First-person account of a resistance housewife in Holland in WWII. Translated by HvS.
Underground Housewife in World War II Holland
[Letter in Dutch from H. van Rijnbach, who was a housekeeper in the home of an aunt of Hilda van Stockum. Translated by HvS in 1945. Posted on www.boissevain.us site on December 28, 2008] The day the Germans invaded our country, May 10, 1940, our house was topsy-turvy, as I'd just started spring cleaning. So the first thing I did, while everyone else kept running around, was to put back the furniture and dust the carpet. I felt it was the best way to keep calm and the children should at least have an orderly house whatever else happened. The news got worse and worse. Sirens kept blowing and our second-floor neighbors came to us for safety. The children went fully clothed to bed with sneakers on their feet. Other people packed trunks but we did not see the sense of that – we'd have our hands full with five children if we would have to flee. There were rumors of Rotterdam having been bombed and Amsterdam being next on the list. We felt frightened and my husband prayed fervently. We knew God might take all our lives the next day. It was a difficult thing to face, but we tried to stay calm also for the sake of those who sought shelter with us from the street. Instead of being bombed, we got the news of our surrender at three o'clock the next day. My husband broke down and cried. I couldn't. I only felt I would have preferred the bombing. And so came the end, which was also a beginning of years of misery. We knew what to expect – had we not read of German concentration camps? If they didn't spare their own, how should they spare us? [Four days after the invasion, the Germans still hadn’t taken the Netherlands. They were surprised by the extent of the fight by the poorly equipped Dutch army. The Germans demanded the immediate surrender of Rotterdam. When negotiations seemed to be moving slowly, German bombers destroyed much of the city. The German military then threatened to bomb Utrecht. On May 15 the Dutch army gave up everywhere but Zeeland, which held out for two more days until the bombing of Middelburg. JTM] Two weeks after our surrender - i.e., May 29 - we had just sat down to dinner when a big police wagon stopped before our house. A policeman came out with a plainclothes inspector. "What do you want?" my husband asked. "You have the list here of a group of Jewish people who regularly contribute to Jewish charities. We have come to fetch it. If you do not hand it over, others will come who will know how to get it." What could we do? My husband fetched it and gave it to them. The two men departed. My husband and I looked at each other. Slowly it dawned on us that we had done a dreadful thing. We had been taken unawares, fools that we were, and now they had all those Jewish addresses. We realized suddenly what they were after. They are Jew-haters. My husband was shaken. "I should never have given it," he kept muttering. From that moment we resolved to be more careful and never trust the Germans. At first we could not get contact with the Underground though we knew that the illegal newspaper, "Free Netherlands", was being published. We yearned to help and early in February 1941 came our chance..A man entered the printing office, where my husband worked, and ordered a print of the photograph of the General Staff of the conquered Dutch army. This was strictly forbidden. "Are you "safe"?" the man asked my husband. "Thanks be to God,yes,"he answered. "I would like a word with you later," said the man, who proved to be an Officer in hiding. "Will you help us to distribute illegal literature?" For a moment my husband hesitated. It was very dangerous work. He would have to distribute 3,000-4,000 copies of the "Orange Paper" in Amsterdam. Distribution of such papers has been one of the most dangerous underground jobs. My husband is a responsible person. He knew the risk involved, also for his family, but here was at last the longed-for work, the revolt against a hated enemy.(Holland had enough food stored to see her through a blockade of five years and the Germans managed to transport all of it to Germany in six months. It was infuriating to see them walk along the street carrying boxes full of cake and candy and eating sausages out of their fists while we would watch on empty stomachs.) Now our real work began. First we had to find trustworthy helpers. Then we had to divide the work in such a way that no one could guess where the paper came from. How can I describe the suspense when we had launched the papers for the first time? But we realized we could not last long under such a constant strain and found prayer essential for this work too. Slowly our activities spread. The society of Underground officers collected money to send poor children to camps in the country and I had to find out if the parents were "safe". Twice I also went with the children as a councilor but my own family prevented me from doing this oftener. Also, we were more and more immersed in illegal work. The first men began to dive under, refusing to work for Germany. Where must they go? It meant finding addresses of trustworthy farmers and manufacturers who would provide work for the boys as well as shelter. Now my travels began, for my husband could not leave in the daytime. I always started the conversation about food and gradually tried to find out if the person was safe, which was not easy as trust had to come from both sides. Local clergy helped a lot here. But when I had found a hiding-place for a boy, it sometimes happened that he didn't dare to go there alone. I had to bring him. After a while, my husband would not allow that – he said if the boys had enough pluck to dive under, they should be brave enough to go alone. But a mother feels differently, she still sees the "child" – the boys were often barely 18. Our own children were still too young so we did not experience the terrors the parents of those boys had to suffer. The next difficulty was to feed the boys, and the sabotage group of K.P.(Knuckle Gang) found the solution. They organized raids on distribution centers to get the necessary papers and ration tickets. Those were then distributed by another organization. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those heroic men who fed so many and often paid with their blood. One evening, April 1943, the Orange Paper had been delivered at our house. We had to distribute it before curfew. We had just brought away to another address a young underdiver who had been staying with us. We were packing the papers which were piled on the table and I saw there was not enough wrapping paper. I went next door to fetch some, leaving the front door ajar as it would not be noticed in the dark.I was back in two minutes but I thought I saw a car looming in the dusk. I had not put my feet in the hall when my husband met me... "The police are here..." Upon entering the room I saw the situation. Two inspectors in plain clothes and one policeman in uniform. My husband leant against the dresser pale as death, sweat trickling from his forehead. The voice of the inspector near the table brought me back to reality. "What's this here?" he thundered, pointing at the papers.
"Are you crazy, you two, with all your children? Where is your underdiver?” Now we understood why we had received this visit and why there were so surprised to find the papers. Luckily we could tell them truthfully that we had no underdiver. They searched the whole house while the policeman in uniform stayed with us. When the others came back they exchanged glances. The spokesman of the two said: "You are lucky, we usually have a German with us but he is ill tonight." For a tense moment he hesitated. "Do you realize this means life or death for us too?" My husband whispered: "Spare us for the sake of our children." Ten more fateful minutes followed. They went into the hall and we had to stay in the room. We knew if they decided to arrest us we would not have long to live. Would they trust one another? Would they risk being betrayed themselves? They came back into the room. "Burn everything immediately. We'll make our report on the underdiver alone. They may send someone to check up on us. Do as we've told you." We stammered our thanks and they left. My husband was ill with the shock and went to bed. One of the children had heard everything and was very frightened. I stayed to do the work. But I thought it was a pity to burn all those papers so I brought most of them to my friends Mrs. H and Mrs. J., both neighbors. I had to climb the back fence to do so. The rest I burned and even that took me into hiding for two weeks until we were sure the policeman had kept their word. The work became more and more important, we now also distributed part of "Faithful," one of the biggest illegal papers of the country. We also distributed news bulletins, received by radio. For this we made use of the children – they brought the bulletins regularly to certain addresses before curfew. Then "Dick" came to stay with us. He had shot five German policemen and two other Nazis while on sentry duty for our organization. When he arrived at our house he was all to pieces, couldn't sleep or eat for two days. My husband had to convince him that he had done nothing more than his duty, saving the lives of 25 other lads. Dick felt it was terrible to have shot seven men in cold blood. He said it was quite different when he was a soldier defending the bridge before Rotterdam. He and his father stayed with us for two weeks and then we found a safer place for them. Later we learned that he had escaped through France and had joined the Princess Irene Brigade. It was just as well for there was a reward of 10,000 gulden on his head here. Because of what he had done there were severe reprisals in his village and all men there had to go into hiding. We sometimes had 12 in our small house but everything was possible then. The contact with K.P. meant much travelling. Once I had to fetch a suitcase full of uniforms and weapons from the Hague. At the station in Amsterdam, passengers were being searched for smuggled food. An inspector collared me.
"What's in the suitcase?" "Bacon, nothing but scrumptious bacon," I said, patting him on the shoulder. "Get along with ye," he grinned, which I also did, as quickly as I dared. Brr... that was a narrow escape! I was to deliver the suitcase at a certain address the next morning but after my experience at the station I decided I would get rid of it that very evening. It was lucky I did for the next morning that place was raided and I would have walked into a nice little trap.
After that Sonja and Hans came to visit us, two Jewish children snatched from HItler's jaws by friends of ours. We found a good home for them where they still are for their parents died in concentration camps. Once I had to travel to Zwolle but before we could get out at our destination the train was barricaded by Grune Polizei and we couldn't slip through their clutches. There I was with 1,000 illegal papers and also illegal ration books and such like. The papers I had chucked far under the bench but the rest was in my pocketbook. In my desperation I saw only one way out, though it seemed silly. I pretended to be asleep. Four policemen entered our compartment. All suitcases were opened. One German asked pointing at me: "Hat das fraulein keine tasche?" (Has that lady no luggage?) The others shook their heads.Then the policemen left.
One of my fellow passengers looked at me and said: "Hm, all was certainly not well with you." So you see, one can experience all sorts of things when travelling. In May 1944, "Wim" came to us, bringing more activity with him. The neighbors couldn't fail to notice it and questioned the children so we tried to be careful. A young student called "Tom" planned a raid at our house. He and four other students were to attack a place on the Stadion street, but when it came to shooting they couldn't do it. All five were arrested and shot. This shocked us very much. Next came another blow. The raid to liberate 70 prisoners at Weteringschans prison failed through treachery and 17 of our boys were killed. But less than a week later, 57 prisoners awaiting death were liberated from that same prison. The Germans had not expected another attempt so soon and were taken by surprise. Often we lived in suspense. Would the plan succeed? Would the boys come back alive? Sometimes they only arrived towards daybreak. Their weapons we frequently hid in the cradle of my sixth baby and the darling guarded them well. On the night of August 29, a raid was planned on the police station at Overtoom. The boys arrived in Amsterdam that morning and Betsy had to find shelter for them. Betsy is a nice young girl who helped us all these years as did also Mrs. H. whose bicycle was worn out in our service. That afternoon someone tipped me off that they knew about the intended raid at the police station and had warned the Gestapo. .I was alone and didn't know where to find the boys to warn them. I mounted Mrs.H's faithful bicycle and went through pouring rain to look for them. After four hours I at last found "Jack", the leader. Breathlessly I told him what I heard. To my astonishment he roared with laughter. I got mad – after all the trouble I went to. "Are you crazy, to risk all those boy's lives?" He gave me an odd look and said: "Well, if they expect us at 9 o’clock, we'll wait till 11." There was no use arguing. His mind was made up. Later, I realized it was all part of the plan. Patriotic policemen had lent "Jack" a regular police car and he also got hold of two S.S. uniforms. He and friends dressed up as Gestapo men pretended to have arrested three other K.P. comrades and so they went to the police station at Overtoom. "Open up," they shouted in German fashion, "We are the Sicherheidsdienst." The doors flew open and the bowing and scraping policemen went ahead to show where the cells were. In a twinkling they were disarmed and locked up in their own cells. Then the boys plundered the place, destroying lots of valuable records. They came home triumphant at 3 a.m. Of course everyone was talking about it. The funniest moment was when the milkman came in just as all the boys were eating around our table. He began to tell them about the raid, full of praise for the unknown heroes. He said he knew it all first-hand because a customer of his lived near the Overtoom. The boys could hardly keep their faces straight. I enjoyed the situation and made the good fellow repeat his story three times which he did with enthusiasm, praising those "grand boys". At last I couldn't control my own glee and I became an idiot, hiccupping and sputtering. Later, after liberation, we told the milkman the reason for our strange behavior. After that, some more raids - successful – were carried out partly from our house. Then one afternoon we were visited by a strange gentleman who wanted us to supply him with illegal documents. Betsy was with me that day. I told him he was at the wrong address and that he was making a mistake but he persisted and even hinted at the raids at distribution centers. When he had gone Betsy and I looked at each other.
"That's bad," said Betsy. I was also convinced that the fellow was a Nazi. We had noticed already that for some days no one had come to see us and we wondered whether perhaps our house was under suspicion. We decided to warn my husband and tell him to go to his underdiver’s address. Betsy gave the message for me.
"John sick, come." That was the agreed signal. I was relieved and began to get ready myself. I washed everything that evening, though I hated the idea of leaving as so many people were robbing empty houses. .At 5 a.m. there was a ring at the door. My heart went racing. So I was too late!
But it was only a letter which had been thrust under the door. "Fly with all the children, Grune Polizei on your trail, your connection with raids known, police." I knew enough. For one moment I still hesitated and considered sending only the children away but commonsense told me it would probably cost me my life. I was pregnant and because of the scare I got a miscarriage. It was terrible. Sweat poured down my cheeks... now this too and I had to clean up as well as I could. I still don't understand how I got everything done. Within a few hours we had fled, leaving no evidence behind, not even snapshots. Mrs H. and Mrs. J. and Betsy helped wonderfully, I could not have managed without them. They got the children away for me.Betsy brought me and the baby to Overveen. It is lovely to have good friends, I realized that properly then. I shall always be grateful to them. I was so very, very tired and once in the train I could give way to it, but I was full of hope that all would be well yet. Once at Overveen, in the house of friends, my first job was to warn all our contacts not to come to the house any more. Then followed a period of rest, broken only by the distribution of a few ration tickets and little things like that. But my health was bad. The friend in whose house I was knew of a "safe" doctor who gave me injections several times a week but he said only hospitalization could help me and that could not be risked. Anyway I had to go to Amsterdam to arrange about our ration tickets as Betsy didn't know all the addresses. My friends would look after the baby for me. In Amsterdam I heard my house had not been raided but the leader of our organization advised against going back so we kept away all summer. In September, the general railroad strike started and my husband wanted to get back to Amsterdam, where the two of us and Baby stayed with friends. After a week he got a bad attack of scarlet fever and he wanted very much to go to his own home, not being able to get used to living with others all the time. We got the doctor to write a report: "Herr v. Rynbach hat scharlach," as the Germans are scared stiff of that disease and so he went home again.
There's nothing like one's own home no matter how good other people are. Since the Germans left us in peace we decided to fetch the children home too. The girls were in Rhenen, a city shot to pieces by Allied fighting. After a great deal of anxiety on our part we heard through the Red Cross they were alive and we fetched them home on bicycles before Christmas, as well as the boys. There is no room to describe those journeys or the trips for food made by my husband and sons. The food situation became so bad that we finally had to send the children to the country with an illegal group as we could not feed them at home any more. I'll spare you the account of the few crumbs of food on which we had to exist until Sweden sent us bread, butter and cheese like manna from Heaven. At the end of April came the greatest miracle when the Allies dropped the "food bombs". It was like a fairy tale. When the first bombers circled over Amsterdam, wave of emotion went through the people. Even now, as I write, I have a lump in my throat. Men wept unashamedly and everybody waved at the pilots who were plainly visible. On May 5 we were awakened by a banging at our door. It was "Faithful" with the first liberation copies, which had to be delivered immediately. That morning it actually happened that my husband and I ran with unwashed faces into the street, shouting the news. Copies of the paper were torn out of our hands. At 8 we were allowed to hang out our flags. Holland was free. [On May 6, 1945, the German army in Holland surrendered.] I'll never forget that sea of flags. Our illegal work was finished and somehow the thought hurt. The work had been so close to me and now it was all over. I managed to drag myself through the next two days, I wanted to see the entry of the Canadians. My husband wallowed in his freedom. On Tuesday we saw the Canadian army enter. It was lovely. We stood looking at it all day on an empty stomach. There wasn't a speck of food in the house any more, but we were thrilled.
When I came home, I fainted. The doctors said it was hunger edema [protein deficiency] and exhaustion. I couldn't use my legs for three weeks but in six weeks I was well enough to join in the celebration. Mostly we wanted to thank God who had given us strength and courage to do our work and who had so miraculously saved us for one another. We had many narrow escapes, far more than I could write down, but the faithfulness of our friends always saved us. Never do I want to forget what they did for us, especially Mrs. H. and Betsy.