One couple in a century

John ( Jan) van Gemerden Photo supplied

Chapter extract from??One Couple in a Century


True love is never seeded in just one generation and it cannot be defeated by even the world?s greatest tyrants.

The official outbreak of? World war 1 was the 1st?of September 1939, when the Blitzkrieg smashed into Poland, but the fear and apprehension had affected European families for many years. They had barely begun to recover from World war 1 when they had to suffer the bite of the Great Depression and fight their own internal struggles against fascism and other forms of desperation that surface in times of great need.

During World war 1?the Netherlands had declared themselves neutral and in so doing had avoided the decimation of France and Belgium. At the beginning of World war 2 this geographically tiny country again attempted to avoid conflict by stating their neutrality.

Hitler didn?t care and without even telling them his forces were coming, and despite worthless guarantees to the contrary, on the 10th?of May 1940 his battalions advanced and headed to The Hague to fight the Dutch with their tiny military and World war 1?weapons. On the 14th?of May 1940 the German air force bombed Rotterdam and on the 15th?the Dutch surrendered. Their government, along with Queen Wilhelmina and her royal family, left for London and left little Jan holding his mother?s hand in their small Dutch town.

What was a six year old boy to do in the face of the goose steppers and their Panzer tanks?

Survive!

Hardship was not a new thing and stories passed down hint at a home life that was not free of tyranny and conflict in ways that only a violent and alcoholic father can impose.

There are many categories of survivor from this terrible war ? the best known ? probably rightly are the Jews for whom Hitler held such irrational wrath. But this little Dutch boy also deserves his story to be told. Adversity somehow builds remarkable goodness and resilience for those that can survive the very harshest winters of life.

Arthur Seyss-Inquart was an Austrian who became the unelected ruler of the Netherlands. The people took a range of positions. Many Dutch helped the Germans with the constructions of air-fields and some were no doubt flattered by the regard that Hitler publicly pronounced that he held them in as a part of the Aryan race.

What of the impact on a child who lived in his small town from six years old until he was twelve? How does a child process a firing-squad having their execution alley visible from the corner of his window as he stared down towards the windmill at the end of the street? What of being co-conspirers for good with the adults of the street who sent the children out to play and to make noise so they could listen inside to ?radio Orange?, for war updates, without being detected by passing patrols? What of living in a country with a largely subservient people ? looking to simply survive ? being dominated by dark uniforms and darker intentions? What is a home life like in times like that? Can we really understand in our times?

As the great J. R. R. Tolkien said ? probably through his World war 1 experiences:

?I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.?

Jan thrived. People in the area who knew him and his older brother at the time called them ?de kleine stronts? they were so spirited.

But even they must have been bewildered to see their friends taken away because they were the sons and daughters of Abraham. Not only those but many Catholics too who had taken a stand. What is a school like when families are simply ghosted away? The Jewish population of the Netherlands was decimated. For those of us looking back decades later we knew the Allies would win. For families on continental Europe for the years of World war 2?up until Operation Overlord ? 6th?of June 1944 – the only outlook was defeat and continual occupation, domination and hunger of all forms.

Living close to The Hague and Rotterdam would have made the air wars and the constant noise and angst inescapable.

The big moment had come in the October of 1943 for Jan when he made his first choice between heroism or a slow death for him and his family. The Netherlands were gripped in the clutches of growing shortages and the ration cards ? legitimate or forged – were worthless.

Potatoes are a treasure and lay hidden beneath the soil and protected from the early frosts. Their tops dry off and die but to observant children the signs of life remain.

The Germans were tired and hungry themselves and surely knew that defeat would eventually be theirs. They were also deeply defeated by their moral destitution. Finding new depths of degradation they placed mines in the potato fields. From the edge of the village the children observed. Slow death or the risk of childhood cunning verses the brutality of the mines.

Jan and his friend Pieter met on the edge of the field as the very first fraction of light emerged one morning. One clutched a small axe to break the surface of the earth ? the other a small spade to dig deeper. Both were confident that they had an hour before the slumbering village ? Germans and all ? would begin to wake.

Not only did they have their memories of the mine laying operations in their minds but they also benefitted, as so many do, from the arrogance that self-superior beings have that the children of the poor cannot defeat their badly laid plans. It was as simple as avoiding the freshly dug earth ? don?t step on a crack or you will marry a rat ? and finding the last remaining vestiges of the plants that had done their job.

They crept and breathed the crisp air with the desperate joy of a hope that should have long been defeated. Their clothes hung from them and almost rattled in the tiny breeze. A dog barked in the distance and a faraway shot rang out that reminded them that they were not the only beings awake. Overhead a bomber flew back towards England ? low and desperate.

Pieter struck the earth after they had crept towards the centre of the field. There was so little shelter out from the edge of the village that they had to work quickly and stay low and both were thankful that the muffled thuds would not carry far.

They worked by building small piles of the potatoes they discovered and were constantly conscious of the growing light. There was a pure joy that those who have never been hungry can truly understand. The light soil deeper down belied the hard exterior and it was so very difficult to stop looking when they knew they should. The urgent bark of a dog not so far away broke their dangerous concentration and they scrambled to get their treasures into every nook and cranny of their clothes.

As they began to move not only was the dog?s bark now frequent it was also mixed with the sound of feet ? not yet urgent ? but certainly interested. The shelter was so sparse that speed was their only ally and terrified 10 years old boys, however hungry, are fast ? even when dodging through a minefield. Just as the dogs and their masters appeared at the far corner of town and a shout rang out the boys disappeared up a narrow alley and knew they were safe. Their families heard nothing as they slid through unlocked windows, Jan into their tiny place above the bike shop, and asked no questions later in the day as they delighted in new potatoes.

Jan and Pieter proved deft at further acquisitions. The winters of 1943-44 and 1944-45 were incredibly harsh but ? while so many of the Dutch population perished (a higher proportion than any other Western European country) ? they pilfered and ransacked and kept their families alive.

The tides changed. The success of D-Day ensured that the Allied forces would eventually march through Jan?s small village. He and his two brothers and two sisters ? along with both parents ? survived the war. Which makes it sound like the cost was low. But memories cannot simply be erased and Jan and his older brother began to plan to get out and start anew. It took time for their plans to truly form but in 1952 two incredibly handsome young Dutch men boarded a ship for Australia.

They never got there. For reasons no one can explain they alighted in Wellington, New Zealand, instead. Immigration in those days was far more authoritarian than we would expect today. Using only the English they had been taught during the six weeks on the ship they understood that they were being directed to a train and?three hours later?they were ordered off and informed that their new life began in a sleepy city on the West Coast of the North Island of New Zealand.

Jan had not lasted in his formal schooling past 11 years of age but had instead learned three incredibly valuable things. How to paint and decorate, how to work very, very hard and ? fortunately for this romantic novel ? how to charm (oh ? and build the family home).

His charm led to a wedding to a beautiful, diminutive and sparkle eyed girl of English descent. They become the parents of the stunning creature who became my bride (and her siblings) and Hitler, Seyss-Inquart, and his henchmen had lost another battle in terms of keeping light, beauty and romance from our world.

 

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday

I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming

Skylar Grey

Left John (Jan) Photo supplied

 

By Alwyn Poole

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