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Some Memories of War


I was born in Amsterdam on the 22nd of September 1939 and was nearly eight months old when on May 10th, 1940 the Second World War caught up with The Netherlands. Of the early war years I remember little, of course, and most of my memories must be from 1943-1945, years when I slowly became old enough to be outside alone in the neighborhood, mostly around our house on the Pieter Pauwstraat and in the adjoining Weteringschans and Nicolaas Witsenkade, in the center of Amsterdam. I want to share these memories because people so often ignore what war does to children, and don’t consider their feelings or impressions because ‘they are only children’ and what do children know?

One of my earliest memories of that time was being out in the street, playing. I must have been about four years old. With a child’s concentration on whatever game I was involved in, I did not notice that things became more and more quiet, not just in our normally quiet street, but also on the usually busy Weteringschans: the hour of the curfew had arrived while my father had not yet returned home. Suddenly two German soldiers appeared at either end of our street, shouting something to each other at the top of their voices and scaring the pants off me. Crying, I dove into the nearest doorway where a neighbor lady scooped me up. This is perhaps why even now I detest loud, authoritarian people.

            That the occupier transported Jews to concentration camps is well known, even if some now attempt to deny history. What is less well known is that they also forced non-Jewish men to work in their industries in Germany. One day my father asked me to mail a letter in the Den Texstraat, not far from where we lived. To get there I had to walk a short way along the Weteringschans, then turn left on the Nicilaas Witsenstraat and right again into the Den Texstraat. As I walked along the Weteringschans, a column of men in civilian clothes came marching the opposite way, either work-draftees or Jews, heading for transport east. Just as I was about to cross the Nicolaas Witsenstraat into Den Texstraat, a young man ran by me at full speed and headed into the Den Texstraat. Close behind came a German soldier who, concluding the man had run too far to catch up with, stopped right near me, aimed his rifle and shot. I dropped the letter in the mailbox and returned home.

            The winter of 1944-45 was a terrible one. It was very cold and food was becoming more and more scarce, especially in the cities. City folk, including my father, often headed into the countryside, hoping to obtain some cabbages or potatoes from farmers, usually at exorbitant prices. Before the war my father, Peter Wessing, had been a ships-mate on a freighter, but the war ended all that, of course. To make a living he turned his hobby of photography into a business and set out to take photographs of people’s newborn babies and other family occasions. He also illustrated advertisements and articles in women’s magazines, using my mother, my brother and myself as photo models. One afternoon I was playing in front of our house, when a passing lady looked at me and asked if I was that little boy in the magazine pictures. I didn’t know, but she rang our bell and asked my father’s then girlfriend about it – he’d broken up with my mother. That is how I met Mrs. Tine van Blaaderen and her husband Dik, who lived a short distance away around the corner on the Nicolaas Witsenkade. She took me home and soon Tante (Aunt) Tine and Oom (Uncle) Dik were an inseparable part of my young life. As Oom Dik had a senior position at a bank, they were relatively well off even in those times and so they fed me almost daily during that terrible winter. I came through the war relatively well, thanks among others to Tante Tine and Oom Dik who took me into their lives. I don’t have a photograph of them from those days. This one was taken in 1961, when I returned to Holland on a vacation after a 13-year absence:

            Many were not lucky enough to have someone feed them. I remember a man lying dead on the sidewalk of our street. He’d probably collapsed with hunger and then just died of the cold during the night. Coal for heating was scarce and supplies were diminishing, and everything that could burn, including wooden toys, was put into the stove. To gather more fuel I was given a bag made from the leg of a worn out pair of my father’s trousers, to gather wood in parks. One day, coming home from a park I had to cross some tram rails. At the time wooden blocks separated these rails and there was a small crowd of people with crowbars prying loose the blocks for fuel. Seeing an opportunity I joined right in and filled my bag until some German soldiers on horseback made a big to-do about it. I don’t know what happened after that because I dashed home with my loot, but we did have a fire that night.

    While many passively suffered through the war years, some few resisted in what way they could. Books and films tend to focus on 'underground' actions with machine guns and such, but much was also done more quietly: providing those on the run from the Germans with false papers or hiding them somewhere in their homes.My father, being a photographer, was sometimes called on to provide photographs for false I.D. cards. One day our house was raided, but, while a batch of I.D. pictures was lying there for all to see, they were somehow not noticed. Listening to the radio, especially the BBC, was strictly forbidden. Many nevertheless had a radio hidden somewhere in the house. One day I noticed my father doing something strange with a wire and a funny looking box that suddenly began to make noise. Being 4 or 5 years old at the time I had no notion of the danger and proudly proclaimed that 'my father strings a wire along the wall and the box begins to talk'. Luckily this did not reach the wrong ears, and I was soon told to keep quiet about such things.

            The war finally came to an end, officially on the 5th of May 1945. This did not mean, however, that all the soldiers and German sympathizers were suddenly gone. On the morning of the 7th of May 1945 I woke up in bed with my father – fuel was still very short – to the sound of loud, happy voices outside, all over the city. My father said to me ‘the war is over’ and we quickly got dressed and went outside. After a while we ended up on the Dam, the central square of Amsterdam, which was filled with a celebrating throng of people who had gathered there because of a rumor that the liberating Canadians were about to enter the city. The party suddenly ended when shots rang out and people fell down bleeding and dying. Many people fled and sought shelter as best they could; others, including myself just lay flat on the pavement, making themselves as thin as they could. The shooters turned out to be some disgruntled, drunken soldiers. https://www.nederlandsfotomuseum.nl/ has some photographs of the event. Someone also actually managed to shoot some film while all this was taking place: https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/ has it in their archives. If the text comes up in Dutch, there is a button on the top right of the page to change it into English. When the shooting ended we went home: the party was over.

            A few days later the liberating Canadian troops finally entered the city and the war was really over. The Canadians were the heroes of the day, of course, and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I answered ‘a Canadian!’ Airplanes dropped bread from the sky and there was food for a hungry city. Here is a picture my father took of me right about then:

And so the war was over. Compared to millions of others, then and since, my experiences of war are small potatoes, but I will be thankful if these memories cause someone to think. For me a new chapter of my life began: I was nearly six and it was time to head for the Elizabeth Wolff school on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam.


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