The War Years

This year (2015), the Olders clan is celebrating our SIXTY YEARS IN CANADA anniversary. Sixty years ago Joseph and Gera, with their five children settled in Canada, in Scarborough, now part of Toronto. Joseph had arrived by himself two years before the rest of his family, as he was required to do, to find a job, and a house. We date our entry into Canada from the arrival of Gera and the children, in October, 1955. Our life in Holland, and our early years in Canada are recounted in a short series of memoirs we called Down Memory Lane which we wrote for our parents for their 50th wedding anniversary. Ine also wrote short biographical sketches of our parents before they got married. All this can be found on the family website.

Reading through all this material, I realized that the war years were not mentioned much. The war experience was pivotal for us as a family, because the main reason for immigrating to Canada was our father‘s fear of another war in Europe. Moreover, the war years remained, for many years after the war ended, an absorbing topic of conversation and reminiscence whenever our parents and their friends got together. I realize that I am the only one who remembers the many stories told by them about their life during the Nazi occupation. It was a time when they suffered incredible hardships and heartbreak. Yet they also appeared to have been years when they lived most intensely, and forged unbreakable friendships. So I want to share with you a short account of how your parents/grandparents/greatgrandparents endured and survived the war and the Nazi occupation of Holland.

Joseph or Jos, Vader and Dad to us, and Opa to all our children, was born in Tegelen in 1911. His father, Peter Willem, whose family had lived in Tegelen for many generations, owned a shoe repair business, and his mother, Anna Indemans, came from Germany, from Dulken, right across the border.

He was the second child, and had an older sister, Anna Helena, and a younger brother, Theodoor.

Joseph became a scout master, learned to play the violin, and went on frequent cycling trips with his friends, staying in youth hostels or tenting.

Both Anna and Theo became teachers, and Theo eventually became an instructor in the mines in southern Limburg (province). Although Josef would have become a teacher if he had had a choice, as the oldest son he was expected to take over his father’s business. Accordingly, he qualified as a shoe maker in August of 1938.

The following year, tragedy struck. In one terrible month, March, Joseph lost both his sister, who died of rheumatic fever, and his father, who died a week later.

At this point, Holland was beginning to mobilize, to face the threat of the Nazis. In common with all young men in Holland, Joseph had been called up for his “national service” at age 19, serving in the 2nd Regiment Infanterie, which was a Limburgs regiment, with headquarters in Venlo, just north of Tegelen.

After his two year army stint was finished, he went back several times for refresher training, more frequently as the situation in Europe deteriorated.   Shortly after his father and sister died, he was called up again, in April 1939, but released shortly thereafter in early May, so that he could look after his mother, and his father’s business. However, on August 29th, 1939, there was a general mobilization in Holland when every man was called back to the army. Because Joseph had been released for a few months in the summer, when he went back he was placed in a different unit than he had been in before. According to my father, that saved his life, since almost the entire unit that he had served with previously was wiped out in the short but fierce fighting before Holland surrendered on May 10th, 1940. In Tegelen, which was a scant 10 km from the German border, the German army walked or drove into Holland through the small town in their thousands, an invasion that lasted the entire day of May 10th. While they marched, apparently, they sang “Wir fahren gegen Engeland” and the Tegelse youth followed them, goosestepping, singing “ploens, ploens, ploens” or “splash, splash, splash”

All of us know the story of how our parents met, but not the when. At some point when Joseph was in the army he was stationed in Oss. One day he was sent to the firm Keyzers on the Molenstraat on an errand. While waiting there he spotted a violin lying on the counter, and one thing leading to another, he was invited to return to meet the family and make some music. Thus he met his future wife, Gera.

Gera, (Moeder or Mom and finally Oma) was born in 1910, and lived with her parents Piet Keizers (known affectionally in Oss as “Pietje de Keizer) and Anna Meussen, and unmarried siblings in a large house which also housed a moving business, and an upholstery business.

Gera was the middle child and had three sisters, Truus, Marietje and Annie, and two brothers, Johan and Henk. It was a very close, happy and busy family. Gera herself went to teacher’s college, and began teaching in Oss by the time she was eighteen. Like Joseph, she loved to travel, and took a trip by herself (unheard of at that time) on a cruise ship going to the fjords of Norway. Also like Joseph, she was enthusiastic about music, in her case, singing in a choir. It is no wonder that music was the means by which they came together. By the end of 1939, they were writing to each other and shortly thereafter became engaged.

On June 8, 1940, the army was disbanded and Joseph went back to Tegelen to resume his life. Five long years of German occupation began. At first the occupation was not too onerous. The Nazi government planned to add the Dutch to its Third Reich as fellow citizens, and were inclined to see themselves as generous conquerors. Strange that the Dutch were not impressed with this and they tended to be unco-operative. Of course a curfew was imposed, with no one allowed on the streets between midnight and 4 am. Many commodities, such as gasoline, were rationed, and food, gasoline, tobacco, etc became steadily more expensive. In the summer of 1940, however, despite the war, Tegelen had its Passie Spel,   This beautiful play of the Passion was performed every five years in an open air theatre. The actors and actresses were all locally recruited, and for a year or so before the play took place, the men would grow their hair long, and also grow beards. Believe me, in those days that was a very unusual sight. Joseph played violin in the an orchestra called Mignon, (later to become the Tegelse Symfonie Orkest) which was the official Passion Play orchestra.

The occupation did not stop the courtship between Joseph and Gera, although it certainly added to the difficulties. Holland is a country bisected by rivers, and many of the bridges crossing these rivers had been destroyed by the defenders in a vain attempt to stop the German Army from overrunning the country. As soon as the Germans were in full possession, they began to replace the bridges with pontoon bridges and ferries. Thus, while difficult, it was still possible to travel between Oss and Tegelen. Gera, in fact, cycled from Oss to Tegelen several times with one or other of her sisters, a round trip of some 177 km!

Joseph and Gera were married in Oss on September 7th 1943. Joseph’s mother, Anna, had died in July, so Theo and his wife, Greta, were the only family members who came to Oss for the wedding.   For months before the wedding, Gera’s father had been engaged in fierce trading to obtain what was necessary for a smashing wedding reception. Food was already very scarce and rationed as well (a lot of food was taken to Germany during the occupation), and money had no value; barter became a way of life. The wedding dinner was almost sabotaged because while the cooking was going on, the electricity, as often happened, was shut off. Fortunately, several neighbours had wood stoves, and the dinner was carried to the neighbours in covered pots and pans to be finished out of the house. In spite of this the wedding went off beautifully, and we are lucky to have some fine photos of the happy couple.

Gera and Joseph set up housekeeping in Tegelen, in Joseph’s parents’ house, where Joseph continued his shoe repair business. (After the war, in 1948, Joseph qualified as a chiropodist, and set up a second business as the town‘s only chiropodist.)

On June 29th, 1944, their first (of five) child was born, called Johanna Catharina, and Hannie for short. As the occupation dragged on, living conditions became steadily worse, and it seemed as if the war would never end. To obtain information on the progress of the fighting in the rest of Europe and North Africa, the Dutch relied on the reports of the English BBC, rather than German propaganda. The Germans made it a crime to own and listen to a radio, punishable by being sent to an internment camp. So everyone who had a radio kept it well hidden and listened to the BBC in the utmost secrecy

Of course, anyone who knew Joseph would know that he could not live without his radio. During the Cuban missile crisis he listened to the radio 24 hrs a day, while events were unfolding. So the Olders family of course had a radio! There were several close calls when German soldiers burst into the house searching for contraband goods, or maybe acting on a tip that radio listening was being committed. Once the radio was dumped hastily in the pram under the sleeping baby. When Gera led the soldiers to the room where the baby was sleeping in her pram, she motioned to the soldiers to be quiet so as not to wake the baby. The shushing was passed all the way down the line of soldiers as they tiptoed past the room, completely omitting to search. Another time, the radio was still in plain sight, albeit covered with a doily, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin placed on top. Miraculously, the danger of discovery was averted once more.

The Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944 signalled for many the beginning of the end of the war, and there was new hope. However, for the Olders family, and for the whole of Holland the worst year of the war now began. Germany, with its armies deployed on several fronts was desperate for workers, leading to the infamous razzias. These had been a feature of life all during the occupation, but greatly intensified at this time. A group of German soldiers would surround a neighbourhood, or a few streets, and haul forth every male between 16 and 60, to be shipped off to Germany as slave labourers. Most public buildings, and most private houses had ingenious hiding places. Joseph and Gera had a hiding place under the floor of a downstairs room where the baby napped in her pram during the day. When a razzia threatened, a trapdoor could be lifted, Joseph would disappear in the hiding space between the floors, the rug was placed back over top and the pram placed on the rug. Believe it or not, Gera used the same ploy, “ssh, the baby’s sleeping” to lead the soldiers away from the hiding place.

One day the soldiers were too close to attempt to open the trap door. Joseph ran out the back door and climbed over the brick wall at the back of the garden. Behind the house was an estate with a mansion set in a large garden. The people living there owned several dogs, and had constructed a large solid kennel. Joseph dove into the dog kennel and found it already occupied – by the gardener who was also hiding from the razzia.

Towards the end of 1944 the Allied troops had reached Holland, and the bombing and shelling intensified. Joseph and Gera kept the baby in a little carry basket right beside the front door. As soon as the sirens started , they scooped up the basket and ran across the street to neighbours who had a deeper cellar than they had. By November of that year, the English troops had reached the western side of the Maas. Tegelen, lying on a narrow strip of land between the eastern side of the Maas and the German border, became a total war zone. The Germans were shelling the English across the river, and the English were shelling the Germans who were stationed in Tegelen itself. The shelling and the bombing became so constant that most people lived in their cellars or other bomb shelters 24/7. Joseph and Gera were invited by some good friends, the Hermans family to seek safety in their large cellar. They shared the space with several other families.

The winter of 1944/45 was a tremendously cold winter. There was very little food, no electricity, and no running water, so you can imagine how horrendous conditions were. Because of malnutrition and poor hygiene, many people came down with a condition called scabies. Heretofore it had always been considered a disease of the poorest of the poor, and when Joseph developed it on his hands, he was mortified.

He most likely picked up scabies from his work as a Red Cross volunteer. The Tegelse Red Cross had been organized in 1938, a year and a half before the war broke out. During the Occupation, the Tegelse Red Cross was very active with many volunteers working out of different stations across the town. In November 1944 they established a permanent post in a school in a neighbourhood called Op de Heide. One of the volunteers at the post kept a diary, which was later incorporated in a commemorative booklet about the Tegelse Red Cross work during the war.   Joseph was assigned to this post, and from the diary we can get some insight into life during the last year of the war.

Because travel across Tegelen had become so dangerous, the Red Cross posts had facilities so that the volunteers could live there, and be instantly available when needed. They established a temporary hospital when the town’s main hospital was taken over by the German army, operated clinics, transported sick and wounded people to the hospital, organized a soup kitchen, and made frequent trips to the countryside to obtain food for this, helped rescue people from bombed out houses, gave first aid, carried messages, and helped people who ran afoul of the occupiers to “disappear”. The Red Cross also helped “slaves” from Russia, Poland or the Ukraine, brought to Holland by the Germans to construct defensive works. They were hidden in the in the Cistercian Abbey, as well as the many other cloisters, convents and mission houses that dotted Tegelen/Steyl. The Red Cross received from the Germans five “ausweisze” which enabled Red Cross volunteers to travel outside of Tegelen, and to ignore the night curfew. Two hours after these precious documents were handed over to the Red Cross, one of the volunteers, a skilled forger, copied the passes. The first to receive a bogus “Ausweis” was Joseph.

The copy of the diary that we have begins Nov 17, 1944, when the post at the neighbourhood of Op de Heide was established in the local school. Joseph had been assigned to the new post, and he appeared there Nov 21st. “Jozef sleeps here at night……For him this first night is likely to be long and restless.” There are quite a few references to Joseph and his “vrouwtje”, (little wife) – Gera apparently visited the post on a regular basis. On Sunday, Nov 26th, the diarist notes “ There has been a visit to the post. Jozef says goodbye to his little wife, just like in the beautiful season of young love.”

We have some pictures of that time when Joseph was a Red Cross Volunteer. He is dressed in overalls, with a helmet on his head, and he posed together with several other members of the Red Cross team. Although at the beginning the Red Cross possessed two ambulances, these were very quickly requisitioned by the Germans. According to the diary, and the photos, their main transport was a “bak fiets” This very useful type of bicycle was widely used in Holland for deliveries. The red Cross used it to transport the sick and wounded to hospital or clinic, to collect the dead, to forage for potatoes in the country side to keep the soup kitchen supplied, to take medical supplies where they were needed. Truly, the bakfiets had a thousand uses.

Occasionally, there were festive occasions at the post, such as New Year’s Eve, Dec 31st , 1944, when Joseph appeared at the post with two bottles of wine, some cigars, cigarettes and tobacco – a New Year’s gift from the Red Cross administration. Maybe that was also the time that Joseph swallowed a live spider on a dare, to get a few cigarettes. We children used to gag at this story, but for Joseph the lure of the nicotine made it worthwhile. But most of the work was backbreaking as well as heartbreaking, and often very dangerous. Joseph told the story of how, on one of his trips for the Red Cross, he had been caught out in the open when the sirens began giving the alarm. Not being anywhere near a bomb shelter, he threw himself on the ground next to a wall, covered his head with his arms, and prayed. When the shelling was over, and the all-clear sounded, he discovered a large piece of grenade shell a few centimetres from his head.

According to the diary, one day a young girl came to the post to ask for a doctor for someone in her house who was dangerously ill. Maybe this was before the Ausweisze arrived, but Joseph dared to go out, evaded the German patrols, and was successful in bringing the doctor to the sick patient. Another day in January 1945, according to the diary, Joseph and another volunteer Jan took their bicycles to go in search of a cache of food that had been reported in the countryside. But as Joseph and Jan pedaled from Tegelen to Belfeld it became a race between life and death. “Why don’t you go first, Jan?” said Joseph. “If they shoot your head off, at least I will remain” But they passed the deadly area, and came back triumphantly with some syrup, grain and bread.”

Another story Joseph liked to tell was about the time he was in the tower of the parish church – the Martinus kerk – on lookout duty, watching for fires, etc. When the clock struck twelve midnight, he just could not resist, picked up the hammer and gave the bell a thirteenth stroke! In February of 1943, the very last bell of the Martinus Kerk was removed from the tower by the Germans, and thereafter , during the duration of the war, the hours were no longer tolled, and especially not with thirteen tolls. The spire of this church tower was destroyed by the English on Dec 1, 1944, because they believed, mistakenly, that there was a German watch post in there.

According to the Red Cross diary, the most intense artillery duel took place on Sunday, Dec 2, 1944, between the Germans in Tegelen, and the English across the river. On that day it looked like the whole of Tegelen was on fire, and from the Red Cross post, Joseph could see his street on fire. A phosphorus bomb had hit his house, and destroyed most of it.   Fortunately Gera was sheltering at the time in the Hermans’ cellar with the baby, and of course Joseph was at the Red Cross post. Gera, years later, still mourned the loss of all her wedding gifts that her family and friends had so painstakingly found or made for her.

To add to the misery of the constant bombing and shelling, the winter of 1944/45 became known as the “hunger winter”, because at that point most of the food had been taken to Germany. Joseph used to tell us, his children, when we complained about food, that during the war, they were glad to eat half-rotten potatoes and potato peels. A half slice of hard gray bread was considered a full meal. It was at that time, too, that the baby developed a very bad case of gastro-enteritis, complicated by general malnutrition. Joseph and Gera took her to the hospital. The nursing sister showed them a ward full of very sick babies, many of whom would probably die. She recommended that they take their child back to their shelter, and nurse her there. Fortunately I survived.

Whenever there was a lull in the shelling, everyone emerged from their shelters to go foraging for food. Gera used to ride her bicycle to the farms around Tegelen to get food, and especially milk for the baby. As that time, knowing that they had lost the war, the Germans commandeered every type of wheeled transport, down to the humble wheelbarrow, so that they could make a quick escape should it become necessary. One day when Gera was riding out of Tegelen, she was stopped by a young German soldier at a checkpoint, and ordered to surrender her bicycle. Gera held on tightly to the handlebars, and pleaded with the soldier to let her keep the bicycle which she needed desperately to get milk for the baby. Finally the soldier told her to hide the bicycle behind a wall at the checkpoint. If he let her take the bike with her, he said, the soldiers at the next checkpoint would just take it away. Gera had no idea whether she would ever see her bicycle again, but when she returned later that day, she found the bike still safely hidden. Gera used to tell this story to point out that many ordinary German soldiers were decent human beings who were just as sick of the war as the Dutch were.

In March 1st 1945, Tegelen was finally freed by the “Tommies” as the English soldiers were called. Gera and the baby stayed with her parents in Oss until their bombed house could be roughly repaired and made habitable. But Joseph had had enough of war and occupation. He decided to immigrate. His first choice was Brazil, where a group of Dutch Reformed Protestants had received a land grant from the Brazilian government. They planned to set up a totally self-sufficient Dutch colony, and were happy to have Joseph join them as their shoe maker. Joseph studied Portugese for two years with a missionary priest from the Mission House in Steyl. Then, for some reason, he changed his mind, and decided to immigrate to Canada. During these post war years, the family expanded – Wim or Bill was born January 6, 1946, Piet, or Peter on March 14, 1947, Henk or Henry on June 6, 1948, and Ine on June 11, 1950. Because he had a large family, the Canadian government required him to come to Canada ahead of the family, to find a job and a place to live. Joseph left for Canada in 1953, and Gera stayed behind with the children. She found a teaching job to help with finances, wound up the shoe repair business, sold the house, packed up all the worldly goods for shipment to Canada, dealt with the immigration authorities in the Hague, and finally shepherded her five children on board the Zuiderkruis for the week long voyage to Canada. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

We should rightly celebrate our brave Joseph and Gera, who survived a war and occupation, then traveled with five children to a new country, and a whole new life.

Leave a Reply