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Father, WWII, Butcher shop, and the Bible - 23 July 2016

My Father was extraordinarily fortunate. This may seem like an odd statement since he grew up in Holland during the War. Hendrik Cornelis II, everyone called him Hank, was born in 1931 in DeBilt, a small town near the city of Utrecht. World War II began in 1939 and did not end until six years later in 1945. Essentially my father's formative years existed in a war zone. The Nazis occupied Holland in the Battle of the Netherlands in 1940 (van der Zee 65). The Germans seized all the food. The Dutch people were starving. This is why my father was lucky- his grandfather owned the town butcher shop. The family name was emblazoned on the front door.

The Dutch people had hoped to remain neutral during World War II. The Netherlands had always been known as a neutral country before and even during the first World War. Germany was also a strategic trade partner which the Dutch government did not want to jeopardize (Abbenhuis 121). The Nazi party saw neutrality as weakness and an opportunity to overpower the land. They also knew the Dutch Army had not expanded since the first World War ended in 1918 (Abbenhuis 170). Holland was vunerable for attack and the Nazi's were relentless with a superior military regime. This was their chance to take over the Netherlands.

The Battle of the Netherlands lasted five treacherous days. The Nazi's attacked unremittingly on land, by sea and by air. The city of Rotterdam is located a brief 40 miles from Debilt. This seaside village was completely destroyed in an air raid on May 14, 1940 (Dutch History). The Germans targeted civilians knowing this would force them to surrender quickly. Thousands of people were killed and nearly every home demolished during the day-long deluge called the Rotterdam Blitz. Queen Wilhelmina escaped to London during the five-day German raid. She would remain in exile until the end of the war (Dutch History & van der Zee 200). Now the Netherlands were occupied by Nazi Germans. There was a Dutch resistance but they were predominantly non-violent people committed to protecting innocent Jewish families.

Despite the war and the occupation of German soldiers the Dutch people had an adequate supply of food. Until the harshly cold winter of 1944, known as the Hunger Winter (van Houten 164). The weather conditions were brutal and food supplies became exceedingly scarce due to German blockades. Official rations were implemented in October 1944 starting at 1000 kcal per day and by April 1945 to a low of 500 kcal per day (Oxford Journal and van der Zee 224). The Nazi's were confiscating all the wheat to make bread. The severely undernourished Dutch people resorted to eating tulip bulbs (van der Zee 150). Nearly 20,000 Dutch people starved to death during the winter months of 1944 (van der Zee 305). My father weighed a dismal 30 kilograms. Normal weight for a 13-year-old boy is 100 pounds (45 kg). He was lucky to be alive. His grandfather owned the butcher shop and they were responsible for feeding the town. They were in charge of the soup line. This was a great responsibility and Hank learned compassion at a young age.

Food was not the only item in limited supply. It was difficult to find wood to make fires. Some families burned every piece of furniture they had in order to stay warm. Wood was necessary not only to stay warm but to cook the soup. Everyone was freezing and starving. Hank and his brother Gary had an idea- they would cut the railroad ties from the train tracks and use it for firewood. The penalty was death- they knew the Nazi soldiers would shoot them on sight if they were caught. My father and uncle hoped and prayed the soldiers would have sympathy for the young boys. Certainly one would think teenage boys had a better chance to survive than an adult if they were caught.

They did survive but it wasn't easy. Not only did Hank and his four siblings endure freezing weather and sparse rations of food. He and his brothers were in fist fights every day with the Hitler Youth. The Nazi youth movement actually began in 1890, well before Hitler came into power in 1933. Teaching Nazi propaganda increased exponentially during World War II. Hitler recruited young boys as soon as they turned ten-years-old. The Third Reich offered them uniforms, weekend hiking trips, and status. The Nazi youth were trained to march and to shoot guns (Kater 20-23). The majority of young boys enlisted- peer pressure made it difficult to resist. Hank was in the regular boy scouts where human life was valued and moral conduct was taught. The boy scouts despised the Hitler Youth. Fights would ensue and Hank would usually be the victor. He was skinny but very tall for his age. He and his brothers would rip the medallions off the Nazi Youth uniforms. This continued until the war finally came to an end in May 1945. German soldiers retreated and the Dutch were liberated (van Houten ix & 150).

At the time it was estimated over 200,000 Dutch men and women had died from war-related causes. Then immediately after the war concentration camps were discovered in several cities such as Auschwitz, Sobibor. and Treblinka (Dwork 320). Estimates range from 6 million to 11 million Holocaust victims (Dwork 17). Russian civilian and military casualties are assumed to be between 20 million to possibly 50 million (Daniel 357). The shocking total number of deaths from WWII is now estimated to be 60-100 million people (Daniel 358). The population of the entire world was only 2.3 billion at that time. The numbers are staggering and the evil is incomprehensible.

Holland and the rest of the world would slowly start to rebuild. I realize now that my father did not have a childhood. His youth was surrounded by endless poverty, fear of death of himself and others. Constant work to help his family feed the community. He could not attend school. The German soldiers used the school house in Debilt as a barracks. The school was on the same block as the family home. My father, Hank told his children that a Nazi soldier guarding the school/barracks would give him extra food. Hank in turn would give it to children who were in dire need of sustenance. A few of the soldiers had pity on their starving prisoners. They were just doing their job and if they refused then they would be killed by Hitler.

As a teenager, I recall my father always reviewing my history books. He asked, "What are they teaching you about WWII?" My response was, "not much." And that was the truth. In 1975, where I went to school they did not teach children about the war. Possibly it was because there were so many Dutch expatriates in the area. The teachers did not want to bring up bad memories. The war had only ended 30 years earlier. I think it is imperative to know the past and especially important to be aware of your family's personal history. There is much to be learned from our ancestors. Fundamentally so the mistakes of our fore-fathers are not repeated. But sadly I don't see this happening when I turn on the news.

I spoke to each of my three brothers while researching the Dutch Famine. It is fascinating the different memories we have about our father. My oldest brother Rick named after Hendrik told me that Dad didn't cut railroad ties instead he cut down telephone poles. My youngest brother Mark swears our grandfather's house was the very first home destroyed in the Rotterdam Blitz. Of course there is no way to prove whether he is right or wrong. It doesn't matter though because it is still a personal story of devastation handed down through generations. My brother Mike recalled a tale of our great-grandfathers strength. He would pick up a cow with one hand and cut the meat with his free hand. That would be astounding but our great-grandfather was revered- he owned the butcher shop. He saved thousands of lives so it is possible that he was viewed with superhuman strength. When the war finally came to an end the outpouring of gratitude was unforgettable. And our family has proof of this story. Several artists gave paintings to say thank you. Now they're our family heirlooms- original Dutch paintings displayed proudly at our homes. Old Dutch masters hung beside the contemporary art at my house. This reminds me of a quote I heard recently, a friend from London mused, "WWII would not have happened if only they would have accepted Adolf Hitler into art school."

My parents took my brothers and me to Holland for the first time while we were still very young. We visited all the castles and museums. Our aunts and uncles still lived in their childhood home in DeBilt. The butcher shop had been sold by my father's cousin. The only thing my father wanted was his rightful heirloom- The Dutch Family Bible. My father offered his cousin an obscene amount of money but the awful cousin refused. He felt that Hank had left his homeland and didn't deserve to have the Bible. I continued to make trips to Holland and stayed in touch with my aunts, uncle, and cousin. A few years ago I made a specifically purposeful trip to DeBilt in order to acquire my father's Bible. This time I was dealing with my second-cousin. She refused to speak English to me even though she speaks it perfectly. My cousin Peter and his wife helped to negotiate the transaction. Suddenly my sister-in-law started laughing. I wondered what I had missed. Apparently my second-cousin had inherited the selfishness of her father and demanded six-figures for the Bible. Aunt Nelly intervened, told her that was absurd, and ushered her out the door. Needless to say I do not have the Bible. Instead I purchased brand-new, oversized, leather-bound Bibles for each of my brothers and their families. I included a copy of our family tree I had put together. This essay will now be included as well.

Hank joined the Dutch Navy after the war. It was compulsory for all Dutch men at age 18 to enlist for 18 months. His passion became desserts and he trained as a pastry chef at The Hague Culinary Academy. My father never mentioned it but Aunt Nelly told me he even baked for the Queen of Holland. Hank then acquired the most lucrative chef position available in the Dutch Merchant Mariners. He traveled the world including all seven continents. Finally settling in what he called, "The most beautiful place in the world" - the Skagit Valley in Washington State. Eventually becoming a commercial fisherman and naming his boat the Flying Dutchman. Soon he met my mother and they immediately fell in love. My mother always told us she married dad because he had "good genes." Without a doubt my father was extremely handsome.

A few fascinating studies came out of the Dutch Famine such as the discovery of the disease celiac sprue. Ironically my mother suffered from this disease but she was not Dutch. The evidence became apparent when symptoms disappeared during the famine when wheat was not available to eat. The Dutch Famine gave scientists an intriguing platform to learn about DNA and epigenetics (Beyond DNA). But this is the only positive I can find from the war in Holland.

The devastation is unimaginable. I found it difficult to read about the overwhelming tragedies. It makes me want to cry. How could my father have lived through such atrocities? Hank died when he was only 54 years old. I was only 21 at the time. I'm sure the war had something to do with his early demise. I was extremely close to my father's sister. She adored my father. A couple years ago I asked my 85-year-old Aunt Nelly to tell me what it was like to grow up during war. In her thick Dutch accent, she said, "Ahhh, Lora Jean, I will never repeat such horrors."

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