Eleventh of the Eleventh
My mother and father, Greta and Jan, had two small children – one and four years old respectively – when the German army invaded the country on May 10, 1940. Under German occupation, Dutch society needed to continue functioning as must my father, who was chief of police in a provincial town in the East of the Netherlands. They lived in a town close to that of Greta’s mother, who ran a farm. Jan was a policeman. His top brass instructed all police to continue on the job. While life seemed unchanged with the occupation – at least for a while – it drastically fell apart.
About two decades earlier, Greta’s mother, Johanna, and her Dutch husband, Hendrik, had immigrated from Germany to Holland. Greta and her twin brother, Hans, were nine. The family had saved enough money in Germany to buy some land in the Netherlands after working for years on the railroad. They purchased a piece of farm land, and a duplex farmhouse in town.
Hendrik had migrated to Germany in the thirties when jobs were scarce in the Netherlands. He got a job laying railroad tracks and worked his way up to become an overseer. This was when Hendrik met my German grandmother. They got married and Johanna followed Hendrik with a wagon along the rail tracks, selling food and goods to the railroad workers. Their five children – two sets of identical twins and one other child- all born within four years, traveled with Johanna in the covered wagon. While this must have been a hard life for the parents, it was probably interesting for the children. You could say my mother and her siblings were born travelers. They were also German-born. Photos in the family album show Greta as a young woman together with her siblings, including twin brother, Hans, and her father, busy harvesting the hay. A horse was waiting patiently in its harness before a half-loaded cart in the field. These sepia-toned tiny photos show an idyllic and happy family, hardworking. Greta and Jan didn’t have children yet in the photos.
After Hendrik died in his sixties, Hans, who still lived at home and was a bachelor, helped Johanna with the farm. He also had a job as a mechanic. When he got married, he move with his wife into the other side of Johanna’s duplex-farmhouse. In winter, the pigs and a cow lived in the back of the farmhouse within the dark confines of a stable. This was next to a small room that contained a non-flushable toilet. A clean stable and never too smelly, it was just a bit scary for a small child having to use the toilet after dark because the whole area was lit by only one bare bulb. Johanna kept chicken in a henhouse beside the orchard at the back of the farmhouse.
Greta became a nurse in a psychiatric institution after high school and worked there until she married Jan. I saw photos of him as an attractive and athletic young man, who was into boxing and target shooting. He was a bit of a jock. He enrolled in the military mounted police force. Jan and Greta had two boys – aged one and four – when war broke out. My eldest sister, Maggie, was born during the war. Before the war, my parents were visiting back and forth with all of the extended family, but things changed after the war. My father was transferred to another town, where my sister was born, a few months after the German capitulation. A few years later Dad was promoted to another town – his last position before retiring – where I was born as the last and fifth child. Growing up, I occasionally visited Johanna’s house with my mom. I had never met Opa Hendrik; he died before my time. I didn’t get to know Uncle Hans and Aunt Liz. My mom told me Hans had always been a follower, while she was the bossy one of the two. Nevertheless, he must have been smart, as he went to a pre-academic program and got an HBS diploma.
Hans and Liz had a child, little Hans, who was a couple of years younger than me. When my mother and I visited Johanna, I secretly got to play with little Hans out in the backyard; his home was forbidden territory. My mom forbade me to play with him, but kids being kids, we found a way. My mother assumed an atypical attitude in dealing with Johanna’s next door neighbours, my uncle and aunt. Usually, a kind and very friendly woman with all, Greta became a different person and turned mean in the presence of little Hans’ parents. When we happened to run into Hans or his wife in the yard, Greta gave them the cold shoulder. She froze them out from any contacts with me and blocked me from the possibility of me building any real memories about them. They were as uninteresting and untouchable as mud. Once in a while I heard snippets of conversation between Johanna and Greta in accusatory tones from another room. They stopped talking as soon as I entered the space. Only after diving into the family history- 60 years later-did it become clear to me what alienated Hans from the family. To me as a four-year-old, these adults were incomprehensible.
My eldest brother is thirteen years older and he has some memories of war times. I got to hear about those memories, much later at a family reunion. My parents did not talk about the war. I have no memory of it, although the war ruled my childhood, and my parents wore its effects underneath their everyday lives like ill-fitting and scratchy wool underwear. In grade school, my teachers taught beyond the three Rs and held forth on the perils of discrimination and intolerance. At a young age I saw photos and movies of living skeletons. There were people who had survived concentration camps – people who were either Jewish, or different in some way. I later understood that to mean they were homosexual, developmentally delayed or otherwise disabled – attributes that were punishable by death in the eyes of the Nazis.