If you’ve seen Jan Steen’s famous painting The Feast of St. Nicholas, you understand what an important place that holiday holds in the hearts of Dutch children, like My neighbor, Mrs. Stien. “A famous legend,” I declare carelessly of the one of the tales of the saint; she corrects me: “not a legend, but a true story!” It was this Christian faith that sustained her and her countrymen through the hardships of World War II.
In honor of Thanksgiving and in anticipation of the Christmas season, I offer this story of gratitude and faith concerning the experiences of a Catholic girl in Amsterdam during World War II. The girl, now enjoying her golden age ensconced on a quiet suburban street in northern Virginia, is my neighbor Mrs. Stien van Egmond.
Mrs. Stien was born Christina Maria Theresia Cecilia Vijn on July 30, 1928 in Amsterdam, Holland, the oldest of thirteen children. A year after she was born, her family moved to the nearby town of Diemen, on the same street that Rembrandt had daily walked. Mrs. Stien’s father operated a green grocery, which was conjoined with the family house. Dutch homes are traditionally cozy, and this one was on the snug side, especially with so many children about; the parents were content to sleep in a Murphy bed in the living room. Mr. Vijn tended to the store six days a week, while Mrs. Vijn stayed home and took care of the growing family.
The Vijns were Catholics and worshiped at the church of Sint Petrus’ Banden (St. Peter in Chains) in Diemen, known popularly as the Dom. Mrs. Stien tells me that in her day Holland was roughly half Protestant and half Catholic, with the former concentrated in the north and the latter in the south, while the people in the middle of the country tended towards non-belief. Why, I wonder? Mrs. Stien’s theory is that the Protestants and the Catholics met in the middle and, discouraged by their differences, decided it was easier not to believe in anything at all. In any case, she says that Catholics and Protestants in Diemen got along well and there was no tension or conflict.
It was not always so, of course. Diemen’s original Catholic church was seized by the Protestants during the Reformation and converted into a Dutch Reformed church. For centuries onward the Catholics had to meet in a small building, which they crowned with the copper “Maria Bell.” Finally, in 1910 Sint Petrus was built to serve Diemen’s Catholics, and the Maria Bell became its pride and joy. As for the Dutch Reformed church, Mrs. Stien tells me that it was struck by lightning several times and burned down.
If you’ve seen Jan Steen’s famous painting The Feast of St. Nicholas, you understand what an important place that holiday holds in the hearts of Dutch children. It’s then that Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas, the progenitor of our Santa Claus) arrives on a boat from Spain to distribute presents, along with his companion Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who developed his swarthy complexion from delivering goodies through sooty chimneys. Mrs. Stien showed me pictures from some Sinterklaas landings of recent years. Far from the red-suited elf of American lore, the Dutch St. Nick is a true bishop with an authentic bishop’s costume, which Mrs. Stien once proudly reproduced in sewing.
Mrs. Stien is insistent on the historicity of St. Nicholas, “a real bishop,” she tells me, “who lived in the Middle East in the 300s anno domini.” She recounts the tale of Nicholas gifting dowries to three needy daughters. “A famous legend,” I declare carelessly; she corrects me: “not a legend, but a true story!” Mrs. Stien doesn’t say it outright, but she and I would probably agree that the secular American Santa is a much poorer cousin of the mitered Bishop of Myra.
She emphasizes that St. Nicholas’ Day only, not Christmas Day, was the gift-giving day of the Christmas season. Family members were expected to present their gifts to each other complete with a written poem in honor of the recipient, and so the presents were personalized.
Mrs. Stien attended St. Mary’s Catholic school for girls, presided over by the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, who dressed in blue habits complete with headdresses popularly known (so she tells me) as “flying machines.” Discipline was hardly needed because children were well behaved, a difference she noted with some amazement when she came to America. Mrs. Stien enjoyed school and excelled particularly in Geography. Today, she knows the topography of Holland like the back of her hand and gives a detailed description of its cities, streets and canals.
Rumblings of war began to be felt in Mrs. Stien’s world in the late 1930s, when she was around ten years old. Holland claimed neutrality when war broke out in September 1939, but Hitler ordered the country to be invaded anyway because he thought Holland a suitable platform for invading England. When in May 1940 the Nazis bombed Rotterdam (“the biggest harbor in the world,” Mrs. Stien reminds me), the smoke from the bombing could be seen all the way from the back of Mr. Vijn’s grocery in Diemen.
The Nazis placed barricades of barbed wire along the coast of Holland and proceeded with their long occupation of the country. Automobiles were confiscated, curfews imposed, and Nazi soldiers were constantly patrolling the streets of Diemen with their heavy shoes and bayonets. On two occasions the Nazis raided the Vijn home to make sure they were not hiding anyone. Mr. Vijn was forty-one years of age but looked younger, which made him a prime target for deportation to the German labor camps; he was thus, for all intents and purposes, in hiding.
There were few connections with the outside world. The sole radio station presented nothing but Nazi propaganda, relieved by performances of classical music (the Germans had excellent taste in music, Mrs. Stien says). But some families were able, through clandestine radios, to tune into broadcasts of the BBC; and so such events as the Normandy Invasion traveled through word of mouth.
The Dutch Catholic Church was notably firm in its condemnation of Nazism (including Nazi anti-Semitism). The Archbishop of Utrecht Jan de Jong was one of the pillars of the Dutch resistance along with the Dutch Reformed minister Koeno Gravemeijer. Two other prominent Catholics, Fr. Robert Regout and the Carmelite friar Bl. Titus Brandsma, paid the ultimate price for their opposition and ended their days in the Dachau concentration camp. Mrs. Stien is insistent upon the hatred which the Nazis harbored towards Christianity and adds that priests were often prevented from preaching homilies.
Yet in addition to a vigorous resistance, Holland also had a good many Nazi collaborators. Mrs. Stien found out later that the parents of one of her best girlfriends were among them. Had she not been more cautious in her talk around her friend, it’s likely that the authorities would have found out about some of Mr. Vijn’s suspicious activities—such as secretly keeping pigs in the family basement—and that he would consequently have been killed.
Another of Mrs. Stien’s friends was a Jewish girl named Jopie Bierman. One Monday morning, Mrs. Stien received a shock when the nun opened class by saying “We must say a prayer for Jopie and her family.” It turns out the Biermans had been deported to Germany over the weekend; Mrs. Stien never saw her friend again. Ditto for the “banana and nut man,” a Jewish tradesman who made deliveries to the Vijn grocery; suddenly he stopped coming and was heard from no more. Decades later, Mrs. Stien visited the Holocaust Memorial in Amsterdam, where a wall inscribes the names of Jews who never came back. One inscription read “Mr. and Mrs. Bierman, Jopie, and her brother.”
Mrs. Stien tells me that there was never enough to eat during the five years of the war. Indeed, the years of 1944-45 saw what historians refer to as the Dutch famine and the Dutch people call the Hongerwinter, during which a German blockade cut off food and fuel supplies in the country. Severe rations were in effect. Naturally, this posed a problem for a greengrocer. Mr. Vijn received coupons to buy food supplies in order to keep his store stocked, but they had limited value. Mrs. Stien remembers people crowding outside the grocery to buy food and being turned away because of a lack of goods. With heat and electricity shut off, the Dutch people suffered the harsh winter acutely; Mrs. Stien remembers doing her homework by candlelight clad in her coat.
Over 18,000 Dutch people died from the famine. Mrs. Stien tells me that all Dutch babies born in October of 1940 perished, their mothers themselves being too malnourished. Her own sister Martha, a talented artist, died from tuberculosis compounded by malnutrition at the age of seventeen, and her youngest sister Cecilia (whom Mrs. Stien named) died in infancy of heart failure.
Despite suffering continuous hunger—Mrs. Stien remembers curling up in bed so as not to feel the hunger pangs—she still managed to pursue a rigorous school curriculum of twenty subjects, including four languages (Dutch, French, German and English), and learned to do complex arithmetic sums in her head, the better to help her father in the store.
By 1944 the British, Canadians, and Americans were advancing towards Holland to liberate it. In September of that year, Mrs. Stien’s brother Chris was riding his bicycle on a country road outside town when he witnessed Allied spitfires shooting at a train filled with Nazi collaborators fleeing Holland to Germany. This is known to history as Dolle Dinsdag (Crazy Tuesday). A jarring experience for a nine-year-old boy, but a key event in galvanizing Dutch hopes for an end to the war.
The day of liberation, May 5, 1945, was as euphoric in Holland as anywhere. Mrs. Stien remembers people dancing in the streets in their nightgowns and pajamas that night as soon as news of the Allied liberation came. The Maria Bell, which had been hidden from the Nazis—being made of copper, it would doubtless have been melted down—was brought out of hiding and pealed out joyously over Diemen.
After the war Mrs. Stien attended a women’s business college, worked in a number of accounting and stenography jobs, and indulged in her love of singing. She married Mr. van Egmond in 1951 and the couple emigrated to Iowa, where they raised nine children (one of them named Nick). Mrs. Stien eventually ended up on a placid street in Alexandria, Virginia, where she currently resides.
My readers may have noticed a similarity between Mrs. Stien’s milieu and experiences and those of a more famous Amsterdam girl, Anne Frank. The similarity does not escape Mrs. Stien, who says that she and Anne were the same age and that had they lived in the same area of Amsterdam, they would have gone to the same school. Decades later, when Mrs. Stien’s children were participating in a school production of The Diary of Anne Frank, the teacher urged her to come to the school and recount her experiences, because the kids had been practicing the play for weeks and “still didn’t know what the heck they were doing.”
Those of Stien van Egmond’s generation knew exactly what they were doing in the Passion Play that was Europe during the war. It was her Catholic faith that sustained her through the hardships of those years and most especially the loss of her two sisters. And in particular, it was Dutch Catholicism—a feisty faith in a historically Protestant country—that preserved a strong front against the pagan onslaught of the Nazis. It is with a sense of gratitude that I reflect upon the grace of God which preserved Mrs. Stien to this day to share her stories and impart her lessons.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (November 2016).
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The featured image is “The Feast of Saint Nicholas” (Between 1670 and 1675) by Jan Steen, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.