Each year on May 4, the entire population of the Netherlands stops for two minutes of silence at 8pm, to remember the people who died during WWII. It’s dramatic and moving to witness.
The Nazis defeated the Netherlands in 1940 and soon began abducting Dutch citizens for forced labor – able-bodied men and women to work in German factories, to keep the war going. The profile included healthy, non-Jewish males aged 18-50 and females 21-35.
Eventually, more than 500,000 Dutch citizens were abducted. And more than 30,000 Dutch men, women and children died in Germany’s camps. In the end, more than five million non-Jews died in the camps, including dissenters, Christians, homosexuals, the Roma (gypsies) and the disabled.
My Dutch husband has shown me the street corner where my father-in-law was abducted as a teenager. Toine started out in labor camps. In his words: “There were a lot of beatings, very little and poor food, inadequate clothes and shoes, and long unbearable labor. And there were sadists everywhere.”
When Toine was caught secretly listening to “Radio Oranje” for Allied news of the war, the Nazis tried him for “treason against Germany.” He was found guilty and sent to concentration camps. In all, Toine was a prisoner of twelve camps, including Bergen-Belsen.
On April 2 1945, the Allies liberated Toine’s camp. “An unforgettable day! There he was – an American officer, standing feet widespread, hands stuck casually in his pockets, a sten gun slung over his shoulder – on the threshold of our barracks. It was over quickly for the ones who ruled us. I can still see them trembling. Thirteen Nazi officers facing only one American! They were all arrested!”
After years of operations and hospital stays immediately following his release, Toine then spent five more years in a sanatorium, healing from wounds, tuberculosis and starvation. The psychological wounds took longer. He swore that he’d never speak English again because the man who had abducted him and handed him over to the Nazis had spoken English.
Toine kept that promise for fifty years – until his son married an American.
In order to communicate with me in the first months before I learned Dutch, Toine had to break his vow. It meant switching back to love. It meant choosing love over hurt, rage, bitterness and defeatist perspectives.
Toine died in 2005, but not before unexpectedly running into his teenage girlfriend from before the war. She was Protestant, and Toine was Catholic – and her father had made them stop seeing each other. In love again after sixty years, they spent Toine’s last years as sweethearts. And they often sat together on our couch holding hands, like teenagers again – reclaiming what was lost, by choosing love over fear.