Ada Minderhoud was six years old and living near Rotterdam when the Germans invaded Holland in 1940. It would be five years before Allied troops, many of them Canadian, liberated the country. As the 70th anniversary of the liberation approaches, Minderhoud, now Ada Serson, looks back on a child’s view of life under German occupation.
The month of May always brings back many memories for me. It was May 5, 1945, when the Germans capitulated and the Allied Forces liberated Holland.
This story is about ordinary citizens in Holland, living through the Second World War. None of my friends died, while our honourable Canadian veterans lost many dear friends in the process of fighting for our freedom.
However, every person I knew suffered some kind of loss. They suffered loss of relatives, loss of education, loss of sanity, loss of finances and/or homes.
But above all, we all lost our feeling of security. We never knew what the next day would bring. Routines were gone forever, and every day was a battle for survival.
I was six years old when Hitler interrupted my life with his evil and depraved dream of ruling Europe and populating it with the Aryan race. He not only interfered with my life, but with millions of other children. On May 10, 1940, the Germans gave the city of Rotterdam the ultimatum to surrender or it would be bombed on May 14. It surrendered immediately, but nonetheless, on May 14, heavy bombardment started on Rotterdam about 1:45 p.m. They bombed Rotterdam so thoroughly that the heart of the city was destroyed. About 40,000 people lost their lives on that day.
We lived about 30 kilometres away from Rotterdam. Our house, and the elementary school attached to it, was built below the dike that prevented the river from overflowing. When we heard the noise of all those planes flying overhead, we ran up to the dike to see what was going on.
I remember holding my dad’s hand and looking up. Wave after wave of bombers, swastikas painted on the underside, flew directly over our heads. We had never seen airplanes before and watched in stunned silence as the sky was filled with the sight and noise of all those planes. The rumble of the engines was deafening and they flew so low, that in my imagination they almost touched our heads.
Then far away, we saw the bombs fall and the first flames shooting in the air. When the planes returned, the horizon was full of flames and black smoke.
My next memory is about soldiers everywhere. The school, of which my father was principal, was often seized by German garrisons who had been fighting at the front. When they needed a rest they were put in our school. Straw was put on the floors in the classrooms, soldiers were deloused and de-fleaed, and generally cleaned up. The eight commanding officers lived and slept in my parents’ parlour. Again, straw on the carpet, and muddy boots stamping through our house. Our furniture and piano were simply shoved into the corners.
Our lives were put on hold. We could not go to school, because it was full of soldiers. My piano lessons were stopped, our family life changed. Where we used to sing songs by the piano while my Mom played, there was silence now. My parents, who had been loving, happy people changed to sad, angry, impatient people.
For me, as a child, however, life was very exciting. Nobody watched what I was doing. I climbed trees, hiked in the fields, played with friends and did anything to be away from home.
When the soldiers left, things would go back to normal for a while. School was on. Albeit scarcer, food and clothing were still available. My dad was an avid gardener, so we had vegetables and potatoes plenty. Meat was difficult to get, but my dad kept rabbits behind the school for our meat supply.
Later I found out that each rabbit cage had a double bottom where resistance flyers were kept to be distributed. We were more or less left alone by the Germans. After all, we fit the requirements of the “Herrenvolk.” We had blue eyes and blond hair. In Germany, Hitler had already started breeding camps for German blond, blue-eyed young people. He would deal with us later.
Another memory I have is my cousin Tinus, about 24 years old, hiding upstairs. He had escaped from a German truck that took young men to Germany to work in weapons factories.
I remember standing in the hallway, looking up the stairs watching Tinus walk down, while the German officers were in the parlour. My dad flew past me up the stairs, pushing Tinus in front of him out of sight. He stayed upstairs for quite a while calming Tinus, who had planned to give himself up. He could not stand being cooped up all the time. That night, Tinus was taken to another shelter.
Among the German soldiers were White Russians, who came from regions where indoor plumbing was not known. They discovered our water closet and decided that was a good place to wash potatoes. Great was their surprise when the potatoes disappeared after they pulled the chain.
They also had to learn to ride bicycles. A path led from the dike down to our garden and continued down into the tiled playground of the school. The Russians were put on the bicycles at the top of the path by their comrades and given a push that landed them on the playground. Usually the landing was very painful but gave way to great merriment of the onlookers, my brothers and I included. Unfortunately, our bicycles disappeared with the soldiers. We had no transport left, other than our legs.
My grandmother, aunt, uncle and their two children who lived in the southwest of Holland, were evacuated and came to stay with us when the Germans broke the dikes in their area and the land was flooded. For my brothers and I this was fun. Kids to play with.
Sadly, because rations became tighter my mom and aunt got into a big fight about butter that had disappeared. I shared a bedroom with my grandmother, a feisty little lady who clandestinely listened to the radio that she had hidden in our wardrobe.
One summer evening when we were going to bed there were mosquitoes in our room, so my grandmother took her apron, opened the windows while the light was on and shooed the mosquitoes out. From the dark outside, someone yelled “licht aus” (meaning “lights out”). She must have been angry and irritated about the butter fight and life in general, so she leaned out of the window and yelled back in Dutch “Dirty Hun.”
I thought she would be shot right there and then, and I admired her courage. Soon after the butter fight, though, they all moved to a horrible little place up the street from us, nothing else being available. Later, my poor aunt tried to commit suicide. Fortunately she was found before it was too late, but mentally she was never the same again.
Other than periodically having our school occupied by soldiers, those first war years went by rather quietly for me. I’m sure my parents shielded us from hearing about all the horrendous things that went on elsewhere. It was not until the Allied forces started to come close to our borders in 1944 that life became much more difficult.
Coal for our stove was no longer available, clothing stores were closed, all our food was rationed, soap was nowhere to be had, electricity was not supplied anymore and people were evacuated from place to place. The baker in our village had no grain left. The only way one could get bread was to supply the baker with grain, which he then would grind into flour and bake into bread for us. Bartering became the only way to acquire food.
My dad tutored the farmers’ children and in turn would get grain and other items.
Our neighbours’ baby was born in that year. Our neighbours did not want to steal from the Germans out of religious principles, while everybody else did that quite shamelessly.
The Germans put up stakes to prevent airplanes from landing in the fields. My dad and my older brother and others pulled them out and cut them up for firewood. At one point we hid so many logs under our carpet that I could skip hop from one to the other.
If the Germans asked us for directions we were told to send them the opposite way. Road signs suddenly overnight pointed in the opposite directions, changed by the Resistance. There were stories of German tanks mired in the mud, rendered useless.
Lying and stealing became heroic deeds. The more you could thwart the Germans and steal from them, the smarter you were. But our neighbours did not do any of those things, so they had no heating, no milk, no clandestine food, even though my parents offered it to them. They would not accept stolen goods. The poor little baby died.
In the fall of that year we were evacuated to the other side of the river, where my other set of grandparents lived. There was fear among the Resistance that our house and school would be bombed by the Allies, because of the soldiers staying there. That was terribly exciting for me because we had to be moved in the dark. No sounds could be made.
The man who was to row us over led us on a footpath through fields to the river with just a little penlight. My mother could not swim and was terrified of water. She spent the trip across on her knees on the bottom of the rowboat praying to God to keep us safe.
Coming into my Oma and Opa’s house was just wonderful. They already had my Oma’s sister and her husband and little dog staying with them. They also used to live in the southwest of Holland and were evacuated earlier. Life became a warm, loving experience for us kids. We were spoiled by all those adults.
However, even that came to an end. The Allies had missed bombing the school and the house. But when we returned home, my dad’s treasured rose bed had become a gaping bomb crater, our lovely flower garden was obliterated and the windows in the house were all shattered, except in the kitchen, which was at the back of the house..
The kitchen had a woodstove to keep us warm and cook the food we had. All we had for fuel was chaff from straw. A carbide light gave us light to read by. My poor, careworn dad would sit in front of that stove and stand up to poke the fire every 10 minutes to keep it from going out. After another long, boring evening, my brother thought it would be funny to pull my dad’s chair away when dad got up to poke the fire. Nobody laughed when my dad fell. My brother got a sound beating.
At night when we were sleeping we would sometimes be woken up to hear the V-1 and V-2 rockets come over. They were aimed at England, but many failed in midair. We knew that if the screaming sound stopped, the rocket would fall out of the sky and destroy whatever it hit.
I remember lying there, not moving a muscle, not breathing, hoping and praying that the rocket would go on and not fall on me. Once the sound slowly moved further and further away I could breathe again.
My mother contracted diphtheria. The only cure was penicillin, which our village doctor did not have. However, he knew that the hospital in Rotterdam did have it. How to get it to our village was a problem. My mom would die without it.
So my father borrowed a bicycle from a neighbour. It had wooden tires, as rubber tires were not available. He bicycled all the way to Rotterdam one day and back the next. My mother’s life was saved.
Finally, spring came and with spring Liberation. Hitler’s dream had come to an end. On May 5, 1945, people were dancing in the streets till late in the night.
The next day I walked past the butcher’s store and saw a crowd of people in front while the butcher stood in the doorway, brandishing a knife. Some men rushed past him and came back with the butcher’s daughter. They dragged her to the market square, shaved off all her hair and painted a red swastika on her bald head.
My mother told me later that the daughter had dated a German soldier and the men shaving her head were Resistance fighters.
May the surviving veterans of the Second World War know, that without their help, many of us children would have been forced to be part of Hitler’s Aryan dream. Instead the world has become a better place.
A mixture of people of different races and colours now live in a United Europe that includes Germany. A free and independent Jewish state, free to defend its own borders, has been in existence since 1948.
I, and all the people in Holland, will be forever grateful to the Allied forces and in particular to the Canadian soldiers who liberated us from the evil that would have been perpetrated had Hitler won this war.
Ada Serson emigrated to Canada from Holland in 1964. She lives in Brentwood Bay.