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April 1945 | Almost liberated Netherlands | My mother writes...

We were living in limbo. Even the wandering loners had disappeared. It was a strange feeling, waiting almost breathlessly for the next phase. Nobody could predict exactly when and how it would present itself.
It’s strange, but I don’t recall the exact date. It was before the 10th of May and it was a Monday, because I was doing the laundry. The weather was pleasant, because I was outside at the back of the house, with the tub.

My colleagues Maaike and Truus had the day off.
It was actually quite unusual for two of us to be off on the same day. They came to greet me, demonstratively walking arm in arm, as if to say: “We’re going off on a lovely walk and you have to stay here and work.”

“Have fun!” I shouted. “And bring back a couple of Canadians!”
They were back within fifteen minutes, running, panting: “They’re here! They’re here! We saw them!”

“Well done,” I said.

Gasping for breath they told me they’d seen two tanks coming from ‘t Harde. “But they turned back when they saw us!”
“Of course,” I said. “Those Canadians came halfway around the world, survived the landing, reclaimed half of Europe, and were then scared silly when they spotted a couple of women on a quiet country road.”

I wanted to rub it in some more, but then I heard a strange rumbling.
We ran towards the drawbridge and saw Dr Boom, the dentist who lived nearby, cycling past. He braked when he saw us and shouted: “Come! Come! They’re here! They’re here!”

Then he raced off, peddling like a madman.
We ran after him like children. The rumbling we'd heard in the back yard was coming from heavy traffic on the road. The 2nd British Army Corps were on their way from southwest Germany to the west coast of Holland.

We stood waving in a little group, shouting like crazy.
These guys had seen it all, of course. Now and then they flashed us a grin or waved a tired hand, but that was all. And then I did something stupid: I stepped backwards into one of the foxholes dug at regularly intervals beside the road, where we took cover during aerial attacks.
The holes were narrow and deep. And suddenly there I was with my head at the bottom and my feet up above. Then I saw one of the farm boys looking down at me. It took some doing to get met out of there. Even the convoy had stopped.
Maaike and Truus helped me up onto some kind of stretcher next to the driver of one of the vehicles. I tried to get my colleagues to come along, but they said they couldn’t speak to the men anyway, so they waved cheerfully and off I went!
My driver proved to be Scottish, which I couldn’t quite follow, while he had difficulty understanding my English. I soon started wondering where and when they’d stop and let me off. I had to walk all the way back home, after all. Just then they took the turnoff to Elburg.
The town of Elburg is a fortified port. There was only one main road, which meant the entire convoy would have to make an about-turn in the middle of town, allowing me to hop off. But when they stopped on church square, with the clear intention of making camp, I decided to stay.
And I’m very glad I did. The soldiers had never been in Elburg before, of course. The streets in the old centre are rather narrow, but they found the church square and every vehicle that arrived was directed to its proper place by a man holding up a sign.
One car was sent left, a couple straight ahead, the next went right. After the chaos I’d experienced in recent months, it was a miracle to behold. No one complained. No one had a better idea. I wasn’t allowed to stay in the camp, of course, but I could see what was going on.
They set up kitchens around the outside of the camp. The kitchens were like metal cupboards that folded open on four sides. Each apparently had its own heating system, because they were cooking, baking and frying stuff all around. I just stood gawking. It was impressive.
After that, I headed back to the Zwaluwenburg. I have no memory of the four-kilometre walk, but my laundry water was cold by the time I got home. I’m not sure what Truus and Maaike had told Matron Bertha, but I wasn’t reprimanded for my desertion.
When I told them about the incredible kitchens, everyone wanted to know what was on the menu, but I had no idea! I later heard there had been fantastic street parties in Elburg, with real cigarettes and nylon stockings! The Netherlands was celebrating its liberation in style.
I was relieved and grateful, of course. Our phone was back in order and the trains soon started running again, but we had no time for parties. Our day-to-day needs – food, fuel, lights and water – were still cause for concern. And soon there was another worry to contend with.
Some new “authority” had appointed the Zwaluwenburg as a prison for collaborators and other “political delinquents”. It was unclear whether our director had given permission for any of this. Fortunately, there weren’t very many, but they had to eat and some needed treatment.
And who got to arrange all this? Me and Evert the gardener, of course! As usual! But what troubled me most was that people were being arrested on the basis of accusations made by neighbours and other locals. And the men making the arrests weren’t official soldiers or policemen.
Was any of this legal, I wondered? And what could I do about it in my position? I decided to keep an eye out when a truck arrived to take our first prisoners off to the internment camp in Harderwijk. The truck was quite high, so I asked the guards if they had brought a ladder.
They probably thought I was joking, because they brought out the first prisoner and were about to throw him into the truck.
So I barked at them: “Hey!”
They took a step back.
“That’s not how we treat people here. Bring a crate or ladder next time. And help them up, if need be.”
Soon after that, the first reports of the extermination camps started trickling in. We had personally experienced the horror of punitive vengeance, so I always made sure I was around when prisoners were picked up. Fortunately, I never had to intervene again.
Our last prisoners were two young sisters, whose hands were bandaged with dirty rags. I unwrapped them and had to call Maaike to see what it was, because the girls had no idea themselves. Maaike's diagnosis was scurvy.

<Girls who had consorted with Germans were shaved bald.>
It was unclear whether they had it on other parts of their bodies, but we looked after their hands for several days. Fortunately, the director, who had studied medicine, dropped by. When we asked him to take he look, he expressed surprise that we were housing detainees.
His diagnosis was third-degree scurvy. He instructed Maaike to bandage their hands, and asked what protective measures we’d taken. Then he told Evert to walk the girls to Oldebroek, where he was to hand them over to the police, with strict instructions to keep them isolated.
And that was that. We were no longer an unofficial detention centre. Those last weeks were of minimal importance compared to the preceding years of war, but they shaped my thinking and ambitions to such an extent that my working life took off in a whole new direction.
<Shortly after the war, my mother began working alongside her father, who had been approached by the Dutch government to help with the unenviable task of reintroducing collaborators back into society after weeks, months or years of detention. Another book in the making.>
<Mother was 22 years old when the war ended, but already a formidable woman.>
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