It was May 9, 1940, when some friends were visiting my family in our home. We had the radio on and were listening to Hitler give one of his fine speeches. There were quite a few people in our house that night, and we all knew German. We heard Hitler say that the Netherlands did not have to fear because the Dutch had been neutral during the First World War, and he would respect our neutrality. We were not important to his campaign, so we didn’t have to worry.
After our guests had left, we all went to bed. But only a few hours later, I awoke to what I recognized as a familiar sound. It was the staccato sound of someone beating a rug. In the Netherlands of that era, housewives kept a regular weekly schedule: Monday was laundry day; Tuesday was for ironing; Wednesday you cleaned the living room; Thursday, perhaps another room; and on Friday you cleaned the rugs with mattenkloppers, rugbeaters.
When I awoke very early that Friday morning, I immediately thought, “This is crazy! Some idiot is beating rugs right now, and it’s pitch dark outside.” What I heard was the “pop-pop-pop” as if someone were spanking rugs—only much faster. It was the first sound of the war.
Father and Mother were up too. They had gone into the street in front of the house, so I joined them. There in the dark sky above us we could see an air battle—planes and shooting. We could hear it too, of course, and we could see what was being shot at the planes from the ground, what they call flak. We all ran back into the house and turned the radio on. The broadcaster sounded very nervous; he told us we were at war and that German paratroops had landed.
This happened only hours after Hitler had assured us that we in the Netherlands needn’t worry! I don’t think that I had ever been lied to by a government leader before that time, and I was furious that this liar had told us not to be worried at the very moment he was sending troops onto our soil.
And our Dutch army, what were they? Our government did not believe in having a real standing army, and they certainly hadn’t planned on this war. Our soldiers were on bicycles—can you imagine?—with their aging rifles slung over their shoulders. Against the Germans they were powerless. On top of that, many Germans came into the Netherlands that night wearing Dutch army uniforms. It had been reported from time to time in our papers that many Dutch uniforms had been missing, but no one had put two and two together. Not, at least, until those first Germans came over our borders looking so much like our soldiers that our boys didn’t even know whom to shoot at. Some Germans even invaded our country wearing priests’ habits!
We didn’t sleep at all that night. After going back inside and listening to the radio reports, we talked and made tea. We were very nervous. Finally, we went back to bed to try to get an hour or so of rest. But there was no rest. We were at war.
Yet, the next day, what was there to do but go back to work? I had been working for some time at the Twentsche Bank, a very good bank in the center of The Hague. So that morning I got on my bike as usual, I didn’t worry about air bombardment or any kind of danger; I just went to work. My regular route was via Vondelstraat, a main artery into the city. At one point I was stopped on that street by the Dutch police, who commanded me to say the words Scheveningen and Schapenscheerder, to pronounce them slowly. It was a shibboleth. If you were a native speaker of Dutch, you could pronounce those words perfectly. Germans, however, could not. It was just hours after the initial attack, but there had already been so much infiltration into the country that those precautions had to be taken.
There had been fighting on the outskirts of The Hague that morning, and paratroopers were all around the airports. Adriaan, a young man who was then dating my sister Fanny, was in the service like Hein. He had taken a job that required a certain amount of time in the army. The deal he had signed up for was this: if he agreed to go into the military service, he would get a good government job once he got out. And his time in the service was almost over. Fanny and Adriaan were planning to get married in September, four months from the time of the invasion.
That night of May 9th, Adriaan was standing guard with his buddy at Ypenburg, the little airfield just outside The Hague, where the Germans dropped hundreds of paratroopers. He and his buddy were killed guarding that little airfield; they were among the very first Dutch soldiers to die. (from Things We Couldn’t Say – click here to read this entire chapter in pdf format.)