangerous years. Ostensibly they were by themselves: Maria's father, Jaap Schroder, a captain in the Merchant Marine, had got away to work for the allies. When, in 1943, the Nazis began to pick up teenage boys to work at their barracks or in the camp nearby, Lucie was able to place Wil in a merchant marine officers' training school at Enthuizen in the north of Holland. In fact, until Wil left, seven people lived in their small house: "My mother and I were the only legitimate occupants of our house on the park and were alone with our hidden friends who, as Eli later wrote, held no title to their lives." Shortly before the war, Lucie and Jaap Schroder had separated and already Maria had vowed to hold on to her mother, "tight and for always. The war made me honour my vow."
When the occupation began their two small spare rooms were occupied by two Jewish women, Stella and Nurse Oppen. Lucie became progressively more angry and concerned as she watched them fixing on their clothes the yellow stars they were forced to wear. Stella left to join relatives in the eastern part of the country, but Nurse Oppen disappeared after German officers had come to the house looking for her. They never saw her again. When Wil brought a friend, Eli, home to hide him, she welcomed him; within a month, three others, Joe, Lena and Naomi, had become permanent refugee-guests. Maria had been only ten when the occupation began, but she learned its grimness quickly: an initial evacuation, though it lasted only five days, involved a 12-hour trip to the north of Holland and the quick relinquishing of all their possessions. The Nazis set up a prison camp not far from their house, and Maria and her friends used to stop and watch the prisoners at work preparing a shooting range. The hunger and despair of the prisoners, and the brutality of the guards towards them made indelible marks on their childhood and impelled Maria to whole-hearted commitment to her mother's project.
A Safe House was first published in 1983, called Precautions Against Death. It had begun as a series of twenty poems, "war poems" Maria calls them, which she submitted to Mosaic Press in 1982. She wrote prose passages to link them at her editor's request and the slim book made an impressive debut. For twenty years it remained a well known memorial to Holland's occupation. In 1984 Maria also translated it into Dutch for publication. As time passed it became more and more obvious to her that the story wasn't losing its appeal. On the contrary, her five children and everyone else who read it were eager for more detail, a fuller account of those perilous years and after. A Safe House is the result-a much expanded version including a Coda, entitled "Twenty Years Later", which completes the story of the wartime family who endured so much so successfully: "I know that no one lives long enough to get the full picture of Hitler's legacy-if only because the horrors of fascism continue-perhaps under different banners, for different groups-but they continue."
The text leads us chronologically through the years, with the speaker of each poem identified, and the prose links explaining and enlarging its context. Throughout, both in poetry and prose, the words are plain, their meaning unmistakable, and their impact, for that reason as well as for the story they tell, rock-solid. Mother's poem, "Team" for instance, speaks of Maria. It ends:
"She sees what I see
There is no option
We're a team of two
against the dark."
Eli, in the poem "Precautions Against Death", describes digging a trench under the house, big enough to sleep the four refugees:
"We spend days there and nights. When raids are on
the gentle woman who owns the house
lowers the trapdoor, answers the soldiers
while her child covers us with papers
then apples in rows: winter storage they'll say."
The attentions they received from Holland's very active Resistance are recorded-ration books, news, sometimes food and always the total secrecy that was so essential to survival and connected so many of the wartime Dutch. As the occupation dragged on, the foraging for food and shelter became more and more crucial and difficult, and Maria's role became increasingly essential to the wellbeing of all. She was messenger and labourer, and always, at school and with her friends, bound to strictest secrecy. The story climaxes in the coming of the Canadian liberators in early May of 1945, after the "winter of hunger", when, exhausted and hungry, the entire population finally rejoiced: "ALL Canadians were wonderful by definition. They were witty, clever, they spoke a fascinating language, wore impressive uniforms, smiled radiant smiles, left trails of cigarettes and Lifesavers. They were creatures from another world, bringing plenty and good cheer."
The Coda, "Twenty Years Later", completes the story of Lucie and Maria, Eli, Naomi, Lena and Joe, with a trip to Jerusalem made by Lucie and Maria, Wil and Christien, his wife. In 1983, Eli and Naomi were instrumental in having them invited to Israel, to be honoured by Yad Vashem, and to have a tree planted on the "Avenue of Righteous Gentiles" where their names were recorded. In every way it was a happy reunion and a wonderful finale to the story of Lucie and Maria's total commitment to the ideals they lived by and were prepared to die for.
There could not be a more fitting companion to their story than Lance Goddard's book, Canada and the Liberation of The Netherlands, May 1945. He has collected the reminiscences of a large group of Dutch who endured the war years in Holland, and of Canadians who were among the liberating troops. In addition, there are excellent illustrative maps, many pictures, a careful list of participants, both Dutch and Canadian soldiers and airmen, and a brief foreword by Major General Richard Rohmer, a R.C.A.F. Fighter Pilot and veteran of the Liberation army.
Chapter I, "The Darkness", begins with an account of the brief, heart-breaking conquest in early May and its aftermath. Ted Brabers testifies:
"Intent on setting an example, the Nazis retaliated against an exhibition of Dutch resistance at Noordoostpolder by sending 130 Dutch men to Buchenwald concentration camp on October 10. By November, all Jews who had worked in the civil service prior to the invasion were summarily dismissed. Included in that group were a chief justice of the Dutch Supreme court and forty-one university professors."
The cold-blooded, organized campaign to rid Holland of the Jews is painful to read about, even at this distance of 65 years. By 1941 Jewish children could no longer go to school. Ada Wyston's story is one of thousands:
"It started with an afternoon when my mother wanted to go on a visit and my father said 'Please don't it's too dangerous' and my mother was unstoppable, and she and I went out together. She wore the star on her dress, and my star was under my cardigan . . . after about two stops the SS was there, and they hauled all the Jews off the streetcar. Those whose stars were visible. I don't know whether my mother blinked at me or made a move-I crawled around the streetcar and I went back home and just said, Mom is gone. From that point on everything went downhill."
Ada's mother and 72 of her family members died in Auschwitz and Sobibor along with most of her father's family.
Subsequent chapters describe the various campaigns in which Canadian forces were instrumental in the process of achieving liberation: first, A Ray of Hope, the Operation Market Garden, which led to disaster at Arnhem, then the battle of the Scheldt, Winter on the MAAS, the Rhineland Campaign, and The Final Phase, in which Canadian troops pushed west across Holland and the British and Americans battled across Germany. In all of these, Canadian veterans from various regiments, as well as the R.C.A.F. and Paratroop Battalions, recall their experiences. Jan de Vries, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, remembers:
"This was ten o'clock, broad daylight, a bright sunny day-but the Germans knew we were coming and they just shot the heck out of us. When I was coming down the field was covered with bodies-some wounded and some killed. Our colonel was shot down."
The final chapter, "De Bevrijding" (the Liberation) May 5, 1945, tells of the ultimate rejoicing, though many cities had to wait several days to welcome the liberators. Elly Dull:
"The Canadian had hands full of cigarettes and chocolates, and they just threw them off so that the people would disperse for a moment so they could advance another two or three metres. I was so desperate to get to the truck and to find some chocolates or cigarettes or anything, then someone very very thin picked me up and put me in the cabin of this truck, right on the lap of the guy who drove. There I was, it was just a phenomenal experience."
Elly Dull's own story of the 50-year anniversary of the liberation is a moving and fitting Coda:
"There were planeloads of veterans going over, I think six thousand in total plus their care givers. We went in April and I made sure that my children were there because they were really brought up with this story, and I remember being moved, and there were some veterans ahead of me in Schipol airport and as they went through the passport check the veteran presented his passport and the customs official said, 'Sir, we didn't ask for your passport when you entered here fifty years ago, and we don't ask for it now. Please be welcome.'"
The Canadian War Cemeteries in Holland, so faithfully cared for by Dutch children under the direction of their teachers are a permanent tribute to Canadian liberators. Gert van't Holt:
"When I walk around the Holten Canadian war Cemetery I always get sad when I read the ages of the young men who are buried here-eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. They came over to a strange land far from home and gave their lives for people they didn't know . . . In one way or another they are our friends, and we will always take care of this cemetery to thank the people who came over to liberate us."