How often have I heard the stories about the second world war in the Netherlands? I have told people that I’ve seen enough films and read enough books on the theme. How many two-minute silences for the victims have passed? Plenty. Yet once in a while throughout the years, the topic kept triggering my interest . As I grow older, the impacts of the stories get more intense.
I’m visiting my grandma, Jacoba, at her dusk. She is a little lady with short white hair and clear blue eyes with tiny pupils, through which she looks with fiery calm. She sits on her own spot, in the middle of a yellow leather three people couch. She smokes a cigarette that has not run out for as long as I’ve known her.We had a coffee, walked a round and now we talk. She unexpectedly brings up the war.
“How was it for you?” I ask loudly. Her hearing is not that good anymore.
“They were just people…”
In the first years after the Nazis had conquered the Netherlands, they had been quite likeable. With their trustworthy attitudes, they had managed to convince Dutch Jews to register their family trees and wear the infamous yellow star of David. After two years of occupation, they began to systematically rob the Jewish of their rights and freedoms. They then moved the families out of the city. Many seemed to believe that they’d simply been sent off to work somewhere else. Jacoba, sixteen at the time, lived very close to the Dutch Theater, where Jews were gathered and most deportations were done.
“Half of my class were Jewish” she says, in a tone that does not seem emotional at all. “The thought of Jews being different from the others had never occurred to me before. But one by one, they came to my door to announce that they received the letter. They came to say goodbye and some left precious belongings for me to keep for the day when they’d come back. One boy gave me a guitar. I still have it upstairs.”
“One day I biked by the Weteringschans and I saw how people were being executed by gunfire. I stopped, but a soldier commanded me to move forward. Of course I did that, I was afraid of what would happen otherwise.”
The winter of ’45 was deadly to many. My grandma still feels guilty about selling a box of one of her Jewish friends because she needed the money for food. When the liberation came and people could eat again, some people died of burst stomachs. Jacoba and her sister reminded each other of that when her new Canadian boyfriend took them to a party where little breads were all around. She laughs about that adventure.
“One day during the deportings,” she concludes “I was walking home, and suddenly saw a man look at me, out of the truck. I will never forget the expression on his face. We both knew that he’d never come back.” Under the disgust in her expression, I can taste their shared despair.