Today is the birthday of my good friend Marta, who has told me her story of life in Amsterdam during World War II.
I’m starting to gear up on my next book, Stealing from Soldiers. I have retained contact with a lot of my parents’ friends in the Netherlands, who often tell me their stories when I mention the book I want to write (although Marta is a rowing buddy I met in Pittsburgh who just happens to come from the Netherlands – we Dutch roam far and wide). I would love to integrate these stories with Jantje’s story (“Jantje” is my Dad’s nickname as a little boy, kind of like the English “Johnny”). But I’m not quite sure how to do it. I’m a huge fan of Daniel James Brown‘s book The Boys in the Boat, and my aim is to write Jantje’s story in a similar way – immersing you in the main character’s environment to the extent that you feel, see, smell, hear, and taste the context that ties his experiences together with what is going on in the world around him. In the book The Boys in the Boat, there is a natural tie between the characters because they are building up to winning the 1936 Olympics as a unit. I’m finding it difficult to establish such a tie between people who remember similar experiences and lived near each other, but didn’t have a direct connection until later in life.
In any case, I feel like the stories need to be told, so in honor of Marta’s birthday I’m telling her story today and I’ll wait for the inspiration to hit me as far as fitting this story into Stealing from Soldiers.
Marta was born on April 10, 1930, in Utrecht to parents who came from Breda. Normally in the Netherlands in those days, if you were born south of the rivers you stayed there, but her parents didn’t. Her parents were Marie Katrine Eveline van der Blom, born in 1903, and Willem Blom, born in 1901 (so, in the Dutch way of combining the woman’s married name with her maiden name, her mother was addressed as Mrs. Blom-van der Blom – this is how I got the ridiculously long name I use). Both worked for the Hero company which made jams and preserves. They met in the korfbal club, where Willem was asked if Marie was his sister (based on their very similar last names). When she was pointed out to him, he thought, “No, but she’s cute”. Her father Willem was the youngest of 16 children in a Reformed family, and her mother was Catholic. The Catholic side was fine with the match, but the Reformed family was horrified and cut off relations.
By the time the war broke out the family had moved to Amsterdam and Willem still worked at Hero. This gave him resources to trade for food during the hunger winter.
Anne Frank was a Jewish girl who spent nearly two years in hiding in Amsterdam before her family was discovered and deported to concentration camps. Anne’s diary of that time survived and was published in 1947. It is still widely read; it had a strong influence on me as a teenager when I read it. Before going into hiding, Anne and her family lived in Amsterdam, where they moved from Germany in the 1930’s when the Nazis gained power. After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, it only took them a couple of months to start making rules to segregate the Jews: in July, the first of many restrictions forced Jews to leave the Air Raid Defense. By September of 1941, all German Jews over the age of six were required to wear the yellow star of David patch on their clothing. Marta and her best friend Carla went to different schools. Carla attended school with Anne Frank, who was a year older than Marta. Marta remembers attending two of Carla’s birthday parties along with Anne. The fact that Anne was not wearing the yellow star that she was required by law to wear made a big impression on 11-year-old Marta.
Uncle’s funeral during the hunger winter
The winter of 1944-1945 was called the “hunger winter” in the Netherlands. Food and fuel were already short by the fall of 1944, but in September of 1944 the Allied Operation Market Garden failed to extend liberation to the western part of the country. The Dutch government, exiled in London, had appealed for a railway strike to support the Allied liberation efforts, and the national railways had complied. In retaliation, the German administration placed an embargo on all food transports to the west (including Amsterdam). The restriction was exacerbated by an unusually early and harsh winter which froze the canals and made them impassable for the barges that were the main method of transporting food. In addition, retreating German armies destroyed docks and dikes, flooding agricultural fields and further diminishing food supplies. Daily rations dropped below 1000 calories, and people went on long expeditions in search of food and cooking fuel. Thousands of people starved and froze to death.
Marta’s uncle Leendert Blom was the oldest of the 16 siblings in her father’s family. He had always had a weak constitution, caught a cold walking to work during the hunger winter, and died at the age of about 59. There was no wood to make a coffin, but Father finally found a place where he could get a cardboard coffin with a wooden top. He had to find two sacks of potatoes to trade for the coffin. The family walked an hour to the cemetery. Father had to officiate as there was no minister available. He was not comfortable speaking in front of people, so when he began the Lord’s Prayer, he forgot the phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread”. Marta thought to herself, “That’s what we need most!” Later Marta overheard her mother say the same thing when her father commented that he had forgotten that line.
Marta’s mother bought what she could with ration stamps, when she could get it. So, in the hunger winter when there was truly nothing left to eat, they still had three large tins full of oatmeal. Mother opened the tin and moths flew out. Of course there were eggs left in the tin along with the oatmeal. Marta remembers her mother standing on the balcony trying to flip the oatmeal in the tin to encourage the moths to fly away. After eating this oatmeal cooked only with water as their only meal for months, oatmeal is the one food Marta can’t stand to eat to this day.
Father went around trading for food a lot of the time. He was not in hiding at any time (many men went into hiding solely because by 1944 the Germans would pick up men between the ages of 16-40 and send them to Germany to work as slave labor). He also had a large network of “good Germans”. One day he came home with only one wooden box to show for his efforts. In the box were three layers of fondant. For weeks, the family ate a piece of fondant for breakfast, a piece of fondant for lunch and a piece of fondant for dinner.
Just outside the city to the west were farms that grew vegetables. Marta often walked there to trade for vegetables and to her it never felt like there was a shortage of vegetables.
Marta’s father, like many men in the city, was forced to “stand watch” all night at a small plaza (also within walking distance of Jantje’s house) named Valeriusplein, at least 3 times. In theory he was guarding the 2 transformer buildings that are still there. In actuality this was used as a deterrent to underground activities; if the resistance executed a raid or took a prisoner, then the “watchmen” were executed immediately. Marta’s mother, who did have some Jewish blood from perhaps a grandmother, always spoke her mind. She was beautiful, but with brown eyes and black hair that were unusual for the Dutch she could be considered to “look Jewish”. When an NSB’er came with papers stating that it was Father’s turn, she said, “Why do they always take him, why not someone else?”, and the NSB’er replied menacingly, “They know who they are taking.” The NSB was the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging in Nederland, or the National Socialist Movement, the fascist party that collaborated with the occupying Nazis.
Marta’s father came home one day telling of such an execution near Leidseplein. He was passing by on his bike to go to work and everybody was stopped by the authorities. They were not allowed to move. They had to watch. Later on, when he went home there was a truck in that location and he saw soldiers washing off the blood from the inside of the truck.
If something happened to a German officer, then the Nazis would go into the houses near where it happened and round up the boys and the men and line them up against the wall and execute them. These were called “represailles“, or reprisals, and as far as Marta knew no women or girls were executed this way.
Don’t say anything
Everybody learned to keep quiet. In a room full of people, you didn’t talk, you listened only. Marta still does that today.
Marta was visiting cousins in de Vucht when her cousin wanted to show her a bomb crater. The English were bombing the railways frequently by this time. They went out to the field near the railroad where the bomb crater could be found. As they arrived, an English plane flew overhead, looking ready to drop bombs on the tracks only meters away. Cousin got the bright idea to jump in the bomb crater for safety, saying, “a bomb never hits the same place twice!”
The arrival of the Allies was rumored all over the streets in May of 1945. Marta, 15, and her girlfriend wanted to go see it in person, and incredibly their mothers allowed them to roam the streets.
The Germans were jumpy and terrified. Shooting broke out in the street and Marta and her friend happened to be behind one of the large round news and advertising towers that dotted Amsterdam neighborhoods. As shots came from one side, the girls slipped to the opposing side of the tower. When the shots shifted to another direction, the girls shifted accordingly behind the tower. Finally a woman opened a door behind them and said, “Are you crazy? Get in here!” The girls ducked into the stranger’s house.