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2014, Aaron Elson



By Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    From "Vignettes from a teenager during the German occupation of the Netherlands, 1940-45)

2001, 2008 Hansje de Zwaan Johnson

    Vader stood at the foot of the stairs and bellowed:

    "Downstairs! All of you, right now! Moeder, get those girls to stop cackling and come down. Bad news. Our country is being invaded!"

    It was May 1940, three months after my fourteenth birthday. On Ascension Day, early in the morning, the German Luftwaffe, (Air Force) bombed Rotterdam. It was a surprise attack. Hitler had assured Queen Wilhelmina that he never would set foot on Dutch soil. We were stunned when we heard the news, but also somewhat relieved that none of our friends or family lived there. We anxiously awaited further developments. Vader was twiddling with the knobs on the radio, annoyed with the static interference. Moeder went to the kitchen. My two sisters and I sat quietly down at the table. Vader shushed us when the news could be heard again. There it came. "Her Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina, and her family have left the Netherlands, and are presently residing in London, England." Nothing but crackling noises followed. He turned the knobs.

    "She went to England?" I called out. "How could she do that? It seems as if she betrayed us. Remember when she declared, 'As a member of the House of Orange, I will never leave my post'?"

    "Listen, little Hothead," Vader said, smiling. "No doubt she followed the advice of the government, not only for her own and her family's safety, but for political reasons."

    "What do politics have to do with it?"

    "Perhaps I should have said for military reasons."

    "What military reasons?" My sisters laughed.

    "You never stop with the questions, do you?" Anna remarked.

    "Let me explain," Vader said. "After all, this is history in the making. You know that we own the East Indies. If more countries get involved in this war, we might lose that colony." (His words were prophetic. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States went to war in December 1941, the Japanese overran what is now Indonesia.)

    "Shush! I hear something." Moving his head closer to the radio, he exclaimed, "My God, no wonder we can hear guns. The airport is attacked by the Luftwaffe. Parachutists are already coming down." We heard the announcer say, "The Netherlands, unlike Denmark, will not let the German army march in without resistance. Our army is actively reacting in defense."

    Vader impatiently shook the radio, but this was the last news we heard. Moeder called from the bay window. "Look, look, you can see them from here, like a biblical plague of locusts!"

    We crowded around her. The street was totally deserted. It was an eerie sight. Living in Amsterdam, not too far from the airport, we heard the constant rat-tat-tat of gunfire. We huddled together. Moeder told us not to be scared. "I doubt if they'll come any closer."

    Vader pulled at my sleeve. "I've got to get some things from the cellar. You come with me, Hattie. In the meantime, if there should be any bombing, you girls crawl under the table. We'll be right back."

    Moeder raised her eyebrows. Was he serious? In the cellar he told me not to ask any questions. We began to fill several jute bags with bottles of aged wine. They were my father's pride. For years, nightly, he turned each bottle just so, "in order to mellow them," he would say. Only rarely, on very special occasions, would he open one or two bottles to celebrate.

    After all the bottles were bagged, Vader took me to the balcony. There, he really surprised me. He took each bottle by its neck, swung his arm back, and threw it against the brick wall. I couldn't believe my eyes.

    "Why are you doing that? Are you going to break all of them?"

    "Yes. I won't let any German soldiers get drunk on my wine, not over my dead body!"

    Now we could now hear the gunfire increasing.

    "Will they come here? Into our house?"

    "You never know. Soldiers can do nasty things."

    He kept on breaking bottles; the shards of glass and spurts of wine were flying in all directions.

    "Go back inside, Hattie. I'll be right in." I was only too happy to leave. Moeder shook her head and said, "He may do the right thing. He already burned two books. I hope he won't get rid of more. Your father has read a great deal about warfare. He's well-informed about such things."

    "I hope he won't destroy any of my books," Anna mumbled.

    "No, he only burned 'Das Kapital' and 'Mein Kampf.' "

    I wondered if he did that for political or martial reasons. He joined us, but I couldn't question him. Although the rifle sounds began to diminish, we heard much louder, hollow, rumbling, squeaky noises. Frightened, we clung to each other.

    Moeder moved the curtains a bit aside so that we could see better. The noise seemed to make the walls tremble. Vader, who was a block leader, said, "Good. I told everyone to stay off the street, and I don't see a soul. That'll tell the German army we aren't glad to see them."

    "What's that terrible noise?" Moeder asked.

    "Advancing tanks. They'll soon be here." Vader spoke curtly. His voice was strained and his face white. I was shaking and Beth made a wailing sound.

    "Stop it, this minute," Vader admonished. This is a time we can't lose our heads. Remember you're Dutch. You control your emotions. When you calm your mind, you can handle difficult situations better.

    "I agree," Moeder said. "We must stay calm." l could feel Anna sniffle at my side and Beth was biting her lower lip. We looked down the street. We could see our neighbors, across from us, peer anxiously from behind their lace curtains. Like us, they probably were wondering what would happen next.

    Suddenly, it seemed as if a large bird descended in front of our house. A teenage German parachutist, wildly pointing a large rifle in all directions, landed on top of a lamppost. There he hung, hooked by his jacket. Slowly he was sliding down. First his pants ripped open, then his underwear followed. My sisters and I giggled like mad while mother tried unsuccessfully to pull us back from the window. We saw him drop his rifle, jump free, and run bottom-naked around the corner of our block. The neighbors' curtains fluttered wildly. We could imagine them laughing as well Our laughter was a hysterical relief from all the frightening tension we were experiencing.

    (Not until the war was over did we learn that this parachutist had been killed by a blow on his head by, of all people, the pastor of the Reformed church!)

    By mid-morning a deathly silence reigned. Next the guns started again and loud rumbling sounds came our way. From around the corner, at the end of the street, we saw a snake-like formation of large tanks approaching. Each tank sprouted a square-helmeted head. Slowly rotating guns pointed up at our windows. Father patted our shoulders, admonishing us to stay calm. I thought he was as scared as we were. We waited fearfully as they kept on coming, slowly advancing with heavy grinding sounds. There didn't seem to be an end to them. We lost count. Grim-looking soldiers marched behind the tanks. I thought how different they looked from our army. Several times during the year I had seen our soldiers march through town, if it could be called marching. They didn't always keep in step. Some smoked; they talked to each other and kidded, and waved at me. It showed how much the Dutch in general disliked wars and army discipline.

    The Dutch army, small and rather undisciplined, resisted as a matter of principle. They made it clear that they objected. The war was over within four days, costing lives and prisoners of war.

    My father was a respected man in our neighborhood. Our house, like the others in the street, had on top a staircase-like stepped stone facade. Behind these facades were the actual flat roofs where people grew plants or hung their laundry to dry. The doors, opening onto the roofs, were usually left unlocked. Two neighbors, one from either side of us, came by way of our roof door down to our living room to ask Vader's advice. Although they talked loudly, they looked as upset as I felt. One of them asked Vader how long we'd be stuck with those Moffen (Germans). He answered, "Seeing those well-trained robots reminds me of history, of the Spartans. It will probably take five years or more before they are defeated."

    When the army column had passed, the two neighbors went home and never spoke to my father again. Because of his remark they considered him a traitor.

    This was my first lesson about how, being under siege, you had to see everything in black or white. The Germans were the bad guys, and we the good guys. If you expressed yourself any other way B for instance seeing grey in between B you were considered a traitor. The proper answer Vader should have given was most likely: "We'll soon kick the bastards out!"

    He proved to be right. We were under German occupation until the Allies liberated us in May 1945.

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