Since Mother’s Day coincides again with the week’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of VE day—Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies—I thought of my mother who died at age ninety-seven, four years ago. Here is a letter I wrote her:
Exactly seventy ago, Canadian soldiers fought their way through Holland to Hilversum, our town, and freed us from fear and oppression. I was seven years old when Papa took me to see the Canadian tanks growl along Main Street. Thank you, Mama, for shielding me from so much of the horror of war.
I was only two years old when the enemy overran our country. You sheltered me, but you could not insulate yourself from the daily stress. You and Papa tried to live a normal life. The year the war started, you gave me a little brother, and cared for him day and night for nine months until he finally died of an inoperable heart defect. I wonder if you ever got over that strain and loss.
Two years later, you gave me a little sister, and two years after that another little brother. All this time you wondered where you would get enough food to feed us all. I remember waking up many nights to the sound of gunshots in the neighbourhood. Eventually it became normal and I slept right through it. But did you? How could you, when you knew Papa was out there, in the night, after curfew, bartering for food? How could you sleep when you didn’t know where he was, or if he was safe? How did you live through that time he was gone for weeks and finally arrived with one jug of cooking oil?
When the grain for porridge was gone and there were only two potatoes left in the bin, I didn’t know. But you knew. In the meantime, Pake and Beppe, your parents in Friesland, had hidden a sack of potatoes in a fishing boat that was coming our way. You must have prayed so much for God’s protection over that sack of potatoes. Thank you, Mama!
I ran to the house one afternoon, excitedly pounding on the door to be let in, shouting, “De moffen komen eraan!” ( The German soldiers are coming!) You quickly yanked me indoors and shushed me, reminding me to whisper, not shout this warning. I explained that soldiers had blocked off both ends of the street and that they were picking up men to transport them to slave labour camps in Germany. Then I watched as Papa quickly dragged the buffet in the back room away from the wall, rolled back the carpet, yanked open a trapdoor, and clambered down into the darkness. I helped you push everything back into place.
I was only five years old and it didn’t bother me that Papa lived under the floor so often. But no doubt, it bothered you. How could you sleep when you knew that any night, at any moment, rifle butts could pound our front door and Papa would have to rush down the stairs into his hiding place? In the last winter of the war, trains no longer ran into Germany: all the railway bridges had been bombed, and so the threat of slave labour raids stopped.
Papa came out of hiding; we got our bicycles out of hiding too. One day Papa took me for a bike ride out into the country. When we returned, I excitedly told you about the fun day we had.
“The airplanes came and Papa and I threw down our bikes, and we jumped down into one of those trenches beside the road. And I saw them shoot at the airplanes. And then they hit one and I saw the smoke, and I saw the parachutes. And then we got to the farmer, and he put the rabbit in the bottom of Papa’s bike carrier and covered it up with vegetables. And then the soldier stopped us, and poked his gun among the vegetables. And then the rabbit poked his nose out and sniffed the gun. And then Papa gave the soldier a package of cigarettes. And then the soldier walked away.”
No doubt you prayed hard during that “fun” day: not only for our safety, but that the rabbit would not be confiscated. Thank you, Mama.
Then, finally, liberation! No more hiding under the floor. No more blackout shutters. No more hunger. No more waking up from shots in the night. No more confiscation raids, for food, bicycles, radios and men. No more listening to the BBC news in Dutch on earphones from a secret radio hidden above the linen closet. No more night curfews. No more food smuggling. No more trains of boxcars with begging hands sticking out through the cracks in the boards. No more women and children only in public.
Thank you, Mama, for looking after me during those terrible years.
Your son, Jack
PS: And you 7,600 Canadian mamas—you whose soldier sons died to liberate our country—Mama and I continue to thank you for your sacrifice.