It is now 75 years since the Allies freed the Netherlands from the clutches of the Nazis, yet my neighbor Christina (“Stien”) van Egmond remembers the events with amazing clarity. Ms. Stien was 16 at the time and, having graduated from high school several months previously, was working in her father’s greengrocery in Diemen, a small town outside Amsterdam. I have been privileged to hear her wartime experiences firsthand, and they remind one of the inextinguishable human desire for freedom and the binding force of the church in a community.

Holland’s ordeals during World War II are less often recounted than those of other countries, yet they were notably harsh and persistent. The Germans rolled into the country on May 10, 1940. Between this and the liberation five years later, there were the devastating bombings of Rotterdam and the infamous Hunger Winter, in which tens of thousands of people (including two of Ms. Stien’s sisters) died of cold and starvation. The D-Day invasion of June 1944 brought hope to Amsterdam and Diemen that liberation was at hand, but this was not immediately forthcoming. The Allied forces—principally the Canadians, British, and Americans—still had to work hard to push the Germans back from Holland, province by province and town by town. “We never had any doubt that the Allies would win,” Ms. Stien recalls, “but it was a very long wait.”

The wait included the Battle of the Bulge in nearby Belgium and South Holland, in which the Allied victory came at the cost of a severe depletion of troops due to the brutal winter. It also included the arduous Battle of Arnhem (the famous “bridge too far”) where the Allies were overmatched by the Germans in their effort to capture Holland’s bridges. President Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 came as a shock, leaving many Dutch families feeling insecure about the progress of the war—they had always respected Roosevelt for his Dutch blood as much as for his leadership. By this point the majority of Holland had been liberated, but the central portion near Amsterdam remained under Nazi control.

Information about the Allied advance was not easy to come by for Ms. Stien and her family (consisting of her parents and twelve siblings). The radio stations were owned lock, stock, and barrel by the Germans, disseminating pure propaganda—leavened with Beethoven, Brahms, and other German musical classics, which Ms. Stien enjoyed. An underground resistance newspaper was in circulation; Ms. Stien’s father used to read it to his family then promptly burn it, apprehensive of being arrested and sent to one of the many German work camps. Meanwhile, Hitler readily exploited the supposed racial fellowship of the Dutch and the Germans, and the Dutch population included a good number of fellow-travelers.

Yet all of this seemed to be swallowed up in the glorious moment of liberation. In Ms. Stien’s recollections of the joyous event, a particular object assumes an iconic significance: the Maria Bell, a large copper instrument that hung atop the old makeshift Catholic church at the center of Diemen.

II.

Historically, Holland has been a society divided along religious lines. Although Luther’s reformation made few waves there, John Calvin’s of two decades later had a tremendous impact. Calvinism became the de facto Dutch state religion, although a sizeable Catholic minority remained, especially in the southern provinces; tolerated to varying degrees (as were Jews and other Protestants) but not fully emancipated until the 19th century.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a painting from the Dutch Golden Age goes far in illustrating this complex history. Fishing for Souls by Adriaen van de Venne shows a riverbank with boats from which Protestant and Catholic groups (the Protestants in sober black attire, the Catholics in the garb of Dominicans) “fish” for human beings swimming in the river.

When the Protestant Reformation hit Diemen, the reformers snatched the town church and converted it into a Calvinist house of worship. For centuries afterward Catholic worship was relegated to a small assembly building, the {schuilkerk} (hidden church), until in the early 20th century the Catholics finally got a proper church: the fine Saint Petrus’ Banden (St. Peter in Chains). By Ms. Stien’s time the {schuilkerk} served as a multipurpose hall for assemblies and performances, but the Maria Bell remained at its summit, its ringing a symbol of home for the citizens of Diemen.

“Pillarization” is the name for the traditional Dutch social arrangement in which members of different groups—Catholics, Protestants, secularists or socialists—mostly kept to themselves, rarely mixing with people who didn’t belong to their “pillar.” Protestants and Catholics founded their own schools and political parties, read different newspapers, listened to different radio stations; their children generally did not play with each other. A Dutch satirical cartoon of the 1930s depicted a man refusing to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on the radio because the station didn’t belong to his pillar. This social order remained in place through World War II, but it would soon crack.

The war made no confessional distinctions, and for the first time the various Dutch churches found themselves uniting against a common threat and in defense of the entire Dutch people.[1] The vocal resistance to National Socialism (including antisemitism) on the part of both Catholic and Dutch Reformed clergy was remarkable and rooted in a Dutch love of liberty going back centuries. Some men of the cloth, both in Holland and Germany, paid the ultimate price for speaking out. Well known are the stories of Father Titus Brandsma and, on the Protestant side, Diedrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom died in concentration camps for their opposition to the Nazis. More to the point, the proactive and concerted resistance, as shown in the formal condemnation of Nazism by the Dutch Catholic bishops and Protestant pastors in 1942, signaled a new era. The interreligious cooperation, a stark contrast to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, certainly contributed to the breakdown of the “pillars.”

III.

That the Maria Bell served as a symbol of Diemen is strongly suggestive of this newfound unity. Aware that the Nazis were melting down copper for their war production, the Diemen watchmaker Kaskens took it upon himself to shelter one of the town’s most distinctive possessions. In Dutch, an {onderduiker} meant a person in hiding, such as the Jews who were hidden in the homes of kindly families (one thinks of Anne Frank’s hosts or the work of the intrepid Corrie ten Boom). It would be fair to say that the Maria Bell itself became an {onderduiker} for the following five years.

Thus, at 11:00 on the night of May 5, when the beloved bell was suddenly heard pealing throughout Diemen, it came like a taste of sugared fruit after the rigors of Lent. Only those who had had access to underground broadcasts from the BBC knew that liberation had arrived, but the news soon spread like wildfire throughout Diemen. Ms. Stien remembers, “We were dancing and singing in the streets in our nightgowns!”

The following day, May 6, the Germans signed an Act of Capitulation in the city of Wageningen. A few days after that, Ms. Stien got a rare treat when she caught a glimpse of General Eisenhower, Prime Minister Churchill, and Field Marshall Montgomery riding through Diemen in an open car, on their way to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to fly home. “Churchill’s cigar was a small stub at that point,” Ms. Stien recalls. In these jubilant days she had the opportunity to sell food items to Canadian and Scottish soldiers who happened into her father’s store in the wake of the liberation.

The euphoria, however, was tempered by the knowledge that shortages of food and electricity remained in place, as well as by certain aftershocks. Six days after the German surrender, some German soldiers acted out their frustration by killing six Diemen citizens across the street from where Ms. Stien’s father’s store was located.

IV.

Many in the ravaged parts of Europe felt it necessary to start a new life. Thus America, the great hope of the world, beckoned to Ms. Stien and her new husband in 1951—by which time she was still just beginning to regain the weight she had before the wartime privations. A kind of magical continuity between the Old World and the New is revealed in two incidents. While visiting a Dutch girlfriend in Canada in 1959, Ms. Stien happened to go to Mass at the local Catholic church and, at communion, noticed two of the watchmaker Kasken’s brothers from Diemen presenting themselves at the altar rail. They too had made the journey to the New World—for the moment a seemingly small one.

Ms. Stien and her husband settled in a farming community near Oskaloosa, Iowa; but a piece of their homeland seemed to have followed them, for seventeen miles away was the quaint town of Pella, a mini-Holland founded in 1847 by Dominie Scholte, a Dutch Reformed immigrant in quest of religious freedom.[2] Complete with a windmill, houses, and shops with gabled roofs, bakeries filled with Dutch delicacies, and a tulip festival in May, the town proved to be a wondrous home away from home. Here could be found care, cleanliness (the women and men of the town scrubbed the streets, just as in the old country), small-scale beauty and order: the prized qualities of the Dutch, preserved thousands of miles away on the Midwest prairies and safe from the deadly ideologies that had devastated the world left behind.

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Notes:

[1] H.C. Touw, “The Resistance of the Netherlands Churches.”

[2] Pella Historical Society.

The featured image is a photograph of the Citizens of Utrecht celebrating the liberation of the city by the Canadian Army and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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