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my great-grandfather's wartime letter

During the dark days of the winter of 1944, when things were at their worst in the Netherlands, my great-grandfather, Jan van Oijen, rode his bicycle from Haarlem to Groningen to trade for food to feed his family. Farmers in the eastern and northern parts of the country, many of whom had not been greatly affected by the nazi occupation which focused the brunt of its terror on the western, more urbanised parts of the Netherlands, were either happy to give away their produce, to sell it cheaply, or more infamously, to charge absurd prices to get rich off the misfortune of others.

Jan van Oijen in his service uniform Jan van Oijen was born in 1896. The picture on the right was taken in 1919, at the end of his service during the first World War.

After returning from Groningen, my great-grandfather wrote this letter to his sister Ger and her family. Remarkably, it's a light-hearted and enjoyable read, which goes to show the persistence of good humour and optimism among the Dutch in these horrific times - self-deprecating to a degree, but also filled with a faith in the goodness of their fellow human beings and a thinly veiled rage at those who betray that faith. My great-grandfather had no idea that he wrote this letter almost precisely two months before liberation, though it seems he was hopeful that things were going to get better.

This was transcribed from a typewritten copy of the original letter, and it is said that the actual letter resides with some cousin or uncle. As this is a transcription of a transcription, I can't possibly know if errors were introduced by the initial transcriber; I can only assure you, gentle reader, that I have transcribed the transcription precisely, dubious punctuation and all.

It's written in Dutch, of course, but I've added an English translation. You can switch between the two versions with the two links below this paragraph. I've done my best to capture the spirit of the text, but it isn't perfect - translations never are, after all.

nederlands | english

Haarlem, 4 March 1945

Dear Ger and dear Van der Laan family,

I'd promised you I'd let you in on a thing or two about that fabulous trip back home.

Ger, I will tell you this much: I wouldn't take that same journey again for ƒ1000,-. As I was making the trip, I intentionally didn't let you know about all the misery that I suffered through. But if I had to describe the journey down to the last detail it would certainly seem as though my imagination had gotten a hold of me! So rich in variation on every plane, that looking back it's a mystery to me how I made it back, healthy and with my entire haul, to Haarlem! It all started quickly when I got out of Appingedam, where the road was frozen and so thoroughly ridden to shreds by our protectors that one risked life and limb traversing frozen blocks of ice. And you know how well-built that road is! Just like a luge track, so that you could hardly keep upright on a loaded bicycle, even with both legs outstretched. I fell twice before reaching Groningen and I feared for the oil, but it all ran smoothly in the end! Had they not been thoroughly secured, they would have broken at least ten times over the course of the trip. But anyway. 5 kilometres before Groningen I was knackered. But what was I to do? So I kept going. I made it to Groningen by 3pm. Not bad. However, it was 6pm and nearly dark before I'd found lodging. The Red Cross in the Harmonie building had taken in a group of refugees from Venlo as well as a camp of camp folk from Roermond, crawling with lice and who knows what else, so I was advised to try a different place if I wished to return to Haarlem alone. The person who recommended this let me have a look at the sleeping hall, and it spooked the fatigue right out of my legs! Never saw a bigger pile of misery. There on the straw laid some 800 or 900 men, women and children, next to and on top of one another, most of them dusty and dirty, the suffering of the previous days of maybe even weeks written across their faces. It made me sick. I stored my bicycle in a nearby shop and went looking for the Orts Comm. to get a staying permit. Naturally, I was immediately sent from pillar to post, but I prevailed in the end and with a sigh of relief I pocketed my permit, with my name and an appointed hotel, and I got going. When I got there the proprietor was none to happy with my type of customer because, so he told me, everything was frozen and he didn't have any sheets or pillowcases; goodness knows the stories he told me to get rid of me, but I wouldn't take no for an answer and in the end, I slept decently enough for a "mere" ƒ3,50,- with not even a cup of anything to drink; with countrymen like these, who needs enemies?

The following day. To Assen 27 kilometres. I wasn't looking forward to it, but looking back, that was my easiest day. The O.T. had cleared the snow off the entire cycling lane, the weather was good and the sights were grand, my breadbag was full (parenthetically: boy did I enjoy that, my mouth waters thinking back to it!) I just couldn't cycle. The load was too heavy. At 5pm I reached Assen and once there I found good shelter with the Red Cross, they even gave me a hot meal and it tasted good to boot. Red cabbage mash with meat, six sandwiches, in the morning another four sandwiches with coffee, and a good bed. All of that together for ƒ1,60. A bargain! However, Assen was no bellwether of victory, rather misery. The next morning I left with some people with two horses and a cart that held our baggage, five women among whom two were defective and had joined up with me and a man who was making his way to Utrecht. The men followed on their bicycles, battling an icy cold southeastern wind; our ears were freezing of our brain containers! A history of suffering. Those women must have nearly died on that wagon; every kilometre they had to be given hot coffee to keep them alive. In that fashion, we reached Dieverbrug, 26 kilometres from Assen. Again spent the night with the Red Cross, but not before we got the O.T. to give us a pot of stew mashed with sausage. That's my mouth watering again!! Then Sunday came and the weather was so mean that we didn't dare take the women any farther. It froze 16 degrees that night! We decided on a day of rest. Got more hot food from the O.T. and we fried up the blood sausage we'd gotten in Assen. I'd bought one of those things, 5 pounds without stamps for ƒ3,-, not bad right? That same Sunday an airforce major promised us we'd be allowed to "Fahr" along, maybe all the way to Zwolle or even beyond. A great sense of optimism in our camp, I'm sure you'll understand.

We were to turn up at four in the morning, so our packs and bicycles could be loaded. You'll understand, we let ourselves be woken up at three and we were present at three-thiry - - - - - and those bastards were long gone! Nothing left, not even their stink. There we were, pathetic specimens, standing in the cold of three thirty in the morning, cold and damp. And so we just got going, to get to Meppel. As we'd left so early we got there well on time and after a bowl of pea soup in the central kitchen in between two sky raids we decided to move on to Staphorst. That was another 9 kilometres. We ought to have stayed in Meppel because by 8pm we were still walking outside. And Staphorst is very Christian! They all agreed it was far too cold to sleep in hay or straw before smacking their doors in our faces. In the end, around 8pm we convinced one of these curmudgeons. We caught our deaths of cold and misery. All of us huddled together to keep warm. We hadn't been laying there for ten minutes and one of our liberators passed overhead, throwing two bombs in quick succession quite closeby, hitting a farm where they'd meant to hit a bridge.

I am made to interrupt this screed, as news has come in about the heavy bombardment of The Hague this Saturday morning (yesterday). Hundreds dead, a few thousand severely injured and about thirteen thousand homeless. Isn't it terrible? What horrible times. But I'll keep going. We were all shaking like reeds from fear. Happily, the bombs landed farther away than the sound had us believe. But - - - we stayed where we were, nowhere else to go on a dark night in unfamiliar territory, so staying there was our best option. There's nowhere to run in the end, anyway. From Staphorst to Zwolle. We were up against a powerful Southeastern snowstorm, 18 long kilometres, against a cutting wind, so cold that the snow on your face froze instantly and icycles hung off your eyebrows and lashes! Ger, you cannot imagine what we went through on that day. At one point one of those women went head over teakettle and simply refused to go on. We took an hour and a half for shelter in a farm and the snow and wind there were as bad as they were outside. Still, the farmer was such a great man. For seven cups of black coffee he only charged ƒ1,-. After all, the poor sap only had about sixteen cows in his stables. How do you like those apples? Rage and misery set us back on our path. We finally reached Zwolle, hoping to call it a day. But it didn't work out that way, because right when we entered Zwolle we were told it would be best for us to move on immediately as for three days, razzias in travelers' shelters had been going on. So we moved on!

The long way around Zwolle and trudging through huge mountains of snow in the direction of IJsselbrug. And that's some four kilometres out of Zwolle. As soon as we left Zwolle it started raining and the temperature dropped below zero. Quite the combination. If you'd seen my coat, it looked like oilcloth and my hat like a steel helmet. We roughed it until we got to the bridge. Once there, we were invited to unload our packs so they could be confiscated or to go back. We weren't keen on either. Quite the upheaval, you'll understand. The women were crying, the men cursing and protesting, but to no avail. We decided to go back, as short of a way as possible, and to wait out our chances. Happily a gentleman, taking pity on us, offered to take us to a farmer, an acquaintance of him, near to the bridge, so it would double as a chance for "penetration," isn't that what they call it now? And it all worked out great. Now there was a genuinely good farmer. I did not meet a better person for the entirety of the trip. Without any concern for himself he went to work for us and he was out for nearly the entire night. But at the end of that he had a plan all set out for us. We'd go through the checkpoint that same evening and when we were standing ready to do so, a man from the C.C.D. came to explain that sharks had been spotted near the coast, so our departure was delayed to the following morning, 4am. We were left no choice but to stay at the farm for the night. The farmer did not mind at all and he immediately provided us with bread thickly spread with butter, and warm milk. At 3am we were called and we were given two more bowls of hot milk and the farmer's wife had boiled us a liverwurst, weighing several pounds, overnight. It was cut into four pieces and the farmer's wife said: There, that'll see you through for a while. When we went to pay him for all he'd done he didn't deign to take even a penny and afterward he took us without issue through the checkpoint!

What a person, right? He had also scrounged up 2 R.D. just in case the C.C.D. would give us problems. What a guy, no?

That took care of the greatest threat and we quickly passed over the IJsselbrug. The German checkpoints didn't give us any problem. That same day, thaw set in and inside half an hour not one of us was without soggy feet. In that manner, we made it to Oldenbroek that day, or perhaps I should say, we waded to Oldenbroek, as all that water had nowhere to go as it all happened so quickly, so it was more a matter of swimming than one of walking. It was a good thing that a hot stove was burning in Oldenbroek so we could spend half the night drying up. When we emerged the following morning, there was no more snow to be seen. In one night! All gone! We were overjoyed; with renewed courage we undertook the trip to Harderwijk, where we found shelter in the evening with the Red Cross and where overnight, my good scarf changed owner. It was no wonder that theft went on in that place. Because this room the size of our concert hall was lit by a single small storm light. So we were practically in the dark. We were afraid to use the bathroom because we weren't sure we'd be able to make our way back to our spot. The following morning, at Nunspeet, I said goodbye to those who were travelling to Utrecht and Hilversum and continued on by myself and made it to Bunschoten at three o'clock in the afternoon. I stayed there as there was a Red Cross station there and none after that. But as good as things went on the journey outward, so poorly they went during the return trip. No warmth, no food, not anymore. In the morning a cup of broth, so they called it. I have the idea they stretched a single stock cube to eight or so cups, that's how bad it tasted. You could certainly tell you were getting closer to Holland. There was a severe storm in the morning and my courage failed me. If you're alone and you have no one to support you, you feel so abandoned and then there was this rotten road over the top of a dyke along the Southern Sea, up against the wind, and so on.

There's a teahouse on the Table Mountain in Blaricum that seemed like a reliable place, so I asked them if I could leave fifty pounds of cargo to pick up the following week. Which they agreed to. And then I legged it! Proud to have made clean ship, I went up against the wind for another fifty kilometres, but by 7.15 in the evening I was home and you'll understand, when Saint Nicolas started to unpack, it was cheers all round. Especially for that white bread and bacon! These were riches beyond belief. You'll hardly believe this, but that bread spent eleven days in my saddlebags, eight of which frozen solid and when we ate it it tasted like it was only two days old, so we ate it without further treatment. I kept the bacon in my inner pocket for the entire time, it was my blanket. I figured, if they do take everything, at least we'll have that. If I add to this that somewhere between Meppel and Zwolle I lost my front tyre, completely to shreds, you'll understand after this tale that my trip was definitely no holiday. Oh, yes, I nearly forgot, on the way from Nijkerk to Bunschoten we got shot at by the Tommies. You will not believe how quickly we were laying flat against the waterside, and happily no one got hit, because as we had seen them from a ways away we were prepared, moreso as we had been told by local acqaintances, that they got daily visits there. The frontmost saddlebag fell off my baggage rack and into the water, but I got to it quickly enough that only the groats at the bottom had gotten wet so I dried those immediately when we got to Bunschoten and the bottle of oil also survived and I was sure worried about that! Thinking back of that long walk, Ger, and then thinking about the vierdaagse, when the public, squeezed oranges and saucers of sugar cubes in hand, await those tough, strong hikers, it certainly strikes me as a ridiculous display and to think they even hand out medals and certificates! To us, long-distance walkers, the Führer ought to hand out the order "of the wet feet" along with a bottle of Hofman; the Hofman for the fear and nerves we went through!

Behold, Ger, the story of one of those food-getters from Holland about whom the newspapers have written so much of late, that plague from the country! And still Ger, it was no mean feat, but it has greatly benefited us because the situation here really is quite dire. Because those prices I recounted to you in January have doubled more than once if you can even get your hands on the goods. What do you say to a pound of wheat for ƒ20,-. Matches ƒ25,- per pack. Salt ƒ8,- per box. Potatoes ƒ5,- per kilo. Shag tobacco ƒ25,- to ƒ30,- per 50 grammes, so you get the idea, right? Butter was ƒ100,- per pound last week and oil was ƒ90,- per bottle. That is completely unaffordable for workers. We are doing good. We are doing well. But the better things are going, the less we have to eat.

Seed potatoes are no longer being supplied to allotment gardeners. But the newspapers recommend the public to grow as many potatoes as they can. Meer en Berg has been evacuated but I'm beginning to believe all of those guys have been given a job in food provision. Stamps are announced non-stop but you may as well not use them because so many of them are not accepted.

You have heard about Wim by now, right? Horrifying isn't it, a young, strong man like that. He was such a good boy to his mother. But yes, so you see, Ger, he didn't go to G. and still he perished. Terrible! How is Jan doing, is he feeling any better?

Now Ger, I'm sure you'll thank everyone, including Van de Molen and his wife, on our account! That about does it for me talking. It's a pity I wasn't able to send those ration stamps; there's no more market to speak of so I cannot live up to most of my promises, but the case is also that what may still be here today, may not be there by morning.

Ger, I'll let you go and I will leave you to bore yourself with my story. All that is left to me is to thank you on all our behalf and to say goodbye.

Your father, mother and
Jo and Tiny.

Goodbye, until after the Krieg!!