A War Story in Celebration of My Mother's Life

(This story took place in Netherlands during the Second World War, not long after my mother's 21st birthday on 11 October 1944. The incident preceding the arrest mentioned in the story below took place on my mother's birthday. The head sister of the psychiatric institution where my mother worked as a nurse had been detained after the local resistance had locked up a collaborator in a stable, setting off a series of events that are almost impossible to imagine in the comfortable present. I'll let my mother tell the full story.)

Sister Bertha had been carted off and Sister Mien had received no further word about her arrest. We thought Bertha might be in Apeldoorn, but where exactly? Mien was very worried, because she knew here sister was a picky eater, which meant she wouldn’t cope well with prison or camp food. Personally, I didn’t think she was in grave danger. There had been no further investi­gation and I was convinced they wouldn’t find anything anyway. At worst, the German officer might accuse Bertha of obstruction, but it seemed unlikely she would be severely punished for such a minor offence.

Not long thereafter, Sister Mien got a surprise phone call from a mystery man. He apologised for not being able to give his name, but he assured her she could trust him. He knew about Bertha’s arrest and said he was monitoring the case. He also said that Bertha was in good health and that Mien shouldn’t worry. He promised to call again as soon as he had further news.

We bombarded her with questions, of course. Did she have any idea who it might be? Was she sure he was Dutch? Did he have an accent? How old was he?

According to Mien, the man was mature, well-mannered, a true gentleman, a mystery. He called again a few weeks later. This time he reported that Bertha’s court case had been scheduled and that he would do everything in his power to ensure that she would not be sent to a camp in Germany.

The third time he phoned to say that Bertha was in Camp Apeldoorn (Photo 1) and that we were allowed to report there every second Friday to pick up her dirty laundry and bring fresh clothes. The man warned Mien that she shouldn’t try to smuggle in messages or anything else. The checks were strict and the punishment severe. Although he was unable to visit Bertha, he did have access to information and he promised to pass on any news. The man couldn’t or wouldn’t tell Mien how long Bertha would have to stay in prison.

It was all very strange, but Mien seemed comforted by these short chats, and that was the most important thing, all things considered. What made the situa­tion even stranger was that Sister Hoek, one of the leading staff members, had been in hiding for two years by then. The director, Rev Slot, had passed away and his successor, Dr van Schothorst, seldom visited our institution, and now Sister Bertha was in prison. That left Mien in charge, even though she had no qua­­lifica­tions whatsoever, just like me. Fortunately, she was a kind woman, who was well respected by her fellow staff members as well as the patients.

Anyway, no prizes for guessing who was allowed to cycle to Apeldoorn every fortnight. That’s a beautiful part of the Veluwe, but it’s no joke cycling sixty kilome­tres on a freezing winter’s day, and I had no choice but to go on Friday, which meant I couldn’t pick a nice day. It was also quite a lonely trip. There was hardly any traffic on the road, not even cyclists. Still, I’m proud to say that I never missed a single visit all winter.

On one occasion, I was given an extra mission. because I needed to get Sister Bertha’s signature to authorise a bank transaction that would allow Sister Mien to pay the bills. Zwaluwenburg is sheltered by high trees, so it wasn’t until I was on my way that I realised there was a gale blowing. The snow had thawed and then refrozen, making the roads very slippery. The wind blew from the right and I couldn’t lean into it properly due to the icy road, so I kept ending up in the snow drift in the left-hand berm. Then I’d get off my bike and push it back to the right-hand berm, wait for the wind to die down and then cycle like crazy until I ended up in the left-hand berm again. It was very hard work, but at least I didn’t feel the cold. Still, I was eventually at the point where I decided to just lie there if I fell again.

After passing the turnoff to Epe, a cyclist appeared out of nowhere. We were headed in the same direction and he really was a good Samaritan. Although he couldn’t push me, he was heavier and stronger than me, and he could plant his feet on ground when necessary, so he kept me out of the wind, patiently waiting and giving me encouraging smiles. What a hero. We didn’t exchange any conver­sa­tion and I never saw him again, of course.

On arrival at the camp, I presented my request to the guards. They told me to wait outside in the cold for further instructions. Later, I was given a document and told that I needed to go to the German headquarters in Apeldoorn (Photo 2) to get permission. This was several kilometres away!

I’d left Zwaluwenburg around 7 o’clock and arrived at the headquarters around lunch­time. I remember this vividly because the officer I spoke to was about to have his lunch. To my amazement, I was allowed to wait inside this time and, because the Germans were housed in a hotel in the town centre, I was treated to all sorts of pre-war aromas coming from the kitchen. How the hell was this possible in a country where people were literally on the brink of famine? Anyway, I eventual­ly saw a very civil officer, who gave me written permission to obtain Sister Bertha’s signature at the camp.

When I got there, it still took some doing, but I eventually got the signature and was about to hop on my bike when things got even more complicated. I was approached by a woman who I’d spoken to earlier. When I asked if she’d also had to wait so long, she told me her daughter was going to be released from prison, but because she didn’t speak German, she had no idea what would happen if she didn’t take her daughter home straight away.

“Why wouldn’t you take her home with you?” I asked in amazement.

She explained that she didn’t have a carrier on her bike and that it was too far and too late to walk all the way home. They lived somewhere beyond ‘t Harde, which was where I was going, so I went back inside with her to arrange her daugh­ter’s release. 

Then we cycled home together, with me lugging her seventeen-year-old daughter along on my carrier. Fortunately, the wind had died down somewhat, but now it was blowing full into our faces.

It was dusk by the time we got back to Zwaluwenburg, where my colleagues didn’t seem surprised by my late arrival, because they’d expected the trip to take a little longer! I’d had nothing to eat or drink since my departure at 7 o’clock. Fortunately, there were still some left­overs for me in the kitchen.


Photo 1 | The Willem III Military Barracks in Apeldoorn (sometime in 1940), which is probably the "prison camp" my mother is referring to.

Photo 2 | The SS headquarters in Apeldoorn where located in the Kleine Seminarie divinity school, which may have resembled a hotel at the time.