In the Dutch village of Holten, the community gathers each Christmas Eve at the Canadian War Cemetery for a remembrance ceremony that has become a cherished tradition. In the darkness, a candle is placed in front of each grave by local schoolchildren. In the dim yellow glow of 1,347 candles, Holten residents remember the role Canadian soldiers played in the liberation of their community.
Why would these people leave their warms homes on Christmas Eve to remember and honour something that happened so far in the past? How terrible must it have been that they have made sure their children, and their children’s children, don’t forget?
Living under German rule difficult and degrading. The Nazis controlled everything that happened – where individuals could go, what they could do, what they could say. What’s more, there were shortages of everything. Some Dutch made the best of things and cooperated, or even collaborated, with the enemy. The collaborators had many reasons: because they agreed with the Germans, they felt there was no alternative or they saw an opportunity to improve life for themselves and their families. These people were in the minority. Most Dutch citizens resisted. Often, their resistance was passive. But some risked everything to help overthrow the Germans.
Audrey Masselink was a child in the Netherlands during the war and remembers what it was like to grow up in that difficult period:
“During the war there was very little food in our big cities. Most of the food in Holland was required to feed Hitler’s army. Whatever food was left for the citizens of Rotterdam was rationed and very expensive. My mother became underweight and started to suffer from edema, a disease caused by hunger that makes the body swell. She had taken a precious Maria cracker (the kind you can still buy in the stores today) to sustain her during the long wait to buy a single loaf of bread. Beside her in the line-up was a thin and undernourished young woman who was at the point of fainting. In a simple act of kindness, my mother offered the cracker to the young woman. How many of us can feed our family when we are hungry ourselves? How much more self-discipline does it take to sacrifice yourself by offering to others the little food you do have in a time of great need. It surely takes a strong will, a very sympathetic heart and firm spiritual values for such a gracious act.”
War had come to the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, when Hitler launched his attack on France. The initial fighting lead to a stalemate, so the Germans bombed the defenceless city of Rotterdam. Most of the historic city centre was destroyed, leaving 900 dead and 85,000 homeless. Soon after, the Dutch capitulated to prevent another such attack. For the next five years, the Dutch lived under Nazi occupation. Life was no longer free or easy. The Germans imposed new rules, limited travel, controlled media, culture, and education, and outlawed any non-Nazi organizations. Some Dutch were luckier than their eastern European neighbours in that the Germans saw the non-Jewish Dutch as fellow Germanic peoples suitable for assimilation, rather than races considered sub-human (Jews, Slavs, Roma, for example) who needed to be exterminated. Regardless, the Nazis ruthlessly stripped the country’s economy by exporting everything they could, including food. For many Netherlanders, resistance was the only option.
Resistance took many forms. Some were personal and passive while others were public and risky. The former was the most difficult to document for it was private and individual. After the Germans conquered and occupied the Netherlands, Dutch citizens had to choose between collaboration and resistance, both of which could bring painful and potentially lethal consequences. Some waiters suddenly stopped speaking German. People would leave cafés when Germans entered, or turn their backs on German parades. Even listening to the British BBC radio news, a banned activity, was considered resistance. Such acts were small but still dangerous; if caught, people could be imprisoned, or worse. And, because they were dangerous, these acts were considered patriotic.
The second type of resistance was to seek out like-minded people and form groups. This was a slow and risky process. Some people who were willing to turn their backs on Germans were not willing to move to active defiance. It wasn’t always clear who could and could not be trusted. Inviting a collaborator to participate in a resistance cell could result in jail, torture, or execution.
Also, different groups had different goals. Some worked to educate and distribute propaganda, while others sought to help downed pilots escape to Great Britain, as did Mona Parsons, a Canadian from Nova Scotia married to Dutch businessman Willem Leonhardt. Along with their friend Bernard Besselink and others, they hid downed Allied airmen and helped them find safety.
Other groups had deadlier intentions: they wanted to kill Germans. Such was the case of two teenage sisters, Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft. They lived in the city of Haarlem and hated the Germans for occupying their country. They started by acting as couriers and distributing anti-Nazi newspapers and pamphlets for local resistance groups. They soon graduated to more “hands-on” activities. They would meet German officers in bars or restaurants and take them for a walk in the woods. Once alone, the Germans would be ambushed and killed. These acts were very dangerous and Hannie Schaft ultimately paid the price. She was arrested for distributing illegal newspapers in March 1945, tortured, and executed just 18 days before the end of the war. Remarkably, both the Oversteegen sisters survived and lived into their nineties.
Hannie, Freddie, and Truus had taken the battle to the enemy. Other Dutch resistance fighters used different approaches to overt action: staging an ambush, derailing a train, or cutting telephone lines. Subversive actions, like organizing a strike or conducting industrial sabotage, were also tactics used by resistance fighters. In general, these activities helped the Allies in the liberation of the Netherlands, but they often produced a devastating human toll. On the night of 30 September 1944, Dutch resistance fighters ambushed some German soldiers near Putten, just east of Amsterdam. The attack failed and three soldiers escaped while a fourth was held hostage. General Heinz Helmuth von Wuhlisch, the local commander, staged a reprisal raid on the village. The Germans rounded up most of the men for deportation to concentration camps and ordered the village burned. The resistance group released their hostage in a bid to save the villagers, but the Germans were undeterred. In the end, 552 men and one woman died as a result of these deportations. Today visitors to Putten can pay their respects at the memorial unveiled by Queen Juliana in 1949 to mark the tragedy.
Beyond such deaths, the Germans executed an estimated 2,000 Netherlanders suspected in engaging in resistance activities. It is worth considering what would drive someone to defy the authority of occupiers willing to kill civilians. How bad must things be for people to risk their lives to make things better? Not everyone resisted, and some actually worked with the Germans. But there were many who were prepared to sacrifice everything. This took courage, determination, and not a little recklessness. Many, like Hannie Schaft, sacrificed their lives. But others gambled and won and ultimately defying their Nazi occupiers in the process.
While the Dutch resistance never managed to orchestrate a national armed revolt against the Germany occupiers, thousands of people rose in rebellion in early September, just weeks after the Warsaw uprising in Poland. On 5 September 1944, a day that came to be known as “Dolle Dinsday” (Mad Tuesday), liberation seemed very close as the Allies advanced quickly. The previous day, the Allies liberated Antwerp without a shot, a development that inspired the Dutch the next day to spontaneously rise up against the Germans. They unfurled orange flags, cheered the Allies, and took to the streets.
In conjunction with this spontaneous uprising, the Dutch government-in-exile, based in London, England, called for a national railway strike. Some 30,000 railway workers went into hiding. Unfortunately, the Allied advance stalled just as these actions took place. The Germans initially panicked but then exacted their vengeance on the Dutch populace. Many were imprisoned and some shot. But perhaps the harshest form of retribution was imposed by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reichskommissar for the Occupied Netherlands. Starting in mid-September, he orchestrated a famine that came to be known as the “hunger winter.” The Germans blocked fuel shipments and stockpiled food from farms without distributing it to the Dutch. It is estimated that 18,000 to 25,000 people starved to death as a result. The Allies couldn’t help the occupied Dutch until the Germans were defeated, so that remained the focus of Canadian operations in February–March 1945. But, as winter turned to spring, the plight of the Dutch highlighted the urgent need to break the blockade and feed the starving Dutch provided. As such, First Canadian Army prepared to switch from combat operations to mercy missions as soon as possible. The RCAF also helped to feed the Dutch. Under the codename Operation Manna, Lancaster heavy bombers switched from their deadly role of attacking cities to the humanitarian role of dropping food supplies
The experience of Gilles Lamontagne reveals another side of the Dutch experience under German occupation; collaboration wasn’t necessarily motivated by sympathy to the Nazi cause. Lamontagne was a bomber pilot in the RCAF. After his return to Canada, he served as mayor of Quebec City, minister of National Defence for Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government, and finally as the lieutenant-governor of Quebec. In 1943, he was shot down over the Netherlands. He recalled:
“The German [night fighter] hit me … [and] we each jumped out one by one. I jumped last. I descended with my parachute. We were over Holland…. I looked around and saw a farm that was not very far away. I decided to go and hide in a half barn…. Early in the morning, two children, about four or five years old, came in and saw me. They ran to get their parents…. The father arrived with a huge hunting rifle. I said hello but he didn’t shake my hand. He motioned for me to stay where I was…. About a half an hour later, I heard cars approaching and the sound of doors slamming. I thought I was done for. Some Germans came in. Raus und schnell! That means get up, and fast! They put me in a car. They took me to Amsterdam about a hundred miles away and put me in jail…. In the 1980s, I received a call from the Dutch ambassador. He told me that the sons of the farmer wanted to receive me as their guest.…They were happy to see me again. It was not the same welcome I had received back in the day. I understood – if the Germans had found them to be helping me, the entire family would have been shot. There were no trials. I understood. I would have saved my two children instead of some louse. It was extraordinary.”
It was not uncommon for the Dutch to risk their lives saving Allied airmen, but many like Bernard Besselink died in the process, or ended up in prison like Mona Parsons. Others chose family over all else. Who can blame them? Is there a right call in this situation?
Learning about the terrible conditions faced by the Dutch faced during their occupation helps us to understand the depth of their gratitude to the Canadians for liberating them from this nightmare. Just as each candle lit by a schoolchild at the Holten cemetery honours the memory of this special connection between Canada and the Netherlands, we need to ensure remembrance continues on this side of the Atlantic.
Over 70 years after the war, a Dutchman named Moish came up to a Canadian attending a Remembrance event in the Netherlands. With tears in his eyes and a smile that spoke of deep appreciation, he told the Canadian that “as a 9-year-old boy living in Amsterdam, the first thing I remembered after the war [were] the Canadian soldiers who had fought for nine months to liberate [me]. They would hand him chocolate and cigarettes, then promptly take back the cigarettes with jesting scolds. ‘I am a happy man because of the Canadians.’”