Sitting under the bright stage lights of Max Cameron Theatre, video camera and microphone recording, people shared their stories of hunger, struggle and survival.
They were not actors, but ordinary people who had lived through extraordinary times. Most were very young, under five years old during the occupation on the Netherlands by Nazi Germany during World War II. They remember only fragments of that turbulent time, most having to rely on their parents’ or grandparents’ stories. Some were not yet born, but are proud of their family’s resistance to the Nazis.
Organizers for Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA) brought a small group of Dutch Canadians from Powell River together to share their or their family’s experiences of what life was like during the occupation from 1940 to 1945.
Arthur Arnold, who grew up in the Netherlands and is music director for PRISMA, decided that this year’s festival would commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands, said Jeanette Scott, Powell River Board of Education chair, who has helped work on PRISMA.
They gathered on stage in the afternoon of Sunday, May 31, before Julie Couture, the Canadian representative for the Anne Frank House, was to give a short lecture on the life of one of Holland’s best known writers.
While PRISMA is happening the Anne Frank House’s travelling exhibit, which is designed to educate younger generations on the teen’s story of hiding and the dangers of racism, anti-semitism and totalitarianism, will be set up for visitors, young and old, to learn more. Couture was at Brooks Secondary School helping to train student interpreters who can take visitors through the story as guides.
“There are many young people in our community who really don’t know the history and certainly don’t know about the connection between Canada and the Netherlands,” said Scott to the group gathered on stage. “It’s so valuable that your stories are preserved.”
Scott explained a short documentary film was being produced which would include the people’s stories as well as footage of the Celebration of the Senses concert on Wednesday, June 17. The film, when finished, will be shared with students in Powell River’s schools.
Fred Gendron was the first to speak during the circle discussion.
Gendron, a soldier in the First Canadian Army, marched into the Hague led by a lone bagpiper, he said.
“When we got there, people were eating tulip bulbs,” Gendron said. “They had no food.” The winter of 1944–45 was an extremely challenging time for the Dutch, a time referred to as the “Hunger Winter.” Not only food supplies but also fuel were exhausted. Thousands of Dutch men, women and children perished of starvation and cold that winter.
Ted Mayenburg, who was a young man during the war, said he remembers having to pick up coal that had fallen from passing trains to help heat his family’s home. “By the end of the war there wasn’t a tree to be found,” he said. “And there weren’t any cats on the street.”
Mary Jensen, who was about three years old at the time, said that it was not until she was older that she asked her mother about why they kept their food buried in the garden. Her mother explained that it was to protect it from soldiers who would come into their home looking for food. Jensen said she still remembers the sound of the soldiers’ heavy boots and the fear she had of men.
Rudy Vander Maeden’s father participated in the Dutch resistance.
“The thing about Holland was there was no such thing as heroes, it was all the people who pulled forward,” he said, explaining that his father was one of many who helped smuggle downed Allied pilots and Jewish people out of the country undetected by the Nazis.
Hannah Main-Vandercamp was born after the war, but shared her parents’ experience of evasion and resistance with the group.
“There’s nothing to be nostalgic about and there’s nothing to romanticize in this still heartbreaking story about the invasion and occupation of the Netherlands,” said Main-Vandercamp.
She told the participants gathered on stage about how her mother brought food home by sneaking it in secret pockets she sewed into her coat, pockets that when filled with bread or grain made the woman look like she was pregnant to the German soldiers who stood at guard stations on the outskirts of the city.
She explained that her father, like Vander Maeden’s, had been an onderduiker, which literally translates to mean someone who dives under. She explained that it was quite literally true, as her father was forced to hide, unknown to his family, under the floor boards of his mother-in-law’s kitchen. It was an experience common for many who needed to lay low.
Onderduiker was a term given to those men who had no interest in helping the German war effort by working in munition factories or other military installations, the targets of Allied attack. These men often went into hiding on farms in the countryside where they could earn their keep as labourers. Many actively participated in the resistance.
Main-Vandercamp’s father, a politician and journalist, helped organize resistance activities.
“Their job was to harass the Nazis, to steal rations and ration cards, forge documents and everything they could to diminish the power of the Nazis during the occupation,” she added.
It was when her father met the commander of the Canadian army outside their town, that he decided he would take his family to Canada when the war was over.
When the Canadian and Allied armies started to push the Nazis back into Germany, the Dutch welcomed their liberators with gusto. During air-drops of food and supplies some people painted their roofs with the words, “Thank-you, Canadians.” Crowds of people streamed into the streets to welcome them. The remaining German forces in the country surrendered on May 5, 1945. And two days later, Germany surrendered. Victory in Europe was declared.
“I remember when the soldiers came to liberate us,” said Laurina Mayenburg, who was four years old at the time. “My brother and I went out and we were able to stand by their tank and take pictures. Everybody was really overjoyed.”
The war, however, has left a lasting legacy on many Dutch children who were young then. Laurina said that it took her until she was in her 40s that she got over her fear of fire, loud noises like stomping and yelling and airplanes flying over. She said she thinks in a way it may have been easier for people who remained in Holland to heal from the war because of the country’s collective experience. It was not until she was in her 50s that she was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. “I finally got over always being nervous and scared inside.”
The Celebration of the Senses performance, which is free to the public and includes PRISMA’s orchestra as well as guest artists performing musical excerpts, will begin at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, June 17 at Willingdon Beach. Panels from the Anne Frank House exhibit will be set up there as well.