Life under German occupation
HSV Public Lecture by Rudolf Anders, Humanist, poet and conservationist, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 16 Nov 2017
Rudi’s family, father Jo, mother Annie and his seven siblings, spent most of the Second World War under German occupation. In 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands and Rudi experienced many war-time events as simply normal. A blackened, bombed-out factory provided a new place to play, and the sound of a bomb exploding was like a marvellous orchestral drum. Looking back, he is full of admiration for his parents and the way in which they managed to conceal their anxiety from him, not succumbing to self-pity and giving an impression of getting on with daily life, as usual.
Food was scarce, especially in the winter when the ground was frozen and unproductive. Much of the low-lying land was flooded by the Germans to impede any Allied invading force. Food from the farms was sent by train to Germany, that is, until the railway workers went on strike. The family often walked many kilometres to surrounding farms to queue for rations, such as a small bag of wheat; on one occasion it was a sixty-kilometre round trip. On the side of the road were the bodies of those who had died in the attempt, exhausted and starving, too frail to go on.
Annie was expert at being creative with items such as sugar beet and tulip bulbs. The tulips were nutty and nice, but the beets, while sweet, seemed raw and unpleasant. Jo grew vegetables, some of which were sold to neighbours. However, as able-bodied men were deported for slave labour by the Germans, this was risky. All men under forty were rounded up. His uncle Eddy was sent to Germany and his uncle Joop to Paris. Jo was over forty, but the family still worried about him.
Heating fuel was also scarce; icicles hung from the ceiling and across the windows if no fuel was available. Many people died in their beds from the cold and lack of food. When the Germans ran short of petrol they commandeered push-bikes and horses.
Jo was interned as a hostage by the Germans. His life was on the line if there was sabotage or disobedience within the community. Rudi vividly remembers the day his father was released from the concentration camp, and how excited the rest of the family were.
But who was the stranger who was the object of such an outpouring of emotion? He had no clear memory of Jo before he was taken away.
Rudi was aware of an all-pervasive hatred of Germans and anything German. It felt like a thick, yellow fog. And no-one was more loathsome than a Dutch traitor. As a pacifist and conscientious objector Jo had been sent to jail before the occupation. He told Rudi that before the war he had had German friends and that not all Germans were bad people. He was careful to add that Rudi should never repeat this, as such an attitude would be enough to have the family themselves labelled as traitors. Rudi decided that his father had taken the risk of confiding this opinion because he did not want his son to grow up hating the Germans out of blind prejudice, but to think for himself. Rudi is now mindful of how badly some of the Dutch behaved in Indonesia during the last century when they were the ruling class and the tables were turned.
The war must have been very traumatic and frightening for Rudi’s older siblings and his parents, and he is still amazed that they managed to continue as if nothing untoward had happened and to shield him so well. From the viewpoint of his own experience he reflects on the plight of the millions of children living in war-zones today and the effect on them. While he was lucky to be loved and protected, both physically and emotionally, the sounds of the war still linger. When visiting his sister many years ago in Melbourne he heard an ambulance sound its siren in the distance, and he froze instantly. It sounded just like one of the armoured cars used by the German military police.
Report by Jennie Stuart