Language selection

Mothers - My Heroines!

This story is submitted by Audrey Masselink of Head Office in Charlottetown. It is a very touching story of her childhood during the war in Holland and two women who are very important to her.

This is a story of two remarkable women. They are old now and dependent on others. In the early years of their married life they lived in different parts of a small country by the sea in western Europe, easily overrun by an enemy, but tough and stubborn in its resistance. One of these women is my birth mother, the other my "war-mother." As their stories weave together, I will tell them as one.

My first memory of the war is the 1940 bombardment of Rotterdam, the city in Holland where I was born and raised. My baby sister was sleeping in her crib in the same room where my mother, my brother and I were huddled together. The room was between the living room which looked out on a shopping street and my parents' bedroom which had a view of some tiny back yards. The sliding doors joining the middle room to the others were shut, so that no light could be seen from outside. At the time I believed that the bombing was a heavy thunderstorm. For hours my mother remained composed and cheerful, helping us play quietly and taking our mind off the frightening noise. When the whining and explosions of the bombs were at their worst, my mother told us to pray for safety and protection. The heart of our beautiful city was destroyed in that bombardment, but my memories do not dwell on the fear which is usually associated with such devastating events. Instead, they often linger on the courage, faith and presence of mind my mother demonstrated in the face of danger.

During the war there was very little food in our big cities. Most of the food in Holland was required to feed Hitler's army. Whatever food was left for the citizens of Rotterdam was rationed and very expensive. My mother became underweight and started to suffer from edema, a disease caused by hunger that makes the body swell. She had taken a precious Maria cracker (the kind you can still buy in the stores today) to sustain her during the long wait to buy a single loaf of bread. Beside her in the line-up was a thin and undernourished young woman who was at the point of fainting. In a simple act of kindness, my mother offered the cracker to the young woman. How many of us can feed our family when we are hungry ourselves? How much more self-discipline does it take to sacrifice yourself by offering to others the little food you do have in a time of great need. It surely takes a strong will, a very sympathetic heart and firm spiritual values for such a gracious act.

Early in 1943 my mother was put in an almost untenable situation. Food was becoming more and more scarce. What bread there was in the store, cost eighty Dutch guilders per loaf, compared to the after-the-war price of twenty-five cents. That winter a previous housekeeper, who had moved 250 km away, was home for a few days to visit her family. She came to see my mother with a request. A couple in the north of Holland, had just lost their only little girl after a short illness. When hearing about the hunger in the cities, they wanted to help in some way and had asked our previous housekeeper if she knew of a city girl who needed fresh air and country food. These people sold groceries in their small village store and delivered orders to isolated farms in the area with their horse and wagon. Our former housekeeper had promised them to ask my mother to send one of her two little girls (ages 6 and 3) with the housekeeper on her way back to the country. It must have been an agonizing decision for a mother to send one of her children far away to unknown people. To us, at the turn of the twenty-first century, driving fast cars, having plenty of gas to fill our tanks, driving on safe roads in a peaceful country with a full stomach, that distance may seem insignificant. But hunger loomed as an invincible giant and that convinced my mother to send her frailest child on a long journey to unknown folks. It must have taken more than a night's sleep and few prospects of survival to send her child into an uncertain future. Not until early in the winter of 1944 when little or no food was to be bought, begged or stolen, was an organized effort put in place to send trains full of city children from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague to farm communities in the north. Then my courageous mother was again forced to send my older brother and my sister to people of whom she only knew the name. No one could help her make that decision at the time, for my father had been forced by German troops to work in a labour camp in Germany. He could no longer provide his family with money or food. There was little chance of keeping children alive, and it was not certain whether and how children would return or be taken care of if parents died during the war. My mother kept my baby brother, born in 1942, with her at home. Giving up three of her four children was a desperate act on the part of a physically weak, but spiritually strong woman.

My war mother had meanwhile tried to fatten her skinny little girl, spoiling me with extra milk (warm from the neighbour's cow), home-cooked meals and plenty of love. One day in 1943, as I was coming home from the village school, I was told there was a visitor waiting for me in the living room. After my hands were washed I was allowed to meet him. What a surprise! He was my very own papa, who had found his way via some "underground" connections to come and see his little girl. Without a question, my war-mother made room for another bed in the house. Seeing my joy in showing Papa my new friends, the horse, pig, apple tree, flowers and other country delights, she let me stay up late and provided many an opportunity for my father and me to spend time together. When he left after a few days, his stomach was full for the first in a long time and he was given extra food to carry back to my mother in Rotterdam – all thanks to my war-parents, who urged him to take what he needed from the store, giving him more than what he asked for. A year later, when hunger was at its worst in the big cities, more visitors came. One day, as I was playing with some playmates, I noticed two very skinny women on their bikes with "surrogate" tires (made of solid rubber and without air) slowly going down the village street. One of them had a baby on the back of her bike. They stopped in front of the store and went inside. As all bicycles in the village had been requisitioned by the Germans, except perhaps a few which were used clandestinely for purposes of producing a little electricity, I was curious who these two women were. What a surprise when I recognized my mother – who had lost even more weight since I last saw her. She and her friend had biked the 250 kilometres on bicycles which tripled the impact of every unevenness of brick roads in poor repair and frequently patrolled by Germans. Theirs was a most dangerous journey because of unexpected air raids. Shelters were not usually found along the main roads or in the country. They had slept in various hay stacks, begged for food to quell their hunger and finally arrived, starved and exhausted, at their destination. My war-mother pressured them to stay a while – at least until they were rested up – in spite of a house already filled with other "fledgelings." After three weeks they needed to return to Rotterdam. The women appeared twice as fat as when they arrived. I can still remember their ample bosoms – padded with homemade butter and cheese, extra bread and bacon to make them look like farm women going to visit their relatives. The padding was a deception, for the Germans would requisition all but the most necessary food for their army. To make sure that everyone complied, they conducted frequent house searches and inspected the bags of those travelling on the roads. Although the women were planning to take the byways in order to avoid most of the German patrols, they did have to pass at least two critical points. One was the bridge over the IJssel River in Zwolle where Canadians later fought a very difficult battle and which was completely destroyed a few months later. The other control point was the bridge over the Meuse River in Rotterdam. Both were heavily guarded by the Germans, who would stop them and inspect their bags. But God was right beside them the whole way. They and the food arrived safely at their home, which was still intact even after several more air raids. How many of us would undertake such a long, dangerous journey in a weakened physical condition, on non-motorized wheels, just to see a loved one? Surely a mother's love is a special thing!

My war-mother was a true heroine. I recollect the courageous things she said and did under severe questioning of the Nazis, the extreme pressure she was under when, after having hidden food for the villagers, German soldiers conducted a house search. Never did she reveal the presence of refugees, friends and others under her roof whom she fed, sheltered and encouraged. No other woman has shown me what it is to be true to her husband, her community, her country, the suppressed, the lonely, the hungry and the desperate. The following stories demonstrate her true character and personality.

The father of my war-mother was living with us during the last few years of the war. He had an alcove bed in the living room which was right behind the store and warehouse. Having parents living with their children is not usually a problem, but in this case it could have been disastrous, for he was a Nazi-sympathizer. As a child I was not aware of its implications, but now that I am grown up I understand the significance of this fact. He lived in a place that was the "hub" of the village and outlying community. Everyone who came to buy at the store or came just to talk, was well-known to others and often the clients would talk politics, discuss clandestine activities or tell the latest news heard on Radio Oranje, the Dutch radio station in England which relayed the Allied news of the war as well as coded messages for resistance workers. The Germans had confiscated all radios they had been able to find in their house searches, but of course some were kept well hidden and listened to at discrete times. A radio was, therefore, a very precious possession for those who favoured a free Holland. Often "Opa" got to know who had a radio, who were planning an operation and who relayed important messages. Although he was not told anything, there was no way to prevent him knowing which people played a part in the resistance, what food was kept back from the Germans to be given to villagers and what plans were underway to free that part of the country from its oppressors. My war mother had to live with the knowledge that house searches, instigated by her own father, could occur at any time, that her friends and neighbours and even her own husband were in constant danger of being exposed. Unexpected searches did occur, especially when new arrivals, some of whom were Jews, were given temporary shelter and food and also when new food supplies arrived, some of which were stowed out of sight. "Opa" knew when my war-father had been able to obtain cigarettes, which were withheld from the German soldiers and sold to villagers who came to the back door after hours. Although I cannot say for certain that he uncovered my uncle's patriotic activities to the Germans, I do know that towards the end of the war a mass grave was dug in the woods a few kilometres away (I played in it after the war when visiting my war-parents), and that my uncle had been destined the first one to be shot and buried there. How often my war-mother must have had to hold her tongue so as not to reveal something to her father, not to antagonize him, not to break the thread on which the lives of so many hung. How often she must have had to defend her husband's actions, protect the villagers' interests, pretend my ignorance of events and find excuses for the presence of friends! How long can a woman play innocent, be strong, create harmony, be kind and hospitable, stay focussed, fight the good fight? Only a woman of strong character, great courage and clear values!

Remember what aprons were like? We see very few in the stores these days! During the war people wore them all the time. More often than not they were made from old dresses and gave a new look to worn wardrobes. One day I accidentally spilled ink on my new white apron, the one with fine stitches of which I was very proud. In those days schools still had ink wells and pupils used a pen with a nib to write. The children in the second grade had just had a writing lesson – to get us used to pen and ink, instead of a lead pencil – when the teacher announced that she would read us a story the last 15 minutes of the morning session. We were allowed to move forward and sit three to a school bench instead of the usual two. I was invited by two bigger girls to sit in the front bench. Slowly the teacher started reading. My interest was at a peak when she glanced my way and noticed an inky spot on my apron. Slowly she closed her book and, looking at me sternly, ordered me to stay behind at twelve o'clock (We had two hours for lunch and all children were expected to go home for dinner). The whole class was made to sit quietly the last few minutes before noon. When the twelve o'clock bell was rung (manually, by the principal), children milled around the coat area before leaving the class room, some of whom urged me to leave with them. I dreaded staying behind, for I was a conscientious student. Having to stay after school was a first for me and in the forties teachers held much more power and influence than they do in the nineties. But I also dreaded going home, not knowing what awaited me, being well aware that I should have been more careful with the ink. In the end I decided to go home. To my relief my war-mother was not at all upset when I showed her the ink spot on my apron. She smiled when I told her that I had not stayed behind because I was so afraid. Before I returned to school, she encouraged me to see the teacher at four o'clock. One of the brats in my class also had to stay behind and the teacher dealt with him first. What followed erased my fear completely. Picture this: a teacher putting a strapping, screaming eight-year old boy across her knee, paddling him on his behind so gingerly that she would not have hurt a cat. Even to a child this soft touch was extremely funny. I had a rather difficult time containing my laughter. When the howling boy was dismissed it was my turn. I was ready for her. I would not cry, I would not laugh, I would be utterly silent and composed, I would think of Cinderella's new clothes! I was surprised when the teacher talked to me about being more careful and not forgetting to do as I was told, then punishing me by giving me twenty-five lines to write in pen and ink. Gleefully I went home to tell the story of the after-school spanking I had witnessed. Now you would think that a mother who had taken pains to dress her child well, would want to teach me a lesson in some way or other. But no, she laughed heartily when I told her the story of "Hillebrand" and said she would wash the apron with special care if I wrote my lines nicely. She knew I had not done the damage on purpose and that my feelings were more important than material things.

This lesson was re-enforced one day when my girlfriend and I were gathering daisies in a meadow. There were cows in that meadow and we tried to stay away from them as best we could. Before we knew it the weather changed and a thunderstorm struck. Having had the experience of a bad thunderstorm when I was in Rotterdam, I was suddenly very much afraid and started to run home as fast as my short legs would carry me. However, the cows, too, were frightened of the sudden lightning and thundery noise. They saw us running and came after us. In panic Geertje and I went for the nearest prickly fence, dove under it and left the cows behind. In my hurry I did not crawl low enough and caught my dress on the bottom wire, making a large tear in it. Tearfully I arrived home and apologized to my war-mother. She hugged me and told me not to be afraid. That was the last I ever heard of the tear in the dress. It was she who taught me that a good intent is better than feelings of guilt, that learning life's lessons is more important than temporary spoilage, that respect for the feelings of others should overcome any personal hurt, that people are more important than material things. My war-mother's example left a permanent impression on her well-loved child.

My childhood fears diminished gradually as the war progressed. I became more self-confident, at times even bold. This came out a number of times. Being six or seven years old, every child starts questioning the truth of Santa Claus. I also questioned the reality of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the ability of his faithful servant, Black Peter, to come down a chimney. In spite of my cynicism, I put my wooden shoe with some hay or a carrot for the Saint's white horse on a window sill or behind the peat-burning stove every night, starting a week before his actual birthday. Usually children received a small gift, such as a few candies, a new nib for a pen or a ruler, until a big present arrived on the day itself. One morning I was startled to find a pointed paper bag with salt. Already doubting the truth of this joyful legend, I became more and more suspicious that the bag of salt came from the grocery store of my war parents. When I mentioned this to my war-mother her eyes slowly started to gleam as she said that perhaps I had deserved the salt instead of some candy and that I probably had not been as good as I should have been. I did not believe her and told her that I would not put my wooden shoe out again until the actual day of celebration (December 5). I doubt that I would have dared to say or do such a thing if my war mother had not shown the humour of the situation. To this day I remember the gift of salt, but have completely forgotten the big gift that followed it a few days later. These incidents were the culmination of my childhood and the conscious beginning of growing up, thanks to my war-mother.

My newfound confidence could have lead to disaster. During the winter of 1945, when food was very scarce even amongst farmers, my war parents were given a pig as payment for an ever-growing unpaid grocery bills. My uncle and a neighbour had to slaughter it in the middle of the night, for during the day there was a constant coming and going of German soldiers in the store. My war parents debated whether to take a chance on my sleeping through the screeching of a dying pig in their kitchen or to wake me beforehand and show me what was happening and explaining the reason why they were doing this during the night. My war mother's wisdom prevailed, for she woke me after midnight, took me downstairs into the kitchen, all the while telling me what was going to happen and why this was being done in the middle of the night. When I was wide awake, anticipating the unknown experience, she asked me if I could keep a secret. Of course I nodded "yes", little knowing that my promise would be put to a test shortly. The scene of a knife producing a river of blood from a dying pig is not something a child at a tender age can easily forget. A few days later, a German commander appeared at the kitchen door and grilled first my war-father, then my war-mother, a housekeeper and two refugees. Then came my turn. . . I do not remember my response, only the urge to keep my promise and my war-mother's hug after the soldier left. Years afterward she told me that I had kept the secret well. Her trust and courage had paid off: I had withstood the test. And my courage grew, my commitment increased and, as often happens, I became over-confident.

One day an incident happened which could have had disastrous consequences. Children learn fast, mostly from examples, often from experience, sometimes from what people say to each but least of all from what they are told not to do. My friend, Geertje, and I were no different. We heard about the Allies coming in from the south, about the Poles coming towards us from the Northeast. We listened to the hope in people's voices, their confidence that the hated Germans would soon be gone. One day Geertje and I were playing in her father's yard when a retreating troop of German soldiers came marching past, in a disciplined rhythm, guns slung over their shoulders, helmets on their heads. While eating a wormy apple and carrying a few others we had picked up from under the apple tree, we ran to the top of a pile of compost to better see them march past. Suddenly we realized that we had the perfect weapon in our hands. The apple core and the wormy apples were aimed at the marching soldiers, flying towards them along with our derogatory cries of "Go back to your own country, you . . . !!! Go shoot your own people, you . . .!!! (Fortunately, I have forgotten the names we called them) . Before we could throw our last apple, my friend's father came running out of the house, yelling at us to get down. He dragged Geertje in the house and sent me home next door. When my war-mother heard what we had done, she had a long talk with me. She explained that the apples we used were as great a threat as guns and that both could kill. She impressed on me that those soldiers were people like us, who hurt the same way we did when we were called ugly names, that they did not want to hurt us, but that they did what they had to do because their leader told them so. She explained that our name calling and apple throwing might have brought death, destruction and torture to her, the rest of the family, the neighbours and perhaps the whole village because the soldiers well knew that children learn such talk from their parents. Pride often comes before the fall: I only scraped my self-confidence in this incident; my war mother healed my conscience with her understanding and wise advice. If only the world could learn such gentle lessons of peace, would we not be better off today?

The two heroines of my life are now living a quiet life in a seniors home, seemingly forgotten by the world and seldom remembered for their significant efforts which had such lasting effects. Their courageous deeds forgotten, their own thoughts often return to those dark days full of anxieties and day-to-day attempts to survive. It is for us to remember the contribution these and other women made to peace, the bridges they built between generations, between communities, between the past and the future, between enemies. The lives of our heroines are like the fragrance of some exquisite rose, carried by the winds of time to reach us, lest we forget.

Let us, who owe so much to them, honour them!

Date modified: