State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Here’s a lighthearted, summery question to get the season’s beach theme going; are we history’s pawns, or its masters? The occasion of my asking is bikini season, of course, and the fact that the swimwear term bikini derives from the 1946 test of a postwar super-bomb. True story.
Do we know how to take the sting out of war or what? It’s also a fact that May and June are both historically connected to conflict, and we are familiar with these commemorations. As absolutely everyone around here knows, last month’s Cinco de Mayo was a nod to the undermanned Mexican army’s surprise drubbing of the invading French in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. As it happens, May 5 was also Liberation Day in Holland; Bevrijdingsdag, they call it, and I’m afraid it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. Every May 5, the Dutch commemorate the day the liberating Canadian First Army rolled into Holland and uprooted the exhausted and broken German forces. Judie’s hometown is over there, a cozy township on the Dutch channel coast called Monster, the name not related to neck bolts but to the town’s being a 12th-century host to a monastery of note.
Monster’s WWII Bevrijdingsdag memorial stands adjacent to a video rental shop near the town center. The slightly expressionist bronze statue is of a woman in a sort of tunic. She faces in the direction of the nearby ocean and raises her right hand in welcome, signifying the earlier arrival of the Canadian soldiers by sea and their march into Holland almost exactly a month before the D-Day landings, 71 years ago this month. The Germans had arrived in neutral Holland with a bang five years before, storming the country and signaling their displeasure with the stiff Dutch resistance by leveling Rotterdam in a carpet-bombing raid. About a half-mile from Judie’s childhood home, the desperate Dutch and German soldiers fought savagely at close quarters in the bucolic forest of Ockenburgh, where today there are swings, slides, and climbing structures for toddlers and birdsong.
As kids themselves in the middle of a merciless war, my in-laws Koos and Riek van Vliet (Jacobus and Hendrika, 15 and 10 years old, respectively, at war’s end), had looked into an abyss and witnessed first-hand what no one should witness. Koos (pronounced “Cose”), 10 years old when the German army arrived, once remembered aloud to me the scene in Monster’s panicked town square as advance word of the Germans approach rushed through the cobbled streets of the village like a toxic wind, uniformed teens in a local Youth Brigade running around the town center and yelling in terror at everyone to get their hands out of their pockets lest they be holding grenades. “Hands out of pockets, hands out of pockets!”
Once the Germans arrived, Koos and other boys his age and older were conscripted into factory work with little food and less sleep, indentured child laborers assembling munitions day and night. One day, Koos walked by a room where several officers were dining. He hadn’t eaten in days. The officers asked if he was hungry and gestured him over, allowed him to eat his fill, laughed, and smoked as he attacked the sumptuous foods spread out on the table. They knew the sudden feast would kill him, and it nearly did.
Stories of privation are many from the winter of 1944 in particular, the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter) when the occupiers responded punitively to a railway strike called in by Holland’s government in exile. In angry response to the strike, Germany ordered a blockade of food shipments in a disaster that unfolded so quickly, the German commander in the area foresaw the scale of the disaster and desperately tried to roll back the orders, but by then the inland waterways, Holland’s famous canal system, had frozen solid and nothing could get through. Tens of thousands starved.
In the countryside, families dug up and ate tulip bulbs and trapped birds in the otherwise useless greenhouses. Riek’s mother reached out to share her family’s meager supplies with the starving families on whom she took pity as they trudged past, to the fury of Riek’s dad, who would’ve been gone for days on a bicycle in the countryside seeking bread for the family to eat. “M’n moeder was een goed mens,” Riek says often in the telling, nodding and teary.
It once would’ve seemed impossible, but by the early 1980s a grudging and ragged rapprochement was in the air between the Germans and the Dutch. The conflict 40 years past by then, German families had been coming to Monster’s beaches for some time, but the intermingling of the populations also gave rise to a latent animus among certain of the Dutch in the area. During the war, Dutch bikes had been confiscated in their tens of thousands by the occupiers, the primacy of the bicycle to the Dutch culture and identity an unknown quantity to the Germans, but the nimble mobility of the Dutch on their innumerable bikes, and particularly the Dutch Resistance (Ondergrondse), was an unclear but intolerable threat the Germans had to shut down.
Given the broader horrors that had been visited on the Nederlanders, the taking of the bikes remained, in the post-war years, a curious sore point. As the long thaw between the countries incrementally crawled along, the angry lament for the stolen bikes stubbornly took hold as a rallying cry of Dutch national anger at the Germans, wherever they could be spotted, in Holland or at football matches abroad, for instance. It was a hectoring, innocuous, even childish thing to shout, but it contained volumes.
“Geef me mijn fiets terug!” – “Give me my bike back!”
Then in the early 80s, there began a timorous exchange program between a church choir from the tiny village of Mühleip in Germany, and Koos’s choir in Monster. Someone in Koos’s choir knew someone who knew someone, it seemed an idea whose time had come, and arrangements were made. One year, the German choir would come by bus to Monster and be hosted and housed; the next year, Koos’s choir would be received as guests and performers in Mühleip. The informal, seat-of-the-pants arrangement began with trepidation on both sides and crept along in stutter-steps. The enmity ran very deep; again, on both sides. But slowly, the ice cracked. The thaw was glacial, but hesitant friendships grew, to everyone’s mild surprise. The respective choir members began to see each other not as historical ciphers or symbols, but as flesh and blood; or to put it more prosaically, as singers in a couple of small town church choirs. Koos, though, during one visit of the German guest chorale, his personal history momentarily uncontainable, burst out with a comment that may have set the whole enterprise back on its heels: “How about you guys bring back the bike you stole from me!” After some downcast faces and throat clearing, the awkward remark was allowed to drift away.
When Koos’s choir next made the trip to Germany to perform and be hosted by their counterparts there, a couple of the German singers pulled him aside with solemn expressions.
“Koos, we must tell you something.”
He waited. “Ja? Wat is er?”
The Germans looked at each other.
“Koos, we found your bike.”
“… my bike?”
His smiling German hosts wheeled out a beautiful 10-speed racing bike amid clapping and laughter. They’d painted it Dutch royal orange. When the German group next visited Monster, Koos met the bus at the edge of town and led his pals, in a singularly grand procession, down the winding streets to the church where they would sing together, Koos on his royal orange steed gesturing as grandly as a parade master. It would be the second momentous rolling into Monster of a loud German mob. This one cheering.
The human race has its moments. We’re not stamped by destiny. Happy Liberation Day. (Koosje, je bent altijd in onze gedachte.)