Tuesday, June 26, 2018

World War II and immigrants

IN CANADA EARLIER this month, we heard some amazing stories about my family in the Netherlands during World War II. My Opa Hart was in the Dutch resistance and helped hide Jews from the Nazis. He was wanted by the dreaded Gestapo and had to spend much of the war on the run and in hiding.

One day he came home for a short visit. The Germans were tipped off and arrived within minutes. So my Oma Hart hurriedly dressed her husband in a woman's shawl, put a baby in his arms and a pillow over his head, and told him to crawl into bed.

When the soldiers came past him, my Oma Hart said, "Oh, that's just a young mother staying with us." The soldiers moved on.

Oma and Opa Hart rarely talked about the war. I think my Opa Hart, a pastor, had to do some terrible things in the resistance movement. The movie Black Book chronicles resistance activities and what the Dutch had to do to survive. Small wonder, then, they kept those awful years to themselves.

Aunt Willa, Uncles Peter, Michael and Henk
My Opa Hart was part of a resistance group in his church. My Uncle Henk says that most of those people were shot or deported to concentration camps for hiding Jews. My Opa Hart and one other church member survived.

My father was born in December 1938 in Oostwold, Groningen. In 1941 the Harts moved to Velp, Gelderland, near Arnhem. This was the scene of a horrific battle known as Operation Market Garden and chronicled in another film and book called "A Bridge Too Far." My father remembers ashes falling from the sky for many days after the battle.

After Germany invaded, my father remembers tanks lining Roozendaase Straat, where they lived. My dad and his brothers were talking to the German soldiers, and they asked for a cigarette. They brought it to my Opa Hart. He asked, "Who rolled this?" When told it was German soldiers, he spat it out and scolded them for their efforts.

In early 1944 it became dangerous for the family to stay in Velp, so they walked for two days beside a horse-drawn wagon to the home of my father's uncle and aunt, Oom Jan and Tante Nel, in Emelo. They stayed in a monastery overnight. They lived in a big house with 25 people, including several Jewish children.

The winter of 1944 became known as "the hunger winter" because there was little food. The Harts stayed alive by eating duck food. Yes, duck food. The children were separated from the adults at dinner time so the children wouldn't see the older ones gag on the food.

On D-Day, my Uncle Henk and Uncle Bill were taunting the German soldiers with other kids. The Germans knew their days were numbered and were scared, so they started grabbing baby strollers and wagons to load up belongings and flee. One soldier became incensed at the taunting, and he fired his pistol at the children. My Uncle Henk remembers the bullets whizzing by as they turned and ran.

Uncle Anton and Bill
When they were liberated by Canadian soldiers, there was a massive celebration. Then several young women were rounded up, brought to the town square, and publicly shamed. Their heads were shaved and shit was poured on them - they had German soldiers as boyfriends, you see, and the residents took out several years of frustration on them.

Several years later, with the Netherlands still struggling and no jobs available, my Opa and Oma Hart immigrated to Canada with their seven children. Yes - IMMIGRATED. Those were hard years, not knowing the language and customs of another country. Yet the Harts thrived, and eventually most settled in the Toronto area. My father married an American girl and lived in Canada for 15 years as a pastor, then moved to the United States. He eventually became a U.S. citizen, so he technically immigrated to this country, as well. You may not realize I am an anchor baby with dual U.S./Canadian citizenship.

I am proud of my Dutch heritage. It is great to know we had a brave history. I am proud to be the son of an immigrant. It is a huge part of who I am, and nobody can deny it.


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