Saturday, 11 November 2017

Remember ... and then what?

Today is Remembrance Day here in Canada. People gather to lay wreaths, they observe a time of silence, they may attend special concerts. We all respond in our own way.

My friend Hennie Aikman decided to make a quilt to honour friends and family who were involved in wars. Depicted in the quilt is a portrait of Andrew Eykelenboom, the son of a friend, who was killed in Afghanistan. War isn't just about Flanders Fields. 

In her artist's statement, Hennie wrote, "For the ultimate sacrifices made on our behalf this innovative wall quilt is a tribute to Canada’s soldiers.  May they rest in peace."Amen, and yes. This response is a visual reminder to us to REMEMBER.
This morning, I woke up thinking: I have to write down dad’s story of the war. That is my response to Remembrance Day. Somehow, I feel that the crow is squawking and has something to say in Dad's voice.

In his autobiography, dad writes vividly about the war years. He was a young man of 22 working on his dad’s farm when war threatened Holland. Every young man who’d done the obligatory army training was called to report for duty in August of 1939.

“Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940,” he wrote. Within four days Holland surrendered. When his company, unscathed, returned to their base, they found out that another company at the base had been heavily involved in fighting, losing almost half of their men. The reality of war hit home. But, he wrote, after the surrender, “The Germans had no better use for the Dutch soldiers, so they let many of us go home ... the farm workers were the first ones to go home, for with the German occupation, the food supply problem was getting precarious.” Farm workers were given special ID papers so they would be spared from Nazi round-ups.

Dad spent the next four years working either at his dad’s farm in Friesland or in the North-East Polder, where work was ongoing to drain the Zuider Zee and reclaim it as farm land. These workers were also considered essential farm workers.

Archival photos taken in the Noord Oost Polder during the war.
That last winter was horrific. The Allies were stalled at Arnhem, but the end was in sight for the Nazis. Dad continues, “Holland was plundered of just about everything the Germans could drag away. Inhuman conditions developed, killing tens of thousands from lack of food and fuel in the big cities. We also got a very scary experience in the polder. On a morning in late November 1944, we (polder workers) found ourselves completely surrounded by the German army, who rounded us up to deport us to Germany. It was their last desperate attempt to stop the Allied armies before entering their homeland. Every able German had to be fighting on the front, and an ‘army’ of forced labour from the occupied countries had to supply them with all their needs. This was a hopeless effort that cost thousands and thousands of lives and caused immense amounts of suffering, especially in the German labour camps where there was a lack of almost everything, resulting in suffering from cold, filth and hunger, causing massive sickness and numerous deaths, all in the closing months of this now completely senseless war.

There was still a huge amount of grain to be threshed and Germany was in dire need of it, so this raid by the Germans was completely senseless. We were caught completely unprepared, and few managed to get away. Most of us were herded into the canteen, but some workers got permits and were left behind to do the essential chores – there were, for instance, about 200 horses to be cared for; these horses were used for farm work because there was no fuel for the tractors.  Most of the young men caught in this raid were deported to Germany, with few coming back. I myself was saved from this in a most miraculous way. Many of the soldiers guarding us in the canteen appeared to be collaborators – our own country men who supported Germany and had joined their army. It was disgusting, but we wisely kept our feeling to ourselves. One of these collaborators, out of curiosity, asked, ‘Are there any Frisians here?’ ... All of a sudden I felt a glimmer of light in this dark situation. I started a friendly conversation with this disgusting man, telling him about the work we did and the 20 horses I usually took care of. In fact, I said, my lunch is still out in the stable. Would it be okay for me to go get it? ‘Sure, go ahead,’ he said (I think he believed his commander’s story that this raid was only for purposes of checking papers.) I entered the horse barn at just the right time. The farmer who owned the horses was talking to the German commander, telling him that these horses needed to be fed and watered.  When he saw me, without a moment of hesitation he turned to me, telling me to take care of the horses. He said it like a matter of routine, something that simply had to be done. And the Commander must have agreed, for he left me in the barn when they went to the canteen. So there I was, all alone in the barn doing chores while all my fellow workers were in the canteen across the road. What to do when the chores were finished? Go back to the canteen? No way! Wait for them to come and get me? Or disappear? That last choice was quite risky in a polder loaded with German soldiers and almost no hiding places. I went up to the top of the hay maw and found a very good hiding place, so my decision was made. The soldier who was sent to get me came in vain. He got no answer to his call. He made a quick check of the barn and left again. I stayed on the maw, keeping an eye on the yard through the window there, in case they sent another search party. Instead, I witnessed something that shook me to no end: I saw all my fellow workers, some thirty in all, marching off in the twilight to ... well, you didn’t need to guess. It was a sight never to forget. Only two of them were allowed to return to the farm the next day. On the following day, two more stumbled into the farm yard – they’d been missed in the raid and been hiding in the fields. The following day we felt free enough to take stock. The Germans had taken almost all our belongings, including our bikes. I found an old broken bike which I fixed up and decided to head for home. My farm papers were still valid, just not in the polder. It would be a dangerous trip, there was nothing sure anymore. And thank God, I made it, though it took me almost a week, moving from one relative to the other. At home it was not so safe either anymore The Nazis were sending farm workers under the age of 40 to Germany. This included my brother and me, and a friend who’d been hiding out on our farm without valid papers.”

There are more stories in Dad’s book, which perhaps I’ll share at another time. But as I read these stories, I sense Dad’s immense sadness at the horror of war: so many lives lost, so much unnecessary hardship experienced, so much anguish and anxiety.

For what? squawks the crow.

In his poem The Question Rudyard Kipling echoes that thought : 

‘If it be found when the battle clears, 
their death has set me free,

Then how shall I live with myself through the years 
which they have bought for me?’

It is essential and honourable to remember and pay tribute to those who gave so much. It is honourable to listen to their stories, and learn from them. But our best response to Remembrance Day is to make sure that these sacrifices were not in vain. Remembrance Day is a call to action. I do not know how to bring peace to the whole wide world. But I know that I need to do what I can. The song that I’ve been singing this morning is this: “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

So this, then, is the message of the squawking crow: Peace! Let it begin now, and let it begin with us.

There a quite a number of versions of this song on the internet. Here's one to listen to today:

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely song. I did not know it. Great that your dad escaped.