A Letter From My Father
Editor's Note - What follows is a letter my father sent me around ten years ago. When I was growing up during the sixties and seventies, my father almost never mentioned his experiences from the war. This is what he wrote about what he remembers from before the war, what happened to him and his family during WWII, and his life afterwards.
Almost twenty years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, 1964, I took my wife and two year old son from Australia for a holiday to the place of my childhood, and where my parents and sister were still living, Roermond, in Holland.
Holland is vaguely shaped like an upright heraldic lion, trapped by a clubfoot between Germany and Belgium.
Roermond lies in the leg to that foot, and is almost on the border of both.
At that time, there was a Royal Air Force base just across the German border, from which fighters were frequently flying over the town.
In the second week there, with the usual aircraft overhead, the air raid sirens suddenly sounded.
The hair on the back of my neck seemed to bristle, even though I had never believed that possible, and now I'm not sure that I did not imagine it. The explanation was that the sirens were still being tested once a month on a given day and time.
This memory and its atavistic response made me try to recall others, and record them. I know little of my parent's history, and now it's too late and I regret this. Perhaps my son will one day decide to read this journal.
I was born in The Hague, a second child. My sister, Isabelle, Bel for short, was six years older.
When I was two years old, we moved to Roermond. Dad was a kind of engineer, he worked in central heating. He was born in Leyden, one of four brothers and two sisters. In his younger years, he went to an art school, learning painting, but later went to a trade school. He still used to paint occasionally, but his main interest was in charcoal drawings. He could do almost anything in metal, and later made some beautiful copperware for us, which I still have.
Mam was born in Roermond, and I know only of one aunt, although there may have been more. She had little, if any, schooling. She had been a seamstress and was good at making and repairing our clothes on her treadle sewing machine, but had no outside interests. She knew for instance, Germany and Belgium were nearby, but had no idea where other countries were.
Holland is mostly Protestant in the north, and Catholic in the south. Dad was vaguely Protestant and Mam was vaguely Catholic, so Bel and I finished up without any religion.
The dialect in Limburg, the province in which Roermond lies, is called "plat," which translates to 'flat' in English, and it is also spoken across the German border, where it is called Platt Deutsch.
It varies a little with distance, and usually one can place the speaker's home fairly accurately, like a Dutch version of Henry Higgins.
At home we spoke a mixture; Dad never learned plat, but understood it, and he and Bel spoke High Dutch, while Mam and I spoke plat, and none of us thought this was at all odd. Of course, I spoke High Dutch as well at school, and was equally at home in both.
Chapter One -
Before The War
When I was eleven, we moved to our second house, a narrow but tall house, three stories plus attic and cellar. The ground floor had tall ceilings, and the front door was a massive affair, a good two point five metres high.
The cellar was much older that the rest and looked almost medieval, with very thick brick walls, a domed brick ceiling, and a rather scary narrow winding brick stair case leading to it, which was quite dark, as the one small bulb in the middle only lit a small part of it. The whole thing smelled rather musty and damp.
My older sister, Bel, and I had the luxury of having a room each in this house, on the top floor – and it was frightening at first, and to look out of the window to the street so far below.
The house was owned by a pastry cook, to whom we paid the rent on Saturdays. Dad and I used to go to a private library, where we had to pay a small sum per book borrowed, then we paid the rent, and sometimes bought a tropical fish for my aquarium, or a few cakes for afternoon tea, and these excursions used to be one of the highlights of the week.
When I was twelve, I was accepted for High School – rather the top class of school one could get, and we felt very superior to most of our earlier friends, who went to Trade School, or a "Middle" school, of which there seems to be no equivalent in Australia.
I went to the State School, and there were very few of us – only eight or ten per class.
I was not a good student, having no idea about studying, or doing homework; my parents certainly never asked me to do any. However, because of the small size of the classes, we had almost private tuition, and I managed to keep up.
By this time it was 1938, and we had little idea of the war about to erupt.
The Army had a small garrison in town, but since we were on the border, and on the German side of the big rivers, it had been decided that the town was not to be defended – not that we knew at the time.
We saw occasionally high flying planes, said to be German, but otherwise nobody seemed to be aware of anything out of the ordinary.
About 1939, I saw a small plane flying over, being fired on by our anti-aircraft guns. It was obviously a German training plane, lost on a navigation exercise, which would have been a very easy thing to do, so close to the border.
I was rather surprised that we'd had any anti-aircraft guns, and more so, that we had ammunition for them. Anyway, they didn't hit it.
On a send occasion, a small German plane crash-landed in a field, killing the pilot, quite without help from our army.
All the kids, and a lot of adults, raced to see it – the first plane we had ever seen close up. It did not seem to be damaged at all, as far as I can remember.
The farmer, who owned the field, was furious – no only had the plane damaged his crop, but the mass of sightseers trampled the rest.
I heard later that our army gave the pilot a funeral escort with military honours to the German border, where a truck was waiting with two soldiers, who just shoved the body in the back, and drove off.
Dad started his own firm at the time we moved house; I think it was the reason we moved.
One of his employees, a mechanic, was completely deaf, but had become very adept at lip reading and few people were aware of his deafness. He left to join the Army, having managed to hide his deafness during the medical examination, but later, while reversing a small armoured car in Amsterdam drove it into a canal, being unable to hear the warning shouts from onlookers, and was drowned.
Although the war between Great Britain, France and Germany started in 1939, we knew little about it – thinking we'd be neutral, as in the earlier war – till it burst over us in May 1940.