By Heather From
“What happened next?” I ask. “What did the German soldiers do to you? How long did they stay?”
“Slow down, little one. I will tell ya, but I think we need some tea.” Beppe, my grandmother, stands up from the carved, creaking wooden chair at the kitchen table. She moves towards the small kitchen of her and Pake’s, my grandfather’s, mobile home, which feels more and more like a house with each year that she and Pake live there. I hear the clock in the den wind up, and a wooden bird pops its head out from the top gable to sing four loud coo-coos. Small doors open and welcome the bird back inside its little home. I smile to myself. Four o’clock, a typical teatime for Dutch families.
I turn it face down and run my hand down the length of the wooden dining room table to reach another pen from my purple mesh pencil case. I stretch my sore arms and shoulders, grasp the pen and place it on the stack of lined papers that sit in front me.Several of them are torn and full of scribbles.
I rub my eyes and push my brown hair back from my face. The two of us have been sitting at Beppe’s kitchen table since ten o’clock this morning, talking about her life during World War II. Even though I read her story a few days before, I still have questions about her life in the Netherlands before she came to Canada. I look to the page of interview questions I’ve written an effort to keep the conversation on track. They were quickly pushed aside as Beppe told story after story about the German soldiers who stayed in her home.
The kettle whistles from on top of the gas stove. Beppe fills two cups with Red Rose tea and places them on the yellow and white-checkered tablecloth. She turns back towards the kitchen counter and returns with a plate of Oranjekoek, a spiced cake with a pink icing drizzle. I sneak a bite from a piece on the plate. Beppe turns to check that the gas stove is off, catching me.
“Agh, Heather!” She scolds, her Dutch accent thicker than usual. She swats my hand away from the plate.
I laugh and pop another piece of the warm cake into my mouth and brush the crumbs from my cheeks. She tries to send me one of her stern looks, but her eyes, surrounded by laugh lines, seem harmless.. The sweetness of the cake dissolves on my tongue. My cheeks cramp up. I swallow the pink icing.
“Do you miss it?” I mumble. Crumbs threaten to fall from my mouth, which I know will not impress Beppe.
“Do I miss what?”
“Life in the Netherlands, relatives, everything.”
“I miss how simple things were before the war,” she responds. “But… we did not go through the worst of the war. We had a lot of good times… The German soldiers weren’t as bad as people thought. We had to be afraid of some of them because they were not scared to kill people like us, but the ones that stayed with my family were just beautiful and oh just such, such dears.” Beppe sneaks a bite of cake for herself.
“I think we need some butter.”
I nod and push myself up from the table. I wander over to the counter lined with small porcelain figurines of ladies with stylish hats and flowing dresses. Delft Blue tiles adorn the wall above the countertop, depicting scenes of boats and windmills.
My thoughts wander to an image taken of Amsterdam by Kryn Taconis in 1945. German soldiers march through the streets with gas masks. Dutch citizens’ stand on the curb and watch as they pass. I know that Beppe remembers everything that happened in the war, but high school history class told a different story.
I sigh, grasp the old glass butter dish, and shuffle back to the table in the warm, knitted slippers that Beppe handed to me when I first walked into the house this morning.
“Beppe, what games did you play with the German soldiers? You wrote in your story that you became friends and played with them.” I set the open butter dish on the table.
“We played hide and seek,” she responds matter-of-factly.
“What? Oh… I mean… pardon?”
“It’s true. All of the children in the neighborhood came out to play with us. We hid in trees, the Brussels sprout fields; anywhere we could. At eight o’clock every night we had to go inside. They would turn off the lights in the streets so that the Americans…and the Canadians would not be able to bomb the Germans.” She giggles and tries to take another sip of tea.
“What? What is it?” I ask, laughing.
“One time… I was… visiting a friend in another town… and the lights went off… while I was walking home…It was so dark, I couldn’t see him… and I… and I…I walked between his legs!” She holds her stomach and laughs. A few tears trickle down her suntanned, wrinkled cheeks.
I stare at her in disbelief.
“You walked through a German soldier’s legs?” I exclaim nervously. “Really?”
Beppe looks at me, and laughs even harder than before.
“No… No…” She sputters, “I walked through a Dutch man’s legs. He shouldn’t have been outside either! He was so surprised that I just stepped right through them.”
I sigh in relief.
“What else happened?” I ask. “What were the German soldiers like when they were in your home?”
Beppe looks at me. “I will tell you about home. The German soldiers were fine but my mother had to work hard for them. She washed their clothes with the soap that they had stolen from France, because we didn’t have any… She would do her own washing first, and then do the soldier’s after. She forced the men to take all of their laundry off of the lines outside the house themselves. Every Saturday my one dress would get washed so I had a clean dress for church on Sunday. She would also mend their socks.”
“How did living on a farm affect how you lived during the war?” I ask. I fill my knife with the soft, pale yellow butter, and coat the side of one of the squares of cake.
Beppe pauses and looks at me. I smile in her direction. I lick a few bits of the square from my top lip.
“What? It’s good!” I brush crumbs from my face onto the tablecloth.
“We had milk from our cows that we gave to everyone in the neighborhood and the German soldiers. We also had stables that the Germans used to keep their horses in for their wagons…But my mother, Nellie, who your mother is named after, hid our harnesses in the well so that the Germans wouldn’t steal them. But that happened later on in the war when no one had money. We also had hydro when the Germans lived with us, so my mama would walk down to the, the…” Beppe struggles to pronounce the word. “th..th..threshing floor of the house, which was under the main floor.” She pauses and continues.
“My mother, Nellie, had an electronic butter maker down there, which the Germans knew about. She would sit and make butter for hours and then bring some up to use in food. That was only until the supplies of food in Rotterdam ran out, and then we all ate tulip bulbs. That was the hardest part of the war.”
Beppe takes a small section of the soft butter and spreads it thinly on a square. She bites off a small piece, and chews.
“But Beppe, didn’t they care that you were hiding two boys in the fields? Why didn’t they take them away to the concentration camps like they did north of you?”
Beppe fiddles with the side of the tablecloth. I hear the screen door at the front of the house open, and the sound of shuffling feet.
“Oh! Oh! I have to get dinner on. Pake’s home. Put those papers away and peel some potatoes for me.”
I sigh, pile the messy stack of papers into my binder and shove them into my backpack.
“I will tell you all about that some other time.”
SourcesHistorical Events for Year 1945. HistoryOrb.com, 2000-2013.Web.24 Feb. 2013 “Holland in World War II.” ARTstor. ARTstor Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2013. “SDFK.” World War II in Colour. ServInt, n.d. Web. 11 March 2013.
Tuinhof, Cora. Personal Interview. 15 Jan. 2013.