My parents spent World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland.
As you can imagine, I heard several stories of that time. My sense, though, is that I did not hear all the stories. The stories I heard were of successes, things that worked, hiding from the Germans, and some of the tricks my parents and grandparents used to work around some of the shortages, or prohibitions, of the time.
There’s one story, of which I certainly only have fragments, that almost always comes to mind when I think about them during that time.
The time my dad and his brother escaped from a Nazi prison camp.
It was apparently not uncommon for Nazi patrols to routinely stop and conscript eligible candidates on-the-spot. One moment you’re taking a leisurely walk to your favorite cafe, and the next you find yourself in a prison or labor camp along with dozens, or hundreds, of others. My dad was around 23 at the time of the war’s beginning, making him a prime candidate for the Nazi war machine.
And that’s apparently what happened to my dad and his brother. While normally they were adept at diving into nearby bushes, or even the typically deep ditches alongside the road, to evade a passing patrol, in at least one instance the weren’t so fortunate. They were captured.
I honestly can’t imagine the terror. And, indeed, that’s not something that my father ever talked about when relaying this story. He focused on what happened next.
They were in a prison camp. My sense is that it was a temporary camp, probably something near to where they were captured, and probably the first stop on the road to a final destination which would most likely be a labor camp of some sort. Not being Jewish, my understanding is that a concentration camp was something they would avoid. They were more valuable as laborers.
To my dad and uncle, it was likely still a death sentence. People didn’t come back either way.
As my dad told it, at some point they saw an opportunity. I don’t know the details, but what I do know is that my dad looked at this way: “Either we would run, and maybe die trying to escape, or we could stay and almost certainly die at the hands of the Nazis later.”
They ran. Together, they ran.
And together, they escaped.
That’s what my dad focused on: the success. The escape. The return to what would pass as normal life for the duration of the war. Returning to that cafe where he met my mother.
I simply can’t imagine what it was like, especially considering parts of the story he almost certainly, purposely, left out.
(The accompanying photo is of a World War II bunker of some sort that still dot the Dutch landscape. Taken last year on my trip to Holland.)