I always knew that my grandfather was shipped off to Germany during the Second World War. He was just 20 years old at the time, and living in the northern part of Amsterdam. He had blue eyes and blonde hair. A handsome fellow, from what the pictures show me. A handsome guy with a friendly face and gentle eyes.
The reason the Nazis took him and some 500.000 other Dutch men between the age of 18 and 35 was to keep the German economy running. As hundreds of thousands of German males forced to fight the war, factories were running short of labour.
Granddad did not have a choice. We know by now how ruthless the Nazis were, and about the repercussions if you did not do exactly as you were told.
Apart from the above, I knew very little about his ordeal – which lasted from 1943 until 1945. Things changed when I was handed over a stack of letters postcards he sent from Germany to his family back home.
you that. Quite a few of the postcards were imprinted with some sort of a slogan: “The Führer only knows struggle, work and worries. We will relieve him where we can.” (or something like that – my German is rather shoddy).
While reading through these ± 100 letters, I could only imagine how it must have been to survive the massive Berlin air raid of August 23/24 1943, which killed thousands of people and left many more homeless. Three hours in a row he was stuck in a bomb shelter, which looked like swiss cheese when he got out. The sorrow I picked up from his letters, in which he told his parents he had lost everything he owned.
Traumatized and scared, he decided escape with a friend. Unfortunately, his Arian looks could not prevent him from being arrested and thrown in jail for two weeks. He was lucky. An engineer he met in prison was sentenced to six week in a prison camp.
In his letters, granddad spoke about hunger, about the generally bad living conditions and homesickness, too. But he also wrote about comradery, the beauty of the Berlin Autumn, and about the people he met along the way. He explained how he was determined to learn the basics of every language spoken in his work camp.
Besides Dutch nationals, the Germans recruited French, Russians, Polish, and Italians. “I want to express myself in every language as it will make my time here much easier,” he said.
He also recalled how some how people lost their lives in the work camp, how his days looked like and what he ate at night.
In one letter to his best friend Elso, he pointed out thow much he wanted them to travel the world and explore far away places. “And when I am back, I will write down my story and publish it into a book,” he added.
Traveling granddad sure did. Granddad went to Persia, now Iran, and to Peru. To Greece and Rwanda. And he visited other places too. But he never managed to write down his story.
Granddad died in November 1996 – almost 15 years ago.
Being the writer in the family, I have decided that it is never ever too late.
From time to time, I will share my findings, thoughts, research and feelings regarding this project in my blog. Watch this space.