Friday, October 16, 2015

Tales from the Dutch Resistance, Part I

Dutch Resistance
Random members of the Dutch resistance.

Holland is not something that you will hear mentioned very often when the subject of World War II comes up. After it surrendered in May 1940, pretty much the only time anyone mentions it is during the Battle for Arnhem, or as the launch site for V-2 rockets late in the war, or perhaps regarding the last winter of the war when everyone was starving. However, there was a lot going on in Holland throughout the war.

This will begin a series of posts describing one man's wartime experiences in Holland. Whether or not it interests anybody, who can say. But I want to get it all down somewhere.


I have this friend. We'll call him Hans. He's getting on, and needs oxygen. However, he still has his wits about him and uses his computer with some difficulty. He's a tough old bird. That's how you survive.

We'll call this an "as told to" version of history. I may get some details wrong, because I am going from memory, however recent. I'll correct errors as I catch them. Hans likes to tell the same stories over and over, but nobody usually does more than half-listen and mutter disinterestedly how interesting they are.

Is this all true, or just a story? You can decide. But hopefully you will agree that these tales capture the small change of war in a personal way. Oh, and by the way: you won't see these anywhere else.

Tales from the Dutch Resistance, Part I.

It was 1943, and people were starving in Beesel. Work in the coal mines was exhausting, but it was better than a lot of alternatives. Hans was a star there, having gotten his mining license at 22 instead of the usual 23, but that didn't give him any special pull with the Germans. Even if you made a decent wage, there wasn't a lot of food, and food was all that mattered. The Germans needed it, and they didn't ask nicely. There was nothing else to buy anyway.

However, the villagers knew that some people had plenty of food. Farmers knew how to keep enough for themselves, and then some. The Germans would of course come and take whatever they could, but there are a lot of hiding places on a farm.

Hans' father was friends with a farmer, and did some favors for him. The farmer offered some of his food stash in gratitude, but there was a condition: he wouldn't under any circumstances bring it over. If the Germans found anyone with food that wasn't accounted for properly, they would confiscate it and impose some form of discipline. What form that discipline would take wasn't knowable in advance, because there were no rules. At the very least, the food would be taken and a beating would be administered. In addition, the concentration camps weren't that far away, and people from Beesel made that trip for offenses large and small.

Hans' family needed the food, and they were going to get it. Since the farmer wouldn't bring the food over, Hans' father asked Hans to go get it. Of course, there were no cars, and even if you had a car, there was no petrol. Since the farmer lived two towns away and it would be a long walk, Hans decided to ride his bike. To carry the food, he tied a large basket to the back of the bike, one with a big lid that opened on one side.

Riding with a basket could only invite trouble. Hans knew that if the Germans or the collaborators saw it, they would immediately order Hans to stop and examine the basket out of curiosity. There was an alternate way to go that wandered through the fields along a path and led to his house, but that route took longer and required more effort riding on the dirt. Hans decide there was no danger riding with an empty basked, so he rode blithely through the center of town with the basket obvious to all.

It didn't take too long to get to the farm - towns were close together, at least near the German border - and they filled the basket with all sorts of scarce dairy items. Soon, Hans was on his way back. This time, though, he decided that he wouldn't go anywhere near town on the main road. Instead, he would take the alternate route that he had avoided earlier, along the path through the fields that bypassed town.

Hans was passing by a large tree that was kind of a local landmark, only a few minutes from home. He hadn't seen anyone.

Suddenly, someone jumped out from behind the tree and yelled "Halt!" Hans immediately stopped.

It was a rotund man holding a rifle. He had been hiding behind the tree, waiting for someone like Hans to come along on this "hidden" route.

Hans recognized the man. He was a German refugee who openly collaborated with the authorities in a sort of adjunct police force. Many Germans had fled the Saar years earlier when the French took it over as reparation for World War I, and the man was one of their leaders. For some reason, they had settled in Holland along the border with Germany in towns such as Beesel. Why they didn't just go back to other parts of Germany was unclear to Hans, and these weren't people to make idle conversation with. Hans just knew that there were a lot of them around, and they all were dangerous.

Hans dismounted, put down the kickstand in the back, turned and took a step forward next to the man near the tree. The bike's typical stand in the back made it stand up straight.

"What do you have in the basket, boy?" the man asked in Dutch.

"Nothing, just some clothes," Hans lied.

"Show me the clothes."

Hans stepped back. "No, if you want to see them, you need to open it yourself."

The man shrugged. He leaned his rifle against the tree and walked around the bike. He went to the basket and carefully lifted the lid. Instantly, he saw the food. He looked up at Hans over the lid and grinned. "Nothing, huh?" Licking his lips, the man leaned back down to examine what he had found for himself.

Hans watched  the man's head disappear below the lid of the basket as he poked through the cheese and milk. He felt a deep sense of resentment. His family was hungry, like everyone else's, and it was his family's food, not this oafish foreigner's. In addition, Hans knew that he would get in a huge amount of trouble when the man inevitably turned him over to the authorities, probably losing his job at the mine.

The anger built up in him. He reached over unobserved and grabbed the rifle that the man foolishly had leaned against the tree. Biggest mistake the man would ever make, he thought grimly.

Turning and raising the rifle high over his head, Hans swiftly brought the butt of the rifle down as hard as he could on the man's head. There wasn't a lot of thought about it. He just did it.

The man, engrossed in his fabulous find of scarce food, never noticed. He collapsed instantly and lay where he fell.

Hans looked around. He didn't see anyone.

With all of his might, he threw the rifle as hard as he could into the pasture. It disappeared into the hay.

Leaving the man where he lay, Hans secured the basket again and got back on his bike. The ride home was uneventful, and he was home within minutes. The food tasted great, but Hans didn't feel well and went to bed early without talking to anyone.


I mentioned to Hans, who was well known in Beesel, that his "victim" probably saw Hans riding blithely through town on his bike that day with the basket, but didn't stop him on purpose. The man likely figured that Hans would be returning later with something in the basket, and whatever the basket contained would serve nicely in the man's own home. The man also probably figured that nobody would be so obvious with a full basket of contraband, so the basket as Hans pedalled through town undoubtedly would be empty and there was no point in stopping him.

However, when the basket was full of something, the man also would have figured that nobody would be foolish enough to expose it to view by riding through the center of town. And, there was only one route in that direction that bypassed Beesel - the path with the large tree. The man probably just set up a blind and waited patiently until Hans rode into the trap. A basket full of food would be well worth the wait. There was nothing else to do anyway.

Hans said he had never considered it.

Part II is here.


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