Issue One - June 2001

War and Flowers

Bits and pieces by
Alie Wiegersma Smaalders

1933: The year Adolf Hitler is given emergency powers.

1933 it says on a photograph in my red leather-bound album. I lived in a small town in Fryslan, a northern Dutch province. For myself and for nineteen other nine-year-old girls it was the year that the town’s photographer came to snap a picture of our singing class, on stage, about to perform. We were dressed in white shifts, with bare legs and feet. Some of us were bees, some flowers. The bees wore capes, the flowers crowns of blossoms. The sepia picture shows twenty girls, impressed with the importance of the moment. Today, with hindsight, I can tell you which bee became a lawyer, which one a physician.

“And the beautiful flower, the one who is leading the others, what became of her,” you ask.

“See the nosegay near her left shoulder? That’s where the Nazis made her display the Star of David.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was offered a hiding place, but she didn’t want to be a burden to others. ‘I’m young and strong, what can they do to me,’ she said. She was taken to Auschwitz. She didn’t come back.”

1933: the year Franklin Roosevelt takes office.

1933 was also the year my cousin Hester came to live with us. Ten years older than I was, she was an orphan and had finished boarding school. Unreal, I thought. That happened only in books.

Hester made all her own clothing and embroidered tablecloths with garlands of colorful flowers. She also volunteered to teach crafts to children in need of “worthwhile activities” after school. I badly wanted to learn how to make doll furniture out of matchboxes and little people out of woolen yarn, but I knew better than to try. Being left-handed, I had been forced to use my “normal” hand for writing and other activities, which made me feel clumsy and awkward.

After Hester studied to become a secretary, able to correspond in Dutch, French, English and German, she got a job with a tobacco firm in Amsterdam and sent me a present from the city: tiny flower-decorated glass tubes with different scents. Used to getting books, I loved this frivolous gift for my fourteenth birthday.

Later I went to see her in Amsterdam, intrigued by the scene of an independent working woman in her own rooms. Hester looked good in an accordion-pleated skirt. She wore her auburn hair swept up in a tight roll around her head. Her friendly green eyes smiled as I watched her arrange flowers in a large dark-green ginger jar, a cigarette dangling from her fingers. The black stone in her silver ring shimmered.

Once the war broke out, no more tobacco came from the Dutch East Indies and Hester found another job. She moved to Eindhoven, in the south of the Netherlands.

May 10, 1940: German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France

On that day, for the Dutch, the war became their war. The girls of the 1933 picture were now sixteen. I frowned in the bathroom mirror early that morning, trying to make sense out of the mixed, muffled sounds from downstairs: my parents’ voices and a radio newscast. I was worried, something was not normal. My mother’s voice rang out, an anguished wail. I bolted down the stairs and burst into the dining room.

“The Germans crossed our borders,” my mother called out.

I stamped my feet, indignant, furious.

“They can’t do that,” I cried, “this is our country.” I wanted someone to say that everything would be all right. No one did.

I took my bike and went to school, but there were no classes until further notice. Back home I went out in the garden. It felt good to work in the dirt. On my knees among the strawberry plants I could hear heavy artillery some thirty kilometers away. With every boom I flinched. I got up and looked out over the fields behind the garden. The hawthorns were in full bloom. The wealth of white blossoms was reassuring. It was spring, a more beautiful spring than I had ever seen. There were still some certainties.

Five days later–after the bombing of Rotterdam–the radio announced the capitulation of the Dutch Armed Forces. “Her Majesty the Queen and Her Ministers have gone elsewhere.” My father held my mother, who couldn’t stop her high-pitched, mournful cries.

“Remember the child,” he said. But I had grown up.

September 1944: France, Belgium and the Netherlands south of the Rhine river have been liberated.

The country was cut in two. There was no way to correspond any longer with family south of the Rhine river. The last letter we received from Hester was dated September 18, 1944, an eyewitness account of the Tommies who flew right past her window that Sunday morning.

“There were several bombing attacks. After the bombers came the American aerial landing troops, hundreds of planes, enormous transport planes and planes pulling gliders with paratroopers, flying very low and slow. They say that the Americans landed on the moors north of the city and that the English battle troops entered Eindhoven from the south. The city is still burning. I have to bicycle to Best (8 km to the northwest) to mail this. At least you’ll know that I came through without a scratch.”

The news cheered us, but that was before the endless last winter of the war had begun.

September 1944: Hoping to end the war in 1944, British Field Marshal Montgomery conceived the operation “Market Garden”, a bold and risky battle plan of capturing vital canal and river bridges along a 100-kilometer strip of Dutch highway. As Cornelius Ryan recounts in his book, the bridge at Arnhem turns out to be “A Bridge Too Far”.

Most provinces of the Netherlands remain under German occupation until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945.

When trains and busses stopped running, I received a leave of absence from my first library job and returned home to my parents for the duration of the war. They could use my help. My mother, bedridden with tuberculosis since the fall of 1941, still kept a firm hand on the reins of the household, which had grown larger with the arrival of relatives who were counting on better nutrition in rural Frysan. Official food rations were insufficient and scouting for food and fuel was a daily and time consuming task.

One day in January 1945 my mother asked me to pick the first snowdrops in the garden and deliver them to a friend of hers, also sick in bed, but not likely to recover since the medication she needed could, as so many things, no longer be obtained.

I could not walk fast. I tried to avoid the drifts of old snow, partially thawed and refrozen numerous times. My ancient rubber boots kept my feet dry as long as I didn’t get snow in the breaks above the heels. My head bent against the raw, blustery eastwind, I thought about the woman I was about to visit, Mrs. Anders (Mevrouw in Dutch). Would she really be dying? It was hard to associate Mevrouw Anders with death. I remembered her several years ago in a flowing, flowered dress at a summer party for young people in the Anders garden. Only Mevrouw Anders would think of giving a garden party during the war. With the record player on the brick terrace you could hear the music everywhere in the garden. The roses were in bloom, an abundance of pink and white and I felt light and carefree, as if I were a character in a play. Of course it had all been make believe. Afterwards the heaviness of the war was still there.

I was not prepared for the changes in the face of the woman I knew. Her black hair–always so stylishly cut–now hung losely around her face that looked yellow upon the white pillows. Had she always had such a prominent nose?

“Mother sends these, the first from the garden,” I said as I unwrapped a tiny glass bottle with snowdrops from the folds of a newspaper.Their fine veins showed green against the white of each bell. Put them there, Mevrouw Anders gestured, and, in a whisper, “so I can see them.” Her strong, deep voice I had liked so much was gone.

“Mother wrote you a note.” I placed the folded sheet of paper on the blanket. Mevrouw Anders smiled and, for a moment, looked more like herself.

“I’ll read it later.Your mother writes such good letters, you know that? Sit down a minute.” Less than eager, I sat, on the edge of a straight-backed chair near the foot of the massive, mahogany bed.

In Amsterdam, this winter of 1945, people were actually chopping up furniture like this in order to have some fuel. Sturdy beds of this kind, chopped into slivers, would feed the “miracle stove” for a long time. The miracle stove was no more than a small sheet iron cylinder with draft holes, somehow transformed into a life saver now that there was either no gas and electricity at all, or just for a few hours. I made regular trips to the woods to gather dry twigs, but in the city that kind of kindling was hard to come by. People there even removed the wooden blocks between the rails of the no longer running streetcars.

I filled the empty glass on the bedside table and we talked about my mother.

“There’s progress with her illness,” Mevrouw Anders said, “with me it’s downhill all the way. It won’t be long now.”

Shocked, I didn’t know how to respond, but found myself say what I had overheard at my mother’s bedside: “Once spring is here, you will feel better.”

“Maybe I’ll still see spring,”‘ Mevrouw Anders whispered and she added, with an ironic smile, “after all, you’ve brought the first token.”

News of Mevrouw Anders’ death came only a few days later. I realized that but for the war, the medication she needed would have been available. The first token of spring was all Mevrouw Anders did get to see.

The war wasn’t over until May 5, 1945.

We learned eventually that the day after Eindhoven’s liberation, on September 19, 1944, Hester had been killed in a German bombing attack. Her silver ring with its large jet-black stone was found among the ashes.

© Copyright 2001 Alie Wiegersma Smaalders