It is understandable that when people have gone through a very difficult time they don’t want to talk much about it. That has been the reported situation in many familes who lived through the Second World War. In many cases, stories have not come out until a generation or two later, and that was reflected in a 2008 Dutch volume about the Nazi occupation in the central Netherlands, a book which published some wartime experiences involving members of my family. Over the years there had been hints, bits and pieces of the puzzle, but no detailed personal story to give these glimpses much context. Today I will mention one significant family event as discussed in Vechten voor vrijheid (Fighting for Freedom) by Loek Caspers.
From an early age, I was made aware that my grandparents and parents had played an active role with the “Underground,” the Dutch resistance movement. My grandfather, as custodian, lived in a small house attached to the old Christian Reformed Church at the edge of a picturesque small town. The children of our family often played in the empty church building when we were visiting the grandparents, and we knew that somewhere in that building Jews had been hiding during the war. Other than that, it was not until my father’s sister published a personal account in 2002, followed by the Caspers book, that I began to grasp the trials and accomplishments of those terrible days.
Caspers relates that the Stroomenberghs (note the old Dutch spelling) were part of a sub-cell of the resistance that numbered twenty-one members, some of which were already hiding Jews and other Dutch people who were trying to avoid arrest by the occupying German forces. It became known that several Jewish people were being detained in the police station of the nearby town of Zeist, for probable transport to concentration camps in Germany. The local Underground decided they had to make a move to free them.
“It was necessary to get a vehicle for transportation and about four men in German uniform or in Dutch police uniform,” writes Caspers. The police clothing, with weapons, were acquired through former police officers, and, “with great difficulty a German uniform was found for Jan Stroomenbergh.” That person was my 24-year old father, rather thin because of the famine then raging, as well as a serious illness he had recently fought off (a later photo of him appears in the picture above). The group also included a real German who had deserted from the Luftwaffe. Everyone in this group of four learned German phrases they would need in the operation, and how to scream in the offensive Nazi manner. A graphic artist among them produced official-looking documents for the transfer of prisoners. When a German military truck became temporarily available while it was under repair by a local auto mechanic, the stage was set for action.
At dawn on a winter’s day early in 1945, the impersonators arrived at the police station in Zeist, the driver fearful that the old truck would stall (the better military vehicles were all at battlefields along the front). Inside the building, release of ten Jewish prisoners was demanded and the “proper” papers shown. When the Dutch policeman in charge hesitated, he was met with loud and fierce orders in the German language. The prisoners were then handed over and were roughly herded into the truck. After a short drive out of town, the vehicle turned into a wooded area, away from public view. It was all wrong, thought the prisoners anxiously. Some figured this was the end; they were to be executed on the spot.
Imagine the prisoners’ surprise when the tailgate was let down and they were informed in Dutch that they were free and would be escorted in small groups to safe-houses. Awaiting them were bicycles and packages, so that as they went about town, it would appear they were just shopping. After Jan had changed clothes and had spied out the road by the railway, the group got underway, quietly biking along the tracks out of the woods. Three of the Jews were taken to the church where the Stroomenbergh family lived and were placed in a meeting room that contained a hiding place under the floor. The “guests” did not know they were not the only Jews in the building.
“Things also went well for the police,” says Caspers. The officer in charge at the prison “appeared before a hearing but no disciplinary measures followed.” The resistance group had produced excellent documents with appropiate signatures and the police had followed standard procedure correctly. Our family at the church just went on as they had throughout the war, having so-called “relatives from Amsterdam” staying with them, keeping up their resistance efforts, and even offering cups of coffee to a local German officer to avoid suspicion.
To be continued next week.