LTRP Note: The following is an excerpt from Diet Eman’s book, Things We Couldn’t Say. Diet was part of the Christian resistance movement in Holland during World War II. Her group was responsible for hiding and saving Jewish people from Hitler’s “final solution.” Today, at 92, Diet still shares her story with others.
A little bit different from last year’s Easter! Then we were in the midst of war and now that horror is over. O God, still we were closer to You then. And did not this all happen to bring us closer to You? How can it be that all of us are getting so bitter, and that we feel guilty under Your heavy hand.
Send Lord, Your light and Your truth. Never did we know what truth meant until now, when we are surrounded by lies. Bah, what an atmosphere around us—and are we the “lights” in the darkness, like You commanded us to be? There is no difference between me and the world. Am I of the world? Sometimes I am afraid that I am. Please loosen me from that, O Lord. from the diary of Diet Eman
It was no more than a few months after the Occupation [of the Nazis in Holland] began that we realized there were things that simply had to be done. When we saw injustice, we all felt it; we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. But what could we do? The atrocities toward the Jews all around were beginning, and we felt it was our duty to act in some way. But it took time for us to know exactly what, when, and how we could do something.
Right from the beginning, the Occupation created ambiguities, arguments, and difficult struggles within Christian circles. When Jesus lived, His country was occupied by the Romans, and everyone remembered what He said: “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Jesus Christ never preached rebellion against the Romans. Part of the moral struggle was the belief that what had happened in our little country was in fact ordained by God: some people claimed that we shouldn’t interfere with what went on because the Occupation itself was God’s will. Even my brother was originally inclined to think that one simply could not work against the Germans if one followed the teachings of Scripture.
The queen and the government had left for England in the early moments of the five-day invasion; there was a whole group in Holland who said the queen had no right to lead us anymore, and those of us who remained behind would be required to obey the government that God had given us now—that is, the Germans. But Hein, my fiancé, and I and many others felt our royal family had been crowned in a religious ceremony, with the words “by the grace of God.” We felt the queen was our rightful government, and we felt we were doing what the Lord wanted when we obeyed her. That’s why, later in the Occupation when the queen actually told the Dutch to go on strike against the Germans, we did it, although our actions cost many lives.
Many people in our church felt that the queen was still our head, not the Nazi puppets. Meanwhile the church we called the “black-stocking church” leaned toward the other point of view—that our burden was to be in subjection to whatever higher powers God had placed over us. People who took that point of view were never very strong in the Resistance because they thought resistance against the established government was, quite simply, sin.
Those were the kinds of arguments we used to hear, and we would even have them among ourselves during those early days of the Occupation. We had especially good arguments at the home of one of my fellow bank employees, a man named Platteel. We talked about how we were to live now in this new arrangement with the Germans. He was older than I was, in his thirties, and was married with two little kids.
In those early days, members of the Platteel group would advise everyone what passages to read from the Bible, what Scriptures we should consider when we were trying to reflect morally about our new national situation.
Some of the early Resistance people would sit down and take passages from the Bible that clearly showed the direction that we as Christians ought to take. Then they would write those passages on pieces of paper, and pass those notes around. A little note would say, “Read this passage, or that one.” Mr. Platteel would give me such a note, passing it along after copying it many times. There were no copy machines in those days, so who knows how many times he wrote that out and gave it to someone? He would often distribute lists of readings on his own, and even that small gesture would be an encouragement, a direction for us to go in. Such little things were important because such little things gave our hearts strength.
We all felt terrible about what was happening around us. Hein and I would sit down and ask ourselves, “What can we do?” We always talked about it together, and then discussed how we felt with a few more people at my bank or at his office, people who thought the same way we did.
Once the Occupation began, the Germans began to make all kinds of rules: we were not allowed to listen to the BBC, for instance, though any number of people still did it secretly, of course. And then came the next order in the newspapers: “Everybody has to surrender their radios.” Radios, in those days, were the size of televisions today; nobody had little pocket-sized appliances. So deciding whether or not to give them up to the Germans was a big decision. And the Germans made it very clear that if you didn’t deliver your radios to them, you could be thrown in prison. People became very scared. In the Netherlands, people were accustomed to liberty; nobody had ever told us what to do before.
This is what we thought: “Do we simply obey those miserable Huns?” The question “Are we going to obey?” had to be asked and answered, asked and answered, over and over again. Some brave people would make a hole in the wall of their homes, put in a shelf, and then place a radio in that hiding place and hang a painting or a mirror over it.
Every evening at eight o’clock, the BBC sent out information about the progress of the war and other matters. If you lived on a main street of the city, somebody from the family would walk the dog or just walk down the street to be sure there was no spy around. By that time, there already were Dutch cowards—those who sided with the Germans—who had started to make money by turning in their own countrymen. If they betrayed you by pointing the Nazis to your house, they made good money. Once those kinds of sides had formed, the real danger started: the Underground against the informers.
The Germans continued to say, “You are not allowed to do this, and you are not allowed to do that.” They made prohibitory laws against just about everything, and they reported the news in such a crooked way that everyone assumed what we heard was just plain wrong. So we knew the BBC on the radio was our only source of reliable news. Those of us who met to discuss what could be done were a very few people then, very few. Because many people were intimidated by the Germans and did hand in their radios, we knew that few of those people were hearing the real news of the war, the news from England. Thus, our first act of disobedience was listening to the BBC, taking down the real news in shorthand, typing it out, and spreading it around. That was the beginning of most Resistance groups. If you were caught doing that, of course, you went to prison. But we did it anyway.
In The Hague, we were surrounded by Germans immediately. They were everywhere, marching and just standing around on street corners. Even where you worked, you had to be careful about what you said because a lot of people in the office were pro-German, some of whom you never would have suspected.
My heart nearly broke because my two dear girlfriends, Rie and Jet, the friends my age with whom I went jumping sloten and climbing trees and had so much in common—these best friends wouldn’t think for a moment about resistance. As a matter of fact, my brother Albert had a crush on Jet, so those girls were always in our house. Albert and Jet were friends, and I was dating Hein; Rie’s boyfriend, Paul, lived on our street, and his sister Jopie came along too. We were all the same age and we formed a club called the Malakka Club, because we lived on Malakka Street, named after a part of Malaysia. We were always together on Saturdays, and it was quite a mixture: Jet, Rie, and Daniel were Christian, as were Albert and I and Gerald, another friend; but all the rest of the kids were of different faiths. There were even two brothers of a family who had no religion, Stan and Henk van Eekelen. Of the two, one became a fanatical communist, the other one a fanatical Nazi, of all things; two brothers in the same house, two completely different views of the world!
Even before the war, my parents would often have Dutch soldiers over on Sunday. We lived beside an armory, and we would have several soldiers come to the house for dinner, and to play the organ and sing. My parents thought that was one way to support our boys.
Jet’s family didn’t invite boys from the armory into their home. Her family belonged to our church, but they had six kids, and they would say, “Yeah, yeah, our family is too busy. We can’t do that.” We accepted their decision. But they were really the same kind of people we were: they attended the same church and had the same basic beliefs. In fact, their father did the same work as my father did; they were sort of competitors. After church on Sundays, the girls would come to my house, and we would play Ping-Pong or sjoelbak (shuffleboard), or we would play four-handed piano.
But one Sunday, just a few weeks after the war broke out, I entered their house, and there above the piano hung a portrait of Hitler! In addition, German soldiers were in their house that night. Jet’s family was doing for German soldiers what we had done for the Dutch boys before the war. Now, after the Occupation had begun, they could do it for the enemy.
Soon after that, something else happened that hurt me very much. I had decorated my bicycle at that time by putting a little patriotic red-white-and-blue flag on it. Every night I rode home from the center of the city on my bike with the flag waving. One day Jet’s brother Daniel ripped the flag off my bike. I was so deeply hurt that I wrote them a letter. “Until that picture is gone”—I meant that picture of Hitler—“I’ll never set foot in your house again,” I told them. I said I was angry, “because you had no place for the Dutch soldiers who gave their lives for our country, and now you treat the guys who have come into this country, totally uninvited, with hospitality.”
Dear Rie and Jet:
Sometimes I would so very much like to know how you are doing. Sometimes I long so much for both of you. Especially when I look at our vacation photos. Then I can barely take it that things are now the way they are. You had such a large place in my heart, and I loved you both, more than even Fanny. You probably are playing a lot of piano, eh, Jet? And what is Rie doing? I have the feeling that I barely know you anymore. Nel, Bram’s girlfriend, sometimes laughs and makes movements and then I am thinking: “Who does she remind me of?—somebody does it just the same.” And now I know it, Rie—it is you. When you were teasing someone, you laughed just like Nel does.
Did I do wrong in breaking with you? Would it have been my task to still try to keep you? Was it wrong that I did not want to come to your house any longer? Also not to be considered a traitor? I spoke to Taverne, [a man I helped] and he said, “The light may not be in communion with the dark forces.”
I wish I was a light, but I am only a little flickering flame. I am so happy that Nel now came into my life, I still don’t know her, but I feel that she will be able to replace something that I lost when I lost you. from the diary of Diet Eman
To this day, I don’t understand their way of thinking. That family was so similar to ours in beliefs—same church, same profession, and same standard of living. Maybe I never knew what those people were really like. When we were younger, maybe we were just having too much fun. We never talked about important things, about politics; we never talked about serious things at all. We just had fun. I never knew them inside, I suppose. But maybe there was more to all of it. Those girls were my best friends, so I’ve often thought about what happened.
Hein and I and the group that met at Platteel’s felt very strongly that what we were doing was right, both with our consciences and with God. What we were certain of was that there were things happening in our country that were wrong. But it was so difficult to know what to do. At first, we didn’t know where to start. At that time, the Germans had not yet started persecuting the Jews. What had aroused us was other things: laws against radios; rules about what we could listen to; laws forcing us to hand in copper, brass, and other metals; laws against everything. We the people of the Netherlands were accustomed to being free.
July 7, 1941
Did not write in a long time and much has happened during that time. Two weeks ago, Russia joined. All metal has to be handed in. Political parties have to be dissolved. Their monies have to be handed in. Many arrests among the Roman Catholics. And we are getting accustomed to this, that is the very worst of all. And also, I forget to see this all happens with God’s permission.
I keep looking at the injustice, So this man rang the doorbell at the home our country and people are suffering, but I forget that You allow trials on this earth.
Teach me to see that this too is You, who carries everything in Your strong hands. Then I can even be happy knowing that You are fulfilling Your plans. Keep me from saying so many things, which are not pleasing to You. Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, and keep watch over the door of my lips. from the diary of Diet Eman
The Germans would print rules in the newspaper and broadcast them over the radio. They put up little signs on trains: “Be careful what you say.” That’s always what the Germans told each other: “Be careful with your conversations. The enemy is listening in.” Of course, we were the enemy, and they were reminding their military that they should not talk about military things, because we would hear it. Then they began designating certain cars on the trains as belonging only to them. At that time in the Netherlands, only the very rich had automobiles, and there was no gas. So the trains were a vital means of transportation. Everyone had bicycles, of course, but if you needed to go some distance, you usually took the train. What they did was this: if it was a train of six cars, say, they would take two cars for themselves. They would put big signs on those cars: Nur für Wehrmacht (“Only for the German army”).
When the Germans marked specific cars, those cars would almost always be empty, and the Dutch people had to stuff themselves into the one or two cars left for them. One time I fainted on the train, and I could not fall to the floor: there were too many people. I hung there, even though I had fainted dead away. Hein saw that I had fainted, but he was standing so far away from me that he could not get through the crowd. You were simply happy if you got on the train at all, never mind if you stayed together. We were already doing Underground work and were heading to Nijkerk on that day, and I fainted shortly after we left The Hague.
The train stopped in Voorburg for two minutes, and the people around me saw me hanging there, green probably; and when the doors opened, they shoved me onto the platform. The doors closed, and the train simply left without me! Hein could not get to me. He had seen me lying there on the platform, but he was caught in his car because everyone was so cramped in. The train went all the way to Utrecht with him on it and me lying on the platform at Voorburg. Imagine, if you fainted, you couldn’t even fall on the floor, you just hung there between people.
The way the Germans abused the railroad made me very angry, especially later, when I had to do so much traveling on those packed trains for the Resistance. So one time I walked right into one of those empty cars where the paper message (written in both German and Dutch) Nur fur Wehrmacht/Gereserveerd voor Duitsche Weermacht was stuck on the windows. I stood there with my back against the window, and behind my back, I ripped the message off completely. Immediately, of course, the whole car filled up with Dutch people. That time, at least, the Dutch people had one extra car on their own train.
An officer at the bank I worked at by the name of Gitz used to give me occasional hints: “I have heard some people are actually taking these Jews and hiding them,” he said to me one day, as if it was an incredible shock that such a thing was being done. At that date, to be sure, it wasn’t really done often. There were onderduikers already by that time, people who “dove under,” went into hiding under a false name. But even hiding onderduikers was all very new then. Gitz was a man with whom I had a lot to do at the bank. “Have you heard of people who are in the Resistance, and who then have to go into hiding?” he asked me in a rather casual way.
“Ja, I’ve heard about that,” I said, also very casually.
He often attempted to read my own feelings about the whole situation in that way, and I always was wary of him and his interest, even though, later on, he gave me more tips on people who were in the Underground and in other organizations. So Gitz helped me to get started, but always in a very guarded way. It wasn’t easy to bring these things up with people you didn’t know well: the price for being wrong about who could be trusted was very, very high.
Working together was absolutely required if our movement was going to grow. One of my uncles, my mother’s brother, lived in The Hague and was doing important work for the Resistance when he showed interest in us. He worked for a printing outfit, which was ideal because he could secretly print the things we needed badly. He had his own contacts, so our circle grew because of our contact with him and his printing press.
When we started the dangerous work of trying to hide Jews, Herman, a Jewish man I worked with at the bank, told me about his Uncle Frits, who was doing all kinds of things for the Resistance. “Would you like to meet him?” he asked.
This Uncle Frits was not Jewish, but he had married Lena, Herman’s mother’s sister. Because his wife, his whole family, and all his relatives on his wife’s side were in danger—being Jewish—he began to work hard for the Resistance. Uncle Frits had a strong sense of what was right and wrong.
He started doing all sorts of things with us. He came to the meetings at Platteel’s, and, of course, he had even more contacts, including an accountant and his wife, Jenny, who was a housewife and very active and eager to work in the Underground. So at one point we had a big group of resisters in The Hague, and soon there were many things we could do.
This is what happened: when it became apparent that the Nazis were really starting to go after Jewish people, we saw our task. Up until that time we had been groping around with the constant question, “What can we do?” But after the seizure of Jews became clear, that was simply not a question anymore. Our objective became very clear: to find places for Jews wherever we could.
When we formed ourselves into a Resistance group, we called ourselves “Group HEIN”; but the name had nothing to do with my fiancé’s name. It was an acronym formed from the first letters of Help Elkander in Nood, which means “helping each other in need.” Hein was one of the two leaders; the other was Ab van Meerveld, an old friend of his from The Veluwe, the part of the country where Hein had been raised and where his family still lived.
At first, we didn’t even think about a name; everything we did was so casual and limited. Our first activities consisted of spreading reliable news and trying to get people to England. Such efforts seemed to be so small, and we were such ordinary people. But then our work started growing. And other small groups started to form in those early months. The Resistance was simply made up of people who were opposed to what was happening in the Occupation.
Distrust and suspicion surrounded us all the time. Young men could be stopped at any time on the streets and conscripted by the Germans. Germany was so short on manpower, their men spread over the whole of Europe as Occupation forces, that at home they had only young kids under fourteen and very old men. So they made it a rule that young able-bodied men of the countries they occupied had to go work in Germany. First, it was an invitation; later, it was forced labor. Those men were placed in factories, which became dangerous places when the Allies got involved, because they would often drop their bombs on those factories. Few Dutch men wanted to go to Germany to help the enemy; so our work began as an effort to hide not only Jews but also the onderduikers, Dutch men hiding for other reasons, such as to escape having to go work in Germany. The necessity of that effort had become very clear to us.
The razzias, the Gestapo raids, began to take place after the Germans were already coming after the Jews; but our trying to help the onderduikers really started at about the same time that we started hiding Jews. When the Germans started taking other people too—not just Jewish men for forced labor camps—then the queen, in a radio broadcast, made very clear to us that Dutch men should not go to Germany. Once again, just as with the confiscation of radios, Dutch people had to make a difficult choice. I realize now that a lot of people were simply very afraid; and many just obeyed all those crazy German rules.
Many men did go to Germany, but many others went into hiding. They worked on farms or did what they could in hiding; some worked in the Underground. No one had any inkling that the war would last for five years. At first, we really thought it would last only a year. We thought, “These are modern times, after all, and this horrible barbarism will be defeated quickly.”
We were sure America would join the war effort. We thought Roosevelt would help free us. But we didn’t have access to much world news, and thus we didn’t know that in America there was terrific opposition to the war. We pictured America as the great land of justice and freedom, and we thought America and Roosevelt simply wouldn’t stand for letting that little painter fellow out of Austria have his way with Europe.
At that time, the British were fighting for their lives against the bombardments. I still admire the British immensely because they had to send all their little kids out into the country in big trains, where they were taken in by farmers. Every night London was being bombed—the Blitzkrieg. Under those circumstances, when you are all in danger, you want to keep your kids by your side. And all the British housewives learned first aid and how to fight fires. After the bombardments, many English people would go out with their masks on to help. For them the war was simply horrible. I have the greatest respect for the courageous British.
September 28, 1941
Rev. Bosch in the Grote Kerk: “Do not pray as in the Old Testament—‘Smash the heads of the children of those who persecute me against the rocks,’ but pray instead, like Paul—‘I wished that you were like me, except for these chains.'”
Sometimes I cannot imagine that we as a people ever will be less hard again. Because of the things I say now, openly, without blushing. These thoughts of revenge I would earlier have wanted to dig a hole for saying—before this war. Lord, only Your Spirit can keep us from turning into animals. Send Your Spirit into our hearts and lead us in Your eternal way. from the diary of Diet Eman